Copyright is held by the author. Read more of Christine Ottoni’s work in our upcoming print anthology, CommuterLit Selections Vol. 2, “Arrivals and Departures.”
MARA WANTED to go to a free show at Yonge and Dundas. I didn’t really know the band, only that their fans liked to dress up at concerts. You know what I mean, as Sesame Street characters or with glow sticks taped to their arms. Boas and camo. Mara knew a couple of their songs and all I had to do otherwise was sit on the couch in my boxers and drink so I said why the fuck not and put on some pants. A crowd would be good.
We walked down Yonge from Bloor at night passing a new condo development on the corner. The perimeter was boarded up, covered with these shiny poster ads. Perfect, long arms working an elliptical, tenants smiling pool-side, their fingers grazing waterfalls. I stopped to look through a cut out peephole at the site. Mara was texting some high school friends of hers, to meet us at the show.
I think Matt and his girlfriend will come, she said.
Cool, I said, looking into the great blown out ground. It stretched down forever, cavernous. Soon to be a parking garage.
I hope that’s okay, Mara said. She was standing at my side, still on her phone. I moved away from the peephole and we started walking south again.
It was one of those corners where the neighbourhood changed. Glassy storefronts and condo towers turned to old redbrick, strip clubs, and neon lights. There was a stretch of Chinese food places, all serving the same rubbery dumplings, the tables lined with plastic sheets. Mannequins stood in the shop windows, flaunting silver skin and hard nipples. We walked down to the McDonald’s and I picked up a Coke for mix. Mara waited on the corner. When I came out she handed me the flask from her purse. I’d funnelled some whiskey out of one of the forties I kept at home. I didn’t buy small bottles.
I passed Mara the Coke and unscrewed the flask cap. She took a sip, pulling hard at the straw, wrinkling her nose at the bubbles. She handed me the cup and I poured the liquor in, mixing the ice cubes around. The straw was wet. Mara’s lipstick stuck pink on the plastic. I wiped my fingers on my jeans and drank before offering it to her. She shook her head.
I’m taking it easy, she said.
She put the flask back into her purse and I remembered us out the weekend before. She kept up with me all night. Insisted on getting more beers. We stumbled to my place and she said something about fucking me stupid before passing out in her clothes, taking up most of the bed. I tried to shove her over, my buzz loosening, not tired or drunk enough to sleep. I left a salad bowl on the floor beside her in case she needed to puke and went back out for one more pint. Just one more, I told myself.
The next morning we both felt like shit. She stayed in bed, whimpering all day, puking everything up into the salad bowl and I sat around, stinking of stale beer and guilt. I couldn’t look at her.
We headed south and the sidewalk got busier. More people going to the show. A group of teenagers moved by us and for a minute we were caught in their group. They were eating subs, each gluey bite stuck to their teeth, to the roof of their mouths. They shouted at each other, long arms swinging, passing a can of blue energy drink back and forth. Each tongue had a dark blue stripe up the middle, fading to grey at the edges. We paused at an intersection, the sidewalk counter flashing at “2” when one kid coughed smoke and a sandwich dropped to the curb. They bolted into the street, chasing the last blinking seconds at the crossing, leaving us behind.
Mara watched the kids shouting down the street as we waited for the light. I drank my whiskey and the ice cubes rattled at the bottom of the cup. I felt stupid for not bringing more.
There was a buzz at my hip. I took my phone out of my pocket, the screen lit up blue with an incoming text. A random number. I didn’t recognize it.
I considered it, the cursor blinking, probing me. Waiting for my reply. I tapped it out and hit send.
Mara’s hand was at my elbow, guiding me into the street. The light was green. I put my phone back in my pocket and walked faster, moving ahead of her, stretching her arm between us. When we reached the sidewalk Mara let go of me.
Hell yeah! Someone shouted. I looked back over my shoulder, three people in rainbow morphsuits. Lycra sagging in lines over thin chests and knees. That pattern you see through a kaleidoscope or when you take too many pills and close your eyes. The real fans.
Excuse us, one said. The polyester bodies slipped by, breaking into a run.
Crazy, Mara said. She was grinning, always comfortable in crowds. I liked that about her. I slowed a bit so we could walk side by side again. So she could touch me if she wanted to.
The crowd got thick as we came up on the square. Buildings were stacked high with screens and billboards. They kept shifting, rippling to reveal a car, a beer, a polar bear sliding down a hill. The screens cast a glow over the bodies packed together in the street. I looked up at this denim ad, girls with big lips and hair, their chins tilted back into the night and someone pushed into me. I tripped forward, my eyes pulled away from the ad to the ground below. I steadied myself, my sneakers stable on ground that was grey and spotted with black gum marks. People shouted back and forth from either side of the street. A couple of cops were trying to work the intersection, trying to seal the stream of people off as they crossed to where the stage was set up. But everyone kept going even after the light changed and cars laid on their horns hard.
Let’s go, Mara said. I let go of the empty McDonald’s cup and it bounced, empty cardboard at our feet. We jogged across the street and a cop held his arms out against us, a useless barrier. We ducked past him.
Two giant screens framed the stage, burning bright white across the audience. The opening act was playing. Something acoustic, a warbling singer. No one was listening. Kids were hanging off the base of traffic lights, climbing on top of city garbage bins trying to get a better look. They pressed their phones to their ears, looking for their friends. Can you see me! They waved their arms.
Let’s move forward, Mara said. She took my hand and led me towards the stage. I was relieved to get away from the kids. They were fucked up and I was thirsty.
My phone went off again. The same number.
I typed with one hand, my eyes stuck to the phone light.
I let Mara pull me, squeezing past shoulders and chests, asking people to make way, to let us move, please.
The central. Again. Don’t ask
Mara stopped. Is here good? She said. I could feel her looking at me.
Yeah, I said still watching my screen.
The Central. I could see myself standing over Mara, passed out in my bed. I had left her, gone back out along a stretch of bars near my house. It was close to last call and couples were shouting and smoking outside, stumbling home. I moved against them. I wanted to disappear into a tight space, to feel all those rumbling, restless chests around me. I came up on the Central, a bar tucked off the main stretch and people were spilling out from the door onto the street. The second floor windows were all open and it was loud. Really loud, so I went inside.
I lowered my phone. Mara had set us up to the left of the stage, midway through the crowd. A camera mounted on a long robotic arm swung over the audience, projecting the lead singer onto the stage screens. A cool wind blew overhead.
Here’s good, I said.
We can get into the pit later, Mara said.
I held my phone at my side and we stood, waiting. Another group came forward and we shifted to make space. Mara stood slightly in front of me, her hip against mine. The opening band was finishing up, leaving the stage. I felt a bottle brush up against my arm. Someone was breathing hot behind me, chugging hard on something in glass.
Mara looked over the crowd and took her phone out of her bag.
I’ll let Matt know where we are, she said.
She texted and I checked my phone.
The central. Again. Don’t ask
It had been hot in the bar, between four sweaty, red walls. A girl pulled me next to her. A nose stud, thin wrists. She kept standing on tiptoes to shout into my ear, but I couldn’t hear anything she said. The music was too loud and her tits were pressing firm against me.
Mara put her phone away and put her purse down between her feet. She arranged herself overtop of it protectively.
I’m already hot, she said, pulling her sweater off. Her hair stuck up with static. She bent over to put the sweater in her bag and came back up to head level.
She was wearing a shirt strung low across her chest. Her collarbones stuck out thin and white. I could see my hands, once reaching for her, my fingers tracing softly back and forth over her clavicle. My mouth buried in the hollow space at her neck. The screens on the buildings overhead shifted to blue and her skin glowed aquamarine.
The crowd pushed forward and she turned away, her chest and bones gone. More people crammed in towards the stage. Mara stood still over her bag. She reached back and put her hand on my waist to steady herself against the flow, to keep from being pulled ahead. But I felt dizzy, my mouth was dry again.
When the crowd settled I held my phone low. Mara couldn’t see me respond to the message.
I live up there. I’ll meet you.
It came back fast, buzzing in my hand.
I think I’ve got to head back up, I said.
What? Mara said.
Not feeling so hot, I said.
Okay, she said, I’m going to stay, is that okay? I want to see them.
You’ll be okay?
I’ll find Matt.
Right, I said.
The subway will be fucked, don’t bother with it, she said. She stretched up to kiss me. Her lips were soft blue in the light and then they were gone.
I turned and left, her hand slipping from my waist. I fought my way past the bodies, hot and moving together in one impatient sway. Steam rose off the crowd. The show would start soon. Mara would find her friends. She would be fine, down there alone.
I crossed up at the intersection and headed north, retracing our steps towards the bar.