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Swimmers in Winter

by Faye Guenther

Originally published on Joyland in 2011, Swimmers Winter is the title story of Faye Guenther’s debut collection, available now in digital and in print in August from Invisible Publishing here. Join the IG launch at 8PM EST, May 11th here. Presented by the National Arts Centre.

I can’t read Lucille’s smile. I know her name, and that’s all.

We only met a moment ago, in a back room so dark you have to look twice to tell anything. She stepped out of the shadows into the copper light pooling around the bar and ordered another drink. Her face and hair streaked gritty with illumination. She leaned there and waited, inside the music, breathing in the perfume and smoke and the deeper scents of the strangers all around, watching for who was looking.

Moving toward her meant being willing to fall first.

Around us, the room is a small ocean of girls, rough, beautiful. It’s long after midnight, and Lucille and I stand side by side, a sliver of space between us. We watch the dance floor, drinking hard, while girls hook and pushers work the sidelines. Women’s voices slap and swing their laughter up against music from the record player looked after by Elegant Ivan, the bartender, who knows most of the patrons by first name. In the centre, they’re dancing so close.

I drink deep and gesture to Lucille with my hands. Words spill away from me and I scramble to catch them, raising my voice, to hold her attention through the clamor, the catcalls, the sweet murmurs.

I tell her I’m Florence and that I do a little bit of everything. They call me a downtowner, because deep in the city is where I’m at home, living in a ramshackle building with a hole in the roof that lets in the birds.

“That sounds familiar,” Lucille answers, laughing low and calm, a little resigned. Brushing her dark hair away from her round face, she sways a little on her feet, as if the music has caught her at the waist. She glances past me at the endless action. The top button of her blouse has come off, leaving behind a few loose black threads and a soft window of bare skin below her neck that grows wider as she moves.

“First time here?” I ask her.

“Hardly. Yours?”

“These girls are my crowd,” I proclaim, hearing the harsh brightness in my voice. How it must sound to her—flaunting and eager.

Lucille turns to me, searching my face. “So you make music? What do you play?”

“A little bit of everything. Mandolin, piano, harmonica.”

Hearing this, she starts telling me about a kind of travelling show she plans to do the next year, a musical tour, describing it as if there’s a stage in her mind. Lucille talks like someone who never runs out of what there is to lose.

“Nowadays, I play alone,” I reply with a smile.

And now the stage in her mind disappears, and she sees me instead. Me and the restless crowd of strangers.

Lucille leans back as if to let us all go. She takes out a cigarette and I light it for her. “Maybe you can write me a song,” she says, her voice dipping with the weight of what she wants.

I nod, as if it might keep her from drifting away. She reminds me of a girl I used to know. Magda. Her slow burn and fast flame.

Lucille touches my hand, the one holding the lighter. She rocks slow onto the balls of her feet, her lips a soft oh in the smoke. “I plan to take my band from here to New York,” she says. “We’ll go everywhere and back again.”

Then she steps closer, filling the space.

“Want to come with us, Florence?”

She remembers my name, so I kiss her, like it’s something to say. And after that, I get ready to kiss her again, slow and long, the burnt sugar taste of her mouth soaked with rum still on my tongue.

But just as I feel her breath on my face, my thoughts turn to escape.

We hear them before we see them coming.

A swarm of cops—at least thirty—move in fast, the flush of their pale skin, charged by force, hats pulled low, thick uniforms, truncheons lifted.

Dancers, still in each other’s arms, stumble as they turn toward the sound. The music continues as if stuck in a dream, behind barks of “Police! Move back! Get up against the wall!”

I reach for her hand and push hard, through the panic of the room, toward the fire exit.

In the shock of frozen air filled with sirens, women hastily pull on coats, then spill from the heavy door into the alleyway behind Dundas and Elizabeth. Lost and intent, like swimmers in winter, they dive into the cover of darkness through heavy drifts of fallen snow.

I turn to ask Lucille which way is home, but she’s already gone. I stumble around in a circle, searching for her, calling out her name once, twice, toward the escaping forms.

Possessions lie scattered on the icy ground, dropped or forgotten in the rush to get away. A single glove. A pair of glasses with cracked lenses. An orphaned scarf. An undone string of pearls. Cigarettes and cigars, still long. Beer sloshed on the snow. Flasks bleeding gin or brandy.

A woman screams in the street, a tremor that tears up and down, burning. It could be Lucille’s voice. I almost move toward it, but stop myself.

At the other end of the alley, paddy wagons and an ambulance rush north to Dundas, red lights flickering on the snow before disappearing. The cops could find me any second. I could be arrested, beaten in the snow. Hidden behind the building, away from public view, the cops will swing their boots, fists, and sticks harder against the skin and muscle they find, even breaking bones. I’ve felt their blows before, pain that bends the body into itself, my head crushed against my heart.

All I can do is run.

Survival is instinct to me, an old demon-friend. I let her enter, let her come.

The late-night streets in Chinatown are unusually deserted, hollowed out by the glow of streetlights, and the shop and restaurant signs alight with letters. The farther I get from the Continental Hotel, the quieter and more still the city becomes. Just the muffled crunch of my soles hitting the snow, almost in rhythm with my heart.

A stray dog noses and burrows at ripped bags of garbage tossed against the back of an old building. He’s a blue-grey hound, I see through my watering eyes. Hungry and hunting. I stop to catch my breath. It blooms thick as smoke in the cold. The smell of cooking wafts by on steam rising from an exhaust pipe. We lift our faces to the warm, oily scent, the dog and I, and when he sees me, another searcher, we watch each other for just a moment.

“Hello, beautiful,” I whisper.

He barks in warning and takes off down a narrow passage between two buildings.

Can’t remember a time when I wasn’t covered in the traces of leave-taking. The thinnest skein of flight was always wrapped around my limbs.

I come from a family of five children. As the eldest, I was expected to help look after them all. Which I did. But I was restless.

That’s what they called me. Restless.

All five of us played instruments. I was the first one my father taught to read music. My mother would sing. We played music to entertain the neighbours: dance tunes, folk music, little classical numbers father collected the scores for that had to be mailed to us from far away.

I learned that when I played a song, sadness and troubles would halt—for a while.

I came to Toronto the summer of ’42, when there were still good-paying jobs for women at the John Inglis factory on Strachan Avenue. Manual production, making weapon parts and other equipment for the war effort, while the young men were gone to fight overseas.

I was a musician, but I needed the work to pay my own way.

Once alone, the body has a way of arguing itself into places it needs to be. I started looking for other girls like me, and as it turned out, there were plenty of us doing factory work.

The factory was where I’d met Magda, but it was in the bar room at the Rideau, on the east side of town, on Jarvis Street—where I really got to know her, standing alone at her own pleasure.

Our first summer, we would hide out under a thicket of trees in Allan Gardens, a couple of blocks from where we had first found each other. We couldn’t believe no one stopped us as we walked arm and arm along the streets, our hands dipping around each other’s hips, two girls surrounded by a city’s rising thrum, its young muscling of new concrete, glass, and light. Though we felt ourselves naked to the world, we always made it into the park without seizure, without arrest.

The first time Magda leaned toward me and undid her clothes in the shadows under the spread of branches, it untied a knot inside me. The intersections of her body were a revelation of shifting curves. The space almost became ours, its underbelly of leaves. My Magda. I remember her open palms and the way she filled me. I remember her mineral taste in the dark.

At the start, every new lover is a story you choose to believe. A story about where you have been, where you’re going. A pack of cards shuffled, reshuffled, dealt again.

In this world, protection is a necessity. The more I look like myself on my way to the bar, the greater the chance I’ll get stopped by the cops—for “loitering” is what they say, for “acting and looking like a man,” when all I’m doing is walking freely in a public space at night. The charge of causing a disturbance now allows them to arrest and detain anyone after dark. This new Chief James P. Mackey and his dirty Inspector Herbert Thurston want all of us women gone. It has been in the newspaper, and I know it firsthand.

Just my presence is enough of a trigger for the cops, enough to get them shoving me between them, taunting me with threats, calling me by names I shudder to hear, names that make me the target of violence.

I’m not afraid of a fight. What I fear is how badly I could be hurt, because I’m all that I have in this world. My father and mother are gone, and my sister and brothers out of reach. I can only rely on my own body and mind, and the ability to use them. Nothing else. So I must look after myself, whatever the cost.

One night, the cops left me curled tight on the ground, coughing up blood. I felt a rip in my chest, and I knew that their kicks and punches had broken something inside, something that might be too deep to heal.

But though I told myself that time would be the last time, I do not dress or present myself as someone other than who I am.

I will not change out of fear.

Instead, I carry a knife. And I’ve learned escape routes. How fast I’ve got to run.

I head back to the boarding house, near Kensington, where I’m renting a small room. Time to pick up the pace again, race against my fear. I stumble on patches of ice, catch myself. Under my wool coat, I feel my skin dampen with sweat, my heartbeat quicken, my lungs tighten from the cold. Each escape, I encounter this familiar exertion laced with terror.

There’s no knowing when the bar raids will happen. You always have to be ready. I do my drinking, my smoking, in expectation. Even in the company of the most beautiful woman in the room, I’m ready to run.

It’s the undercover lady officers who are the most trouble. I lay down my defenses with them. Four times, I’ve been a breath and a touch away from arrest. Each time, either following a kiss I was willing to lose myself in, or after I’ve tried to talk to them all evening at the bar, or when they’ve danced up against me slow for five songs straight, they suddenly pull out a badge as if it’s a weapon.

I like women who know the worth of their weight, women who build themselves solid like planets. But these informers are dirty and lawful magicians. Either they’re the best of all actors, or I swear I’ve tasted and smelled real lust, felt it in how their bodies moved with mine. I wish I could cut open my mind so they can look inside, see the bright rooms and dark spaces. It isn’t sick in there, or twisted. I know it’s not what they expect to find.

I should have reminded myself of that tonight, right from the start: any sweetheart, with her tenderness and her mercies, could be an informant, working for the law or otherwise. To survive, you’ve got to keep out of the affairs of others, even when you’re in their beds. Guard yourself. Take everything in stride. The less you reveal, the less there is to lose.

I don’t know if Lucille was arrested tonight. I can’t go to the police station to try and find out. I don’t know her last name, or if she would have told it to me if I’d taken her home. After all, I wouldn’t have told her mine. Not yet.

Now I don’t know if I’ll ever have a chance.

Weeks go by. Spring arrives, sliding in, wanting and breathless.

Just as I summon the courage to return to the back room of the Continental Hotel, they shut it down. After four raids, all its girls are finally driven out. They’ll find another place.

But much like the way I repeat certain melodies by heart, I find myself returning again and again to the intersection of Dundas and Elizabeth. Something pulls me back to the fitful movement here, strangers leaving their traces in my tune as they walk away. In the evening, I play my songs on each of the three corners opposite to where the shell of the Continental Hotel stands. I serenade its boarded-up back room, windows like blinded eyes. It’s smaller than I remember.

As I busk here through the rush hours, workers head home, cabs and trolleys run by, memories fly back. These city walls of scabbed brick are my backdrop; my music quiets as their grainy surfaces soften in the dusk.

Everywhere, industries that employed us during the war have been shuttered. But the factories didn’t stay empty for long. Fancy new appliances and the goods of peacetime are assembled on the production lines now, and most of the jobs have been taken back by men. I take what I can get. It’s clear to me how much is changing.

I can almost hear the restless rhythm turning in time with my fingers against the strings of the mandolin. Melodies trembling to an end. Other ones beginning.

As I play, I try to become the sound, the way a drop of blood enters water. Glancing away from the cycle of passing legs, I search the faces, drawing out my tune, for a chance to catch sight of Magda. The way I remember her.

Or is it Lucille, still new to me, in the looseness of a rundown coat? Just another stranger, except that she remembered my name.

All this time they make us spend on disappearing—but here we are.