Almost every evening, beginning in late April or early May, Isaac sat on the exposed staircase of his apartment and watched the corner of St. Urbain and Bernard gasp to life. The condos around the corner were inhabited by people Isaac might have called yuppies if he didn’t feel so close to becoming a young urban professional himself; they bought organic food at the nearby fruiteries and brought it home in canvas tote bags, talking whip-fast French into their smartphones. There were also people Isaac recognized from school or parties, who passed him by with a wave and walked on in their well-fitted clothes.
“So wistful!” a voice said. “What a vision.”
Isaac looked down the staircase and there was Bronwen, smiling, flashing the gap between her front teeth. Her boyfriend Martin climbed the steps behind her, hoisting a massive, overstuffed armchair.
“Martin,” Isaac said, “what the hell is that?”
“It was free,” Martin said. “On the curb. Isn’t it sweet?”
“It probably has bedbugs.”
“It was free,” Martin said, and took it inside their apartment.
Bronwen sat on the steps, her suede jacket pressing against Isaac, her hair drifting against his shoulder. “You know what it’s like when you’re funemployed,” she said.
“Actually, I don’t know what that’s like.”
Bronwen arched her unibrow, which turned her bizarre, beautiful face into a landscape painting. “Sounded like you and Emma went at it pretty good last night.”
“Oh God, I wish.”
“No, I mean, like, fighting.”
“I’ve told you this before,” Bronwen said. “You guys are done. It’s time to call it.”
“It’s hard to stay together,” Isaac said. “It’s even harder to break up.”
Martin came back out of the apartment with his laptop and a six-pack of Boreale. He bent over to kiss Bronwen, who closed her eyes, but her face stayed flat. “Should I be a telemarketer?” he asked. “I could be a telemarketer.”
Brownwen stood. “I’m going to my studio,” she said.
“I’ll call you later,” Martin said.
“Sure,” Bronwen said. She looked at Isaac for a moment, as if to say something, then walked down the stairs. Martin watched her go.
“What am I going to do?” he asked.
“Something’ll turn up,” Isaac said. He wasn’t sure it was the right answer, or what exactly Martin was asking.
Isaac and Martin first saw their apartment many years ago. They were first-year students from Ontario, and they felt out of Montreal’s league; the language politics, the coldness and cant, all the drinking. After they knocked on the door, a woman with glasses and frizzy red hair answered. Every single bedroom featured the same things: a mattress on the floor, a sleeping bearded guy, and a CD rack. It was two o’clock in the afternoon. There were holes in the wall and mould on the bathroom ceiling and no natural light to speak of, but the kitchen was painted a whimsical lime green. They took it.
Over the years the apartment took on a dignified squalor. It accumulated: an electric organ from Village des Valeurs; paintings and photographs found on the street; a cat, once pregnant and now spayed; French board games with crucial pieces missing; a chess set made of shotglasses; a headless taxidermied owl; placards from assorted political demonstrations; back issues of Cabinet and The New Left Review; a typewriter, hung on the wall; an impressive and ever-fluctuating collection of empties; a cardboard cut-out of Boba Fett; stacks of old, valueless vinyl; a Liberal Party election sign once used as a toboggan; and layers and layers of indefinable grime.
Isaac and Martin never upgraded to a better apartment the way their friends did in third and fourth year. Later, this morphed into self-righteous roots-in-the-community anti-gentrification, though they barely acknowledged their neighbours and couldn’t tell you who the borough mayor was. They just wanted to stay still.
At some point, Martin began to eat Isaac’s food. At first: an egg missing, a loaf of bread grown shorter, a can of beans half-empty. Later: frying up whole packs of tofu while Isaac sat at the kitchen table and wondered what to say.
“Can you pay me back for hydro?” he asked one morning, as Martin finished off a box of Isaac’s Raisin Bran.
“Hm,” Martin said, as if weighing the question carefully. A tadpole of soy milk slipped down his chin. “I’m really sorry, man. I just don’t have it right now.”
“Oh,” Isaac said. “Um. How’s the job search going?”
“Okay,” Martin said. “I’m looking. I’m handing out resumes. It’s hard when you don’t speak French.”
As spring warmed into summer, Martin spent a lot of time at home, trolling Craigslist, noting this busboy job or that moving job, before downloading an old lecture from UbuWeb and napping with the curtains closed. Every evening, Isaac came home from working at the trade magazine and found Martin wrapped in blankets, watching the local news. Every evening, Isaac sat on the other couch and sighed loudly.
“How are you and Emma doing?” Martin asked.
“Uh. She dumped me last week.”
“Oh, shit. I’m sorry. I didn’t know.”
“What? How could you not know? Haven’t you noticed how fucking depressed I’ve been? I talked to Bronwen about it! Even Bronwen knows!”
Bronwen was Martin’s first real girlfriend—Bronwen who was five years older, who created huge, violent video installations that had apparently garnered her some notoriety in Europe, who plucked Martin up like he didn’t have a choice. During university, while Isaac made it his business to burn through girlfriends, Martin stayed kind but aloof. Many frustrated women complained to Isaac that Martin was gay, though Isaac knew that Martin was just waiting, and he was vindicated when Bronwen came along.
Isaac and Martin had both finished university several months ago. Isaac found work as a copy editor at a mining-industry magazine and spent most of his eight-hour days thinking about his undergraduate thesis, which dealt with human-rights abuses resulting from coltan exploitation in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Martin continued to read his books of contemporary poetics, making careful, relevant notes in the margins, though he did this less often as sleep consumed his mornings and afternoons and evenings.
One night, Isaac sat on the couch alone, watching the midnight broadcast of Jon Stewart and eating a bag of No Name potato chips, too tired to brush his teeth. Isaac and Martin used to watch The Daily Show together almost every night, but Martin mostly stayed in his room these days. During a commercial, Isaac padded down the hall to Martin’s room, to see if he was awake. A thwack-thwack came from the other side of the door, the sound of flesh moving on flesh, paired with a duet of stifled moans.
Isaac looked down and realized he was suddenly hard. The sight of his penis tentpoling his stained grey sweatpants was depressing, so he pulled the elastic waistband down and his dick bounced out and he grabbed hold of it. He didn’t even have to concentrate. Within minutes, he came straight onto the Dinosaur Jr. poster on Martin’s door. The sounds inside the bedroom stopped, and from behind the door Martin asked, “Is somebody there?”
Isaac started to have sex dreams about Martin. In one, Martin rode Isaac’s cock on the Ikea kitchen table of their apartment. When Martin pulled off of Isaac’s dick he unleashed a torrent of shit onto Isaac’s body that gradually filled the entire kitchen until it seeped out the window. During another dream, Martin was bent over and Isaac couldn’t see his face as he drove into him from behind. In the dream, Martin’s body was pink and pudgy, disturbingly like a child’s.
More rarely, Isaac found himself dreaming about Bronwen. She was stunning in a bobo way, with a layered approach to fashion that still managed to make her look anorexic. Isaac had a hard time imagining what her body looked like, so in his dreams she was fully clothed and simply took him in her mouth. Sometimes he woke up and his sheets were sticky, as if he were a teenager once more. What’s happening to my body? he thought one such morning, and laughed.
Isaac always dreamed that he fucked Martin, never the other way around. Friends had joked that that was how it would really be, if they ever wound up together—Martin was the bottom. Not coincidentally, he was also the more beautiful of the two, even though his body gathered itself together all wrong: his oddly pear-shaped torso, his almost-albino skin, stick-thin legs. But his face was perfect, green eyes and a strong nose and long, feminine hair.
“I’ve had enough,” Bronwen said. She and Isaac sat in la Claque, the bar around the corner from the apartment, drinking dark beers, the carcass of a nacho platter between them. Bronwen had a streak of sour cream on the corner of her mouth, which Isaac did not point out.
“Don’t be a smartass,” Bronwen said. “I’ve had enough of Martin’s self-pitying welfare shit. Everybody’s broke, but he’s poor. He never wants to do anything, and I can’t just keep hanging out in your disgusting living room arguing about Deleuze all the fucking time. You guys know shit about Deleuze! I want to go out.”
“We’re out right now.”
“Hey, I’m trying to help,” Isaac said. “I tell him when I hear about jobs. He just never does anything about it. He’s too busy shitting on himself. And it doesn’t sound like you make a great cheering squad.”
Bronwen took a drink. “Look,” she said, “Martin is sweet, but I’ve got nothing to give anymore. I mean, how have you put up with this for five years?”
Isaac shrugged. “I love him,” he said, his leg bouncing under the table.
They finished their beers in silence and left the bar. Outside, Bronwen paused. “Thanks for, uh, talking,” she said. “I know I sound like a dick. But I’ve never been in a relationship this hard.”
“I just got out of one,” Isaac said. “I get it.”
Bronwen smiled and lifted her arms, moving in for a hug. Isaac held her for slightly too long, leaned his face into her cheek, tried to find her body beneath all those fashionable clothes. Why not? he thought.
Bronwen stiffened and pushed back. She looked at Isaac’s face, her dark brows furrowed. “Oh,” she said, “you have got to be fucking kidding me.”
“You owe me three hundred and fifty dollars.”
Martin didn’t look up from the television. “For what?”
“Uh, for last month’s rent. You still haven’t paid me back, and it’s almost the first of the month again.” Isaac loomed in the doorway of the living room, standing, in what he imagined was a position of dominance, above Martin, who was curled on the couch with the cat.
“Well?” Isaac said.
“Well, what? What do you want me to say?”
“Well, I guess I want you to say that you have my three hundred and fifty dollars, but you just totally fucking forgot to pay me back because you’ve been so busy at your great new job. But that’s probably not going to happen, huh?”
Martin looked up at Isaac, into his face, for the first time in what felt like months. For a moment, Isaac was surprised at Martin’s beauty: the bright eyes, the sharp cheeks and chin, the anger and sadness in his mouth. Distracted, Isaac didn’t quite notice Martin rise and move against him with startling force.
He felt Martin’s hands connect with his chest and shove him to the floor, the floor covered in dust bunnies and bottle caps, and then Martin was on top of him, beating him and holding him down. The two flailed the way weak men do. Isaac heaved up, knocking Martin on his back, and then straddled him, pressing his own hips down, toward the ground. He thought briefly about how men’s bodies were hard where women’s bodies were soft, and then he closed his hand into a fist and rained it down, just once, into Martin’s eye. Isaac was not expecting so much pain, and he yelped as his arm jarred on Martin’s skull and the numbness whipped up through his elbow and into his shoulder. He rolled off, his face close to Martin’s, panting like an animal, and they lay there, still intertwined, on the floor of the apartment.
“I’m moving out,” Isaac said.
As Mile End grew more expensive, everyone began to move north, to Little Italy and Villeray and Petite Patrie. But Isaac had his sights set on Parc Ex, where old Greek men drank coffee and played backgammon in their dark terrifying bars. In midsummer, he took to sitting on his new back porch, looking at the backyards across the alley. One evening, a young boy hacked at the grass along the fence with an honest-to-God machete, lifting the blade and bringing it down, gathering the grass in a bag, over and again, his small arms wiry but not yet muscular.
Unlike everyone else, Martin had moved south, down to St. Henri, into a dump with some people he met at his new dishwashing job, and Isaac thought now of the gulf of land between them: the train tracks, the viaduct, the mountain, downtown, the campuses, the highway, all that space until the south edge of the island, where the condos and the slums squatted on the canal.