When Elias arrived on the passenger train at Union Station, he had not expected anyone to greet him. Eager to stretch and exercise, he stepped off the transcontinental train, and strode along the dark platforms. He rode the escalators to the arrival and departures lounge and the corridor that faced the luggage carousel, which started to revolve shortly. Conscious he needed to shower and shave and change clothes after the day long journey, he stood waiting for his baggage to coming sliding and rolling along the conveyor. His former Humber College classmate and dormmate, Dalton greeted him and helped him with his battered suitcases.
“I’m just here to acknowledge your apology,” Dalton said, “and to apologize in return.” Laughing, Elias felt uneasy Dalton, forward, direct, felt the need to apologize. “But I have to admit: Returning to college in your forties? Is that a wise career move?”
“It depends upon what sort of career you have, or what kind of life you want to live. I justify the adventure with the sentiment you’ve but one life to live.” Elias felt grateful for the fact he helped him carry his luggage, lugging and trundling battered suitcases through the towering hallways and chambers of cavernous Union Station, up the stairwells and the steep escalators, which were motionless, and along wheelchair ramps.
“I understand, but you apologized for taking me to the campus pub Caps pub and the sports bar in the Woodbine Shopping Centre that Thanksgiving weekend when we lived in the Humber dorm. Then you dragged me out of Caps and brought to me the ER at Etobicoke General Hospital with acute alcohol poisoning, but I was partly if not totally to blame. After all, I didn’t follow your advice to drink moderately.”
“Yeah, I distinctly recall telling you not to have more than one drink, especially when you told me you never went drinking to a bar before. Still, you made it sound as if you were a seasoned veteran of the pit party and house party scene.”
“That was just teenage braggadocio. After that binge, I liked the experience so much I lost control of my drinking. If I had not lost my virginity things might have turned out differently, but I have to admit it was positive reinforcement.”
Then Dalton drove Elias, impressed by the electric car, to his new home, the student co-op apartment building, at Church and Gerard, inside the Red-Light District. Although two decades passed since he last lived in the neighbourhood, he was not at all surprised to see that the night trade workers still plied their wares and business on the boulevards.
“Didn’t the prostitutes creep you out when you lived here?” Dalton asked.
“No, they didn’t bother me. I used to have these fascinating talks with them. A group joked with me, asking me to take them out. I think they thought I was a nerd, but cool in a quirky way. One kept offering me free blow jobs. Yes, I have to admit, it felt a bit creepy at first, and I worried about pimps, that they would beat me up or kill me if I looked at the girls the wrong way, or said the wrong thing, but nothing happened—they were good neighbours.”
“Why did you move out of good ole safe rez—leave campus for downtown?”
“I loved Humber, and living in the dorm was convenient, but you could never escape college life in rez. Here, I lived right next door to downtown and I could find whatever stores, cafes, restaurants I liked nearby, or take the subway anywhere in the city.”
“Yes, the good old days at Humber College, when we didn’t have a care or worry in the world. Back to square one, eh?”
“I suppose that’s one way of looking at it.”
Young women in mini skirts, crop tops, thongs, and high heels lined the boulevards around the intersection of Church and Gerard Street.
“Looks like there’s prostitutes right outside your building,” Dalton said.
“Nothing’s changed, but I can live with them. They didn’t bother me then, and I doubt they’ll bother me now.”
Dalton pulled up to the entrance of the student co-op. “Wait: you piqued my curiosity? Didn’t you say you owed me an apology? Why?” Elias asked.
“I stole your Nike running shoes; they were a perfect and comfortable fit.”
“They were purple. I bought them on sidewalk sale from my hometown shoe store. That’s why I left them outside my door; I never thought anyone would steal purple running shoes.”
“Those shoes felt so comfortable.”
“But I had no other footwear. I walked around the residence bare foot after they went missing. When I asked at the front desk if they noticed a loose pair of purple running shoes lying around, security gave me sandals from the lost and found.”
“I also took your jean jacket and your camouflage khakis.”
“I guess it didn’t help we had the same height and build.”
Dalton felt the slight paunch at his stomach. “Not anymore. Anyway, I’m sorry.” After commenting about how he couldn’t understand how he would feel comfortable living in the red-light district, Dalton mentioned that Ida lived in the neighbourhood after she underwent a messy divorce. “Hey, you never told me what you’re studying.”
“I’m pursuing an education degree, to become a school teacher.”
“Good for you, even though there’s an oversupply of teachers in Ontario. You still blow your cool?”
As Elias fumbled with his luggage and shuffled through his travelling papers for his room reservation, he felt irked at the question. “I try to stay calm. I certainly can’t blow my cool if I become a school teacher.”
Then Dalton sped off and drove in his electric motor vehicle Gerard Street, narrowing avoiding a head-on collision with a cyclist. His former college dormmate and friend left him impressed by his generosity, graciousness, and the silence of his electric motor vehicle. Then Dalton squealed his tires at the traffic lights at the four-way intersection and went into reverse. He chatted with a young woman in a leather jacket and shorts and high heels, before she looked around and slipped inside his car.
The following morning, he took the subway train and the bus in North York to commute across Toronto to the north campus of Humber College in Etobicoke for his academic transcripts, so he could obtain advanced standing in his program and gain exemption from elective courses at York University. He filled out the forms and waited in line behind several students until Gary came to greet him. Gary, who looked impressive, dressed in a skinny suit, took him aside, shook his hand, and lowered his voice dramatically. “Listen, I appreciate your call to apologize for all the wretched excesses, those times we went drinking.”
“No, no worries; it’s just step nine in the Twelve Step program—make amends.” The long lines of students in the registrar’s officer made him anxious. He started to fidget and his eyes wandered, despite the fact he was focusing on reading his York University faculty of education course guide. He started to realize he still needed time to again adjust to the frenetic and frantic pace of life in the city, including long lineups and crowds. “Frankly, I sometimes feel now like I coerced myself into making false confessions. I also don’t believe in God anymore. I stopped attending church when I first went to college.”
“Listen, I know I tried to blame you for my breakup with my hometown girlfriend, the young woman I was supposed to marry. I think I even tried to blame you for flunking out of first year journalism, but you weren’t really to blame. I mean, I had a conscience and sentience of my own and my own volition.”
Gary handed Elias his transcripts in a white business size envelope on Humber College stationary. Then he led him to the huge cafeteria, located in the same building on the sprawling campus when he first attended Humber College two decades ago, where they often met for coffee and studied for electives and worked on journalism assignments. The institutional décor and cavernous interior appeared the same. Gary bought Elias a coffee—Irish cream. He remembered he always drank Irish cream coffee in the cafeteria and thought the Irish cream the cafeteria served was excellent.
“But it’s me who owes you an apology,” he said.
“You remember that long feature that Bette in feature writing only gave you a B for?”
“You mean Bette who hated me for constantly interjecting and interrupting?”
“Dude, she told me you were too enthusiastic in class for her. She’s still an instructor at Humber and was even head of the journalism department. I work here now, in administration part-time, but I also teach a few first-year courses.”
“I’m the one who owes you an apology, dude. When I read that long form piece, that masterpiece you wrote on homeless and street youth, I was astonished, overwhelmed. It was the best student journalism I read anywhere. I thought you deserved an award.”
“I think that was what the journalism coordinator said then. Sounds like you read her notes. Anyway, I wish Bette didn’t grade me; she hated me.”
“Bette didn’t hate you.”
“She hated me because I went out with her daughter a few nights. Ida got really drunk, I took her home, but her mother tried to blame me for getting her daughter intoxicated and sick. Later, Bette tried to blame me for her daughter getting arrested on impaired driving charges because I was a passenger in her car.”
“That might explain it, but Bette is a fastidious and prickly person regardless. Nobody told me the part about Ida.”
Shrugging, sipping from a takeout cup of flavored coffee, Elias confessed this was the best Irish cream coffee he ever tasted—still. “But why do you owe me an apology?”
“I was about to get to that part.” He took a deep breath and sighed. “I totally plagiarized your story after I got kicked out of Humber. I flunked first year journalism at Humber, but a year later I applied to the journalism school at Ryerson. I attached the feature you wrote to my portfolio and application. I had seen you working on your feature in the newsroom and I was intrigued. When you first handed in your assignment, I took your notes and manuscript from the prof’s mailbox in the departmental office after hours. After I photocopied your notes and took the original manuscript, I checked the work stations in the computer lab, and I found your feature in a Word file on the hard drive of the computer near the radio and CD player, where you always worked. I saved your file to my floppy disk. I remembered how severe and draconian Bette acted when she marked papers and spotted mistakes, so I put spelling errors in the manuscript. Then I printed a copy off and replaced your original paper in the prof’s mailbox. That may have been part of the reason you got such a low mark, even though she liked what you wrote. I even took the cassette tape you used to record interviews.”
“Hmm. I didn’t think anything of it—I thought she kept the recordings or misplaced them.”
“Bette always deducted marks big-time whenever she found spelling errors and misspelled names. She warned us about those mistakes on countless occasions. When I finally got around to using your feature, the only thing I changed on your original manuscript was the byline. At Ryerson, they told me I got admitted because of that story; it was exactly the kind of hard hitting, inner city, participatory journalism they were looking for.”
“The school with the best reputation accepted you after a lesser known gave you the boot. That’s a bit ironic.”
“The irony is not lost on me—trust me. When I applied for a reporting internship in the radio room at the Toronto Star, they said my experience was lacklustre, but they hired me because of my feature, your work, on homeless street youth downtown.”
Elias felt tired but laughed because he wanted to be good-natured about school experiences he would sooner forget. He thanked Gary for his transcripts for his journalism grades, which he was reminded, were less than stellar. The document itself he was disappointed to notice was produced on a black and white laser printer, low on ink, so the printout resembled a photocopy of a photocopy.
“So, do you still blow your stack the odd time?”
“Naw. I try to keep my cool. It’s part of recovery, rehabilitation, the twelve-step program, I suppose. But I like to think I’m past losing control and temper tantrums.”
“I think Alcoholics Anonymous is a crock of shit.”
“Hey, be nice.” Elias gulped the rest of his coffee. “I stopped going to meetings, but I’m still sober.”
Elias caught a glimpse of paramedic students and gestured and motioned in the direction of the group, orally reviewing cardiology questions in emergency medicine, studying for summer term exams.
“Two decades ago, between classes, I’m having a coffee, hurrying to finish an assignment, and I see the ambulance students studying for tests in this very same cafeteria. I think then I should study with them, training to become a paramedic. I could have easily landed a job working in air ambulance in my hometown.”
“Why didn’t you?”
“I actually believed then I could change the world—
make society better—through journalism. To think by now I could be looking forward to early retirement.”
“Regrets—I’ve had a few.”
“Don’t cry for me, Argentina, eh?”
“Anyway, nothing about the shameless and unabashed and righteous act of plagiarism–because then I’ll have to kill you. After all, it was for a good cause.”
“No worries. Journalism is the furthest thing from my mind these days. I don’t know how I convinced myself I could be a reporter, and I suppose my dreams of succeeding in the industry were unrealistic. I’m just glad someone was able to use the piece. All journalism school did for me was cause me regret and remorse; I actually believed I deserved a job for three years of worthless college education, instead of endless unpaid internships.”
Gary showed him his brand-new luxury wristwatch and, sounding like a college administrator, reassured him his education was a sound long term investment. He knew that was case; why else would be requesting his college transcripts, which would help him obtain advanced standing in the education program at York University. They both strode through the corridors and hallways and negotiated the plate and steel doors of foyers and stairwells of the building complex, on their separate ways across campus. Stern-faced, Elias headed through the north entrance into the massive parking lot and walked to the bus shelter on Humber College Boulevard, amidst the noise and clamour of car alarms and slammed doors. Twenty years later the parking lot was busier than ever, but the motor vehicle alarms didn’t create as loud a racket. He hoped to see this former Humber buddy, now a college instructor and administrator, sometime again soon, but the likelihood seemed small.
Several days later, during the orientation week in teacher’s college at York University, Elias walked to his apartment in the student co-op building from the subway station on Yonge Street. He came across a woman, who looked familiar, dressed in a nursing uniform, scrubs, and sneakers, comfortable and functional, strolling out of a large apartment building, which fronted Gerard Street. She did a double take, and he looked at her peculiarly. He recognized her facial features, her green-brown eyes, her thin, jagged chin, her slim athletic figure. Ida said she had to hurry to work at Toronto General Hospital, several blocks down Gerard Street. When he noticed she wore a hospital ID badge that said she was a registered nurse, he wondered aloud whatever became of her journalism career. She said she walked this route along Gerard Street to University Avenue and her job as a nurse in the emergency department at Toronto General Hospital everyday. Saying she heard he was back in Toronto, living in the high-rise student co-operative apartment building, she reached and gave him a hug. He wasn’t certain how to react to the warm gesture and familiarity, especially since two decades transpired since they last saw each other, the night before the June convocation ceremonies from Humber College, which he didn’t bother to attend. The timespan boggled his mind, but he was the person who called her last year out of nowhere to apologize.
“I still don’t know why you called to apologize,” Ida said. “I understand we were both drinking those nights and weren’t on our best behaviour. In fact, I got you kicked out your apartment for smoking pot and antics in your room.”
“The co-op didn’t kick me out; they fined me a month’s rent because they said I was supposed to be responsible for my guests’ conduct.”
“But you called me to apologize for what happened when I was responsible.”
“Let’s say partly responsible.”
“But I got drunk because I wanted to have sex. I tried to get intimate, forced myself on you—”
“I didn’t want to have sex because you were drunk, and I panicked. We had, after all, done those assignments on sexual assault and the whole business made me skittish and neurotic. I slapped you to try to knock some sense in you.”
Elias noticed then the tightness of her uniform and how her outfit fitted perfectly her shapely form. She looked like she had lost weight, or rather she was more fit, athletic, and muscular than he ever remembered.
“I just wanted to make out with you.”
“You were desirable, a dream girl, a fantasy come true.”
Elias was surprised to see Ida the nurse in tears. “Don’t sell yourself short. You’re not so bad yourself.”
“Everything happened so fast, and I still couldn’t believe my senses. I was scared and impotent, and shaking, and my heart was thumping.”
“Well, that explains it. Sounds like you had a panic attack. I thought you slapped me because you were a mean drunk.”
“No. I wasn’t drunk, but I found you attractive.”
“Well, I kind of intuited those vibes.” Ida touched his shoulder, caressed his back, and kissed his cheek.
“And I’ve had many crushes, since and before, but you were one of the biggest.”
“Hah! The clinician in me wants to ask how you measure the size of a crush. The psychotherapist in me is amazed we’re talking about it like it happened yesterday.”
“Yes, that is kind of amazing,” Elias said, as he stepped on the boulevard to move out of the path of the group home workers, smoking cigarettes, returning to work inside the Covenant House. He gazed upwards at the weathered sign on the heritage building: Woman’s Christian Temperance Union.
“Anyway, I suppose I’m the one who owes you an apology.” Ida hugged him and pecked him on the cheek.
“So is that why your mom hated me?”
“You thought she hated you?”
“She acted that way.”
“When I showed up home that night drunk with a bruise on my face, my mother thought I had been raped. She drove me to hospital emergency department and insisted I tell them the truth or she would call the police.”
“I’m surprised she didn’t call the police.”
“She eventually did call the police and wanted to press charges. After the cops heard the full story, they said it sounded like you acted in self-defence—no evidence of anything non-consensual. In fact, they said I was the one who acted dicey, which totally infuriated my mother. When the cops, big blond women, asked my mother if she would fault me if I attacked someone who forced themselves on me, she went ballistic, and the police ordered her to calm down or they would arrest her.”
The line of cyclists peddling along Gerard Street grew longer and dense; definitely more people were riding their bicycles than when Elias lived in the neighbourhood two decades ago. “That explains some things, but I think she hated me the first time she saw me.”
“Forget about her. Bette was injured in a road rage accident–filled with frustration and anger. A few years ago, outside a supermarket, she stood in front of a car and started pounding on the hood and windshield with her fists. Her hand somehow got caught beneath the windshield wiper while the car speed away. The panicked driver, a teen mom, crashed into her, driving over her, like she was a pylon. She lost the arm—the hands she uses to write, ironically.”
“I sorry to hear that.” Elias didn’t want to express curiosity about the irony of her mother’s injury, but the same traits that compelled him to enroll in journalism made him inclined to ask. He was unsettled she seemed almost relieved at her mother’s loss.
“No reason to be sorry now. I’m a mother now, with one kid.”
“You look great.”
“Kids keep you in shape.”
Ida hugged him again. “Do you still lose your temper?”
“I don’t drink anymore, so my emotions are easier to control. What are you doing downtown, though?”
“I live downtown. I know you always liked living downtown, and I’ve grown to tolerate it.”
“Hmm. A journalist, in a nurse’s uniform.”
“I went to nursing school as a mature student. Journalism didn’t pay the rent, or let’s just say there was hardly any money leftover after the divorce.”
With the sunlight reflected off the rooftop of huge new condominium tower on Yonge Street, shining brightly into her eyes, she moved closer to him so she could smell coffee on his breath. “You do know that Mom named me after Ida Tarbell, don’t you? She mentioned at the start of every course she taught the crusading journalist was her role model.”
“That’s news to me. I must have missed that class. What are you doing living downtown, anyway? You seem like a thoroughly suburban girl.”
“Like I said, journalism didn’t cover much beyond the mortgage payments. The apartment I rent now is a mere walk from the hospital.”
Ida wrote her name and telephone number inside the cover of his huge heavy educational psychology textbook. She said she needed to hurry to work at the hospital before she was late relieving co-workers. Turning back, she winked.
Now she seems to be flirting, sending receptive signals, Elias thought, as he walked down Gerard Street to the student co-op apartment building. Two decades after he first lived in the neighbourhood, he was not surprised to observe the sex trade workers, members of the underground economy, still plied their wares on the boulevards. At the intersection, he came across a uniformed police officer slamming against the hood of a marked cruiser a young woman in a short tight denim skirt, a crop top, mesh stockings, and high heel shoes. “That’s no way to treat a woman.” Elias tried to place himself between the police officer and the young woman. Then he noticed the officer was a woman, attractive, with a strong athletic figure, whose narrow hips and lean muscular build initially left him with the impression she was a man.
“She’s a suspect under arrest, and you’re obstructing justice—a peace officer.” As if to prove her point, she handcuffed the younger, smaller woman and slammed her against the passenger door and blood spurted from the suspect’s mouth onto the windshield. Elias became outraged and enraged, as the police officer pushed and shoved the woman she had in custody, slamming her head against the cruiser’s hood, struggling to handcuff her. The suspect kicked back with her high heels and spit. Elias became involved in a wrestling match with the officer, after he tried to restrain her as she put her perp in a choke hold. As he struggled with the officer, her peaked cap flew off her head, revealing her French braid. The unveiling angered her, and she cursed and swore and drew her service revolver. She managed to jam the muzzle into his abdomen, and pulled the trigger. The muzzle exploded in a blast. As the blood trickled from the injury in his chest, so ended the making amends, apologies, aspirations, and attempts at a second beginning and career. The congested traffic moved slowly along Gerard Street in the early evening, as the motorists, starting, stopping, tried to obey the parking enforcement officer’s signals to move forward. Another police officer attempted to resuscitate the shooting victim, while an ambulance’s siren struggled to clear a path through the traffic jam. The few pedestrians who observed the incident lingered a few moments before they, reluctant witnesses, quickly strode away.
John Tavares’ previous publications include short fiction published in various alternative magazines, literary journals, quarterlies, and anthologies, online & in print: Blood & Aphorisms, Plowman Press, Green’s Magazine, Filling Station, Whetstone, Broken Pencil, Tessera, Windsor Review, Paperplates, 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, Qwerty, Oddball Magazine, among others. His short stories & creative nonfiction was published in The Siren, then Centennial College’s student newspaper. Following journalism studies, his articles & features were published in various local news outlets in Toronto, including community & trade newspapers such as the East York Times, the Beaches Town Crier & Hospital News, where he interned as an editorial assistant.Born & raised in Sioux Lookout, Ontario, John is the son of Portuguese immigrants from the Azores. His education includes graduation from 2-year GAS at Humber College in Etobicoke with concentration in psychology (1993), 3-year journalism at Centennial College in East York (1996) & the Specialized Honors BA in English from York University in North York (2012). He worked as a research assistant for the Sioux Lookout Public Library & as a research assistant in waste management for the SLKT public works department & regional recycle association. He also worked for persons with disabilities at the Sioux Lookout Association for Community Living.