Joyland

Vancouver |

The Modern Intimate

by Carleigh Baker

edited by Kathryn Mockler

Congratulations to Joyland's Vancouver Editor, Carleigh Baker, whose book Bad Endings recently won the Vancouver Book award and is a finalist for the Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize. In 2015, we published "The Modern Intimate" a story from this collection, and we're thrilled to share it with you again.

Carleigh will be appearing at IFOA on October 25, 2017 at 6:30pm.

Click here for event details.

I’m grating carrots, organic I think, and the stove is pre-heating. I’ve got a vegan baked oatmeal recipe though neither of us are vegan. It just seems a lot healthier. Eric’s been wanting to ditch the pancakes, and I can get behind that. I suppose if I was really onboard the health train I’d be making us poached eggs and steamed greens, but god, I’m not perfect. I already ran ten kilometers this morning, and it’s not even six AM. There has to be some reward.

The carrots are thin and kind of rubbery (definitely organic), so I have to push hard against the grater, and I keep shearing off my nails. Damn. Eric loves my hands. I like them too, though I didn’t put much effort into my nails until I met him. They just grow, and I let it happen. Now there’s mani/pedi afternoons, and a spare couple of bottles of polish at home for emergency touch-ups. Right now they’re Maximum Midnight. Totally badass. I pull the grater up slowly and pick out the black nail pieces. Gross. After a thorough inspection, I mix the certified nail-free carrots in with rolled oats, vanilla, and some almond milk, which I was happy to switch to for Eric, even though milk doesn’t bother me. Agave syrup for sweetener, is it really healthier? Who knows? It feels healthier. I add half of what the recipe suggests, then a little more. Then a little more. Three times the recommended amount of cinnamon and nutmeg, and a ton of fresh ginger. Pat it out in the pan, sprinkle nuts on top. Bam. In the oven for thirty minutes. Add a little vanilla to some coconut cream. Put it in the fridge to chill. Vegan whipped cream. Better than the real deal? Maybe. It is pretty good.

Eric is upstairs in my room, still sleeping. His place is a true bachelor, a downtown ultra-compact, so we usually go out for meals when we stay there. But I share a big house with roomies, so getting up early to make breakfast doesn’t disturb him. He’s going to Ottawa for a conference, and breakfast is kind of my way of telling him I’ll miss him. We’ve been dating for a while, six months, though we usually only see each other once a week. He’s so busy. I find I miss him more and more when he goes away, even though I should probably be getting used to it as we become more comfortable with each other. Which I’m pretty sure is happening. This is the first time he’s spent the night before flying out. Seems like we’re getting closer. As much as I feel like a lame 50’s housewife saying it, I want to be closer. I’ve been doing stupid things like doodling our names together when I should be working. Carrie and Eric. Carrie and Eric Johnson. Carrie and Eric Johnson-McGill. A truly modern woman would demand a hyphenated last name. This is the kind of stupid shit I did in my teens, then scoffed at in my twenties. Now here I am in my thirties, still not married, mooning over a dude again. God. This wasn’t in the life plan.

I draw a sink full of warm water and add a squirt of the earth-happy, biodegradable soap my roomie always buys. It smells like lemongrass, and the warm water is a comfort in the chilly house. I should have put socks on. I’ve been working in dim light, but now I flip the wall switch with an elbow, just enough light to make sure the dishes are clean. I hate it when people come in to a room I’m working in and turn the light on over my head smugly, like I’m too stupid to not have figured it out myself. I choose the darkness. I hang on to it for as long as possible.

Eric will be up soon. He sets his cell phone alarm right after we have sex at night and never hits snooze in the morning. He doesn’t like laying around. He doesn’t like morning sex. He goes from zero to sixty within minutes of opening his eyes.

***

Eric has perfected the art of texting while darting through a crowd. It’s all in the peripheral vision, the ability to focus on two things at once. Necessity precipitated this skill, the need for efficiency, not the lame desire to be connected to Facebook buddies 24/7. The flight was delayed, so he needs to let his seven o’clock dinner downtown know that he’ll be late. They’ve got a table of twenty reserved, and his tardiness will mean he gets a crappy seat on the perimeter, but nobody can hear each other at these things anyway. Pre-conference meet-ups are just a message to people that you’re here. Nobody walks around with their business cards out like a bunch of thirsty car salesmen. All you do at dinner is make plans for the drinks, see who is going to be back at the convention center bar; that’s when you get a chance to talk. While you’re having drinks you can excuse yourself twice without seeming weird, nip into the hallway where the bathrooms are, and text ahead to see who’s back at the hotel bar, which means getting another connection in before bed. That doesn’t always work out, three connections in one day is kind of like the Holy Grail.

Expensive shoes click click click on the terminal floor. Eric has a new pair of Magnannis. There’s a Starbucks kiosk right before the exit, perfect. That’s new since the last time he was here. The barista eyes his Italian suit and bats her lashes at him a little. She must see guys like him all day. Or maybe not quite like him, he’s young to be this well dressed, young for the office he has at City Hall. He pats down his hair, notices a little spot on the back of his head where it’s sticking out. He slept funny on the plane. He’ll fix it in the cab. Takes his Americano from the grinning barista with an “aw shucks” shrug. He hates drinking coffee, but all good habits dissolve for the duration of a business trip. Again, necessity. He hates drinking alcohol too, empty calories. But it’s what’s done; you look like a prig if you don’t have a drink in your hand. This conference will be all beer and sliders, not a vodka soda in sight, even though the same group of people might travel to Toronto and it’s Nolet’s and ceviche. Ottawa is mom and pop authenticity, bars with names like the Pig and Whistle. The Fox and Syringe. The bloat and heart attack.

Eric’s phone buzzes. Trichloroisocyanuric acid, says the subject line of an email. There’s twenty-five new messages and they’re all from the city.

“Westin, Shaw Centre,” Eric says to the cabbie, already absorbed in his phone. Something about a chemical fire in the port. Jesus. He’s been out of town for five hours. It’s twenty minutes to the hotel, enough time to proofread the media releases that have already been drafted. Tweet out emergency procedures and messages to people on the East Side to stay indoors. Three words, I’M ON IT, arrive in a text from the director of communications, who undoubtedly knows that Eric has landed by now. At the bottom of the list there’s an email from Carrie, Bedtime Story in the subject line. She’s attached a video. He gets a little bit hard at the thought of what it could be, but that makes him anxious so he stops thinking about it. Got to start things off here with the right kind of energy, the kind that looks effortless. Eric takes a couple of breaths and does one of the mindfulness exercises he was taught by the Mayor himself. Closes his eyes and moves through the inside of his body from head to toes, just focusing on himself. Awareness is a blessing and a curse. There’s the potential for more self-control, but sometimes Eric just becomes exponentially more aware of how uncomfortable he is. The Magnannis pinch his feet. His new Omega has got a hold on some arm hair. He misses Carrie, maybe, a little.

“Westin,” the cabbie says. Eric looks up, surprised. Hands the man his corporate card.

The restaurant can’t decide whether it’s an Italian bistro or an English pub, but the familiar smell is somewhat comforting. Fried stuff, oregano, beer. Eric looks past the buxom host and sees a slim, tanned arm shoot up from one of the tables and wave. Phone buzzes in his back pocket as he navigates the sea of business suits. He moves it to his jacket pocket and glances at the message, but he can’t make it out. Best not to be caught with your phone out too much while you’re mingling. Other people do it, but Eric thinks it looks tacky.

The arm belongs to Mathilde, a city planner from Montreal.

“Be thankful I saved you a seat,” she says, “look at the duds on the perimeter.”

“Thanks,” Eric says, kissing Mathilde on the cheek. He doesn’t recognize the guys at the end of the table, but they do look like duds. Beer guts and Harper comb-overs. He’s happy to start the evening with Mathilde. She’s got about a decade on Eric but you’d never guess; she must bathe in virgin’s blood. They bonded years ago at an event in Toronto, she was surreptitiously watering down a drink with San Pellegrino, and Eric thought this seemed like a good idea as well. Switching from a strict diet to conference party mode requires strategy.

There’s little time at these events to chat someone up just because they’re beautiful, but Mathilde had connections to a big consulting firm Eric had been eyeing, and she’d been interested in Eric’s work on urban bike lanes. They’d talked late into the night about green initiatives and the looming transit strike in Vancouver. After that, when the watered down drinks finally took hold, they talked about other things.

“It’s hard to get close to anyone when you do this work,” she’d said, in a creamy accent.

“Impossible, really.” She pointed her head down and lifted her eyes at him.

Eric had felt like maybe he could have made a move then. But for some reason he didn’t.

The shipping container that is currently on fire and blanketing East Vancouver in fumes comes from China and was on its way inland. Last year, over five hundred containers of trichloroisocyanuric acid passed through the port without catching fire. Set the number of accident-free days back to zero, somebody in communications quips in an email. Calls are pouring in to the city from people with respiratory problems, claiming to be on death’s door.

Tell them to call a doctor, Eric texts to the communications assistant. Honestly, people just lose their minds. He Googles Trichloroisocyanuric acid health risks and scans quickly. An industrial cleaning agent. Harmful when inhaled. Explosion hazard. Maybe he should catch a flight home, he thinks, as he walks back to Mathilde.

“Who’s on your hotlist tonight?” She asks, scanning the table. City councilors, angel investors, urban development consultants, and a charismatic guy Eric recognizes as a speaker from a TED conference last year but can’t remember what the talk was about.

“Unless anything’s changed, I’m meeting Trevor and Marlis from Dingo after this,” Eric says. His phone is buzzing again. Dingo is a new consultancy firm from Los Angeles that specializes in green space. “They’ve made overtures to the city recently about the CP Rail corridor along Arbutus.”

“I know all about that. Community gardens ripped out,” Mathilde says,” the locals don’t like it.”

“The locals don’t like any change, ever,” Eric says. “But it continues.”

“Story of my life,” Mathilde says. Eric isn’t sure exactly what she’s referring to, but it’s a tidy exit. Short, clean conversations are best. Eric orders some kind of microbrew Pale Ale from the impossibly gorgeous waitress. Fettuccine Alfredo but a pass on the garlic toast.

Check the phone one last time, under the table, like that fools anyone. Fire’s out. No fatalities.

Okay. Time for small talk and backslapping.

By the end of the evening, Eric’s figured out that the TED guy wrote a book called Strong Cities which Eric read and loved. They make a tentative plan for beers after the second panel discussion tomorrow, to be firmed up later via text. The guy tells Eric to bring his friend and nods at Mathilde. Eric grins in spite of himself. Mathilde would eat him for breakfast. He tells the Strong Cities guy he’ll do his best. Marlis and Trevor from Dingo cancel, which is annoying, but Eric is exhausted anyway, and bloated from the beer.

“Goodnight, gorgeous,” he says to Mathilde, in the hallway by the bathrooms, kissing her on both cheeks this time. There’s an ornately framed print of Dogs Playing Poker behind her.

She smacks his ass, barely looks up from her phone. “Good luck with the corridor. And the fire, God, just read about it.”

“It’s out,” Eric says, “no fatalities.”

Back at the hotel, he scans the bar to see if there are any familiar faces, but it’s pretty dead. A bit of a relief, really. He’ll have a bath, which he never does at home, and catch up on the news. His room is away from the street, as he requested, though they didn’t have his usual suite. Too bad. Familiarity keeps the nerves in check.

The neutrality of a hotel room is one of Eric’s favorite things. The shower is compact but the tub is oversized. He brushes his teeth and starts the water running. There’s a couple of little bottles of bubble bath, so he pours them in under the tap and foam fills up the tub. The water turns the color of a tropical lagoon. Chemicals. But the effect is somewhat pleasing. He flips down the lid on the toilet and sets his laptop on it, picks out a playlist. Mostly classical tonight. Takes off his suit and hangs it carefully, folds socks and underwear and puts them in the bag he keeps in his suitcase for dirty clothes. That’s when he finds the Tupperware container with a heart drawn on the lid.

Two big slices of baked oatmeal. Carrie will be asleep by now. She almost always gets up early to run. He admires that about her. He takes a bite of the oatmeal even though it means he has to brush his teeth again. She is sweet, Carrie is so sweet. He’s just not feeling it. Or really, he thinks he should be feeling it more. He remembers the email she sent and goes back to the bathroom, turns the water off. Opens the movie she sent him on his laptop and her sweet face appears. He wonders again if she’s going to get naked, but she says she’s going to read him a bedtime story, which of course is what the subject line had promised. It’s some kids story about a bunny who is threatening to run away. His helicopter mom threatens to follow him around wherever he goes. With her dark eyes darting from the book to the screen, Carrie reads something about turning into a boat, and sailing the sea looking for him. The bunny, that is. Not Eric.

He lets himself slowly into the bath. Phone in hand. He should check email, see how the damage control is going back home. But he clicks on the little orange flame icon instead. He’s been chatting with a girl on Tinder for a few weeks now. She’s beautiful, half Vietnamese. Annalee. It’s probably time to act, Eric thinks, he’ll ask her out when he gets home. It will help him power through the end of things with Carrie. He swipes through a few profiles first, looking for anything new and exciting. Photos of smiling faces, swipe right if you like what you see, left if you don’t. If both parties swipe right, then you have a match. Women are experts at looking beautiful in their profile photos, so it all gets a little boring after a while. They all do yoga. They all love travel. Eric can’t remember the last time he travelled for pleasure. He and Carrie had talked about going to Iceland. On the laptop, Carrie finishes her bedtime story.

“Sweet dreams,” she says. Saccharine.

Eric has a short list of Tinder matches. No sense messing around with a cast of thousands. He scrolls up and down, but Annalee’s not there. He checks again, closes Tinder and opens it. Gone. That means she removed him as a match. After two weeks of chatting! She hadn’t used her real name. They hadn’t even exchanged numbers. So basically, she’s gone forever.

Eric leans back in the tub. This is unexpected. He’d liked texting with her.

“Shit.” He focuses on tangible things: warmth, his wrinkled toes, blistered from the Magnannis. Bubbles. The syrupy smell of blue lagoon bubble bath. A new text from Carrie: did u get my email?

***

I can’t sleep and I feel stupid; I thought for sure Eric would call before bed. The bedtime story I emailed was silly, but surely he’d be touched by the effort. It’s adorable—The Runaway Bunny—about a petulant little bunny who’s testing his mom’s devotion, but she keeps reassuring him that she’ll always be there for him. God, maybe that was way too cheesy, or it sent some kind of weird matriarchal vibe to him. Carrie, you dumbass. He’s asleep by now—guaranteed—he hates getting less than seven hours of sleep. I guess I just assumed he’d call, then expected a call, and now here I am. Am I angry? Don’t think so. There’s this sensation of having all the blood sucked out of my extremities, my head and hands tingle, and there’s an uncomfortable pressure in my core. Nervous. That’s what I am. All these little signs from the last few weeks keep popping up—I didn’t see them as signs at the time, but now they seem relevant, unavoidable. The night he cancelled plans to go to the Cinematheque at the last minute; I was already downtown. That time we bumped into each other on Main Street and he seemed like he couldn’t wait to get rid of me. The fact that we’ve been dating for six months and he still can’t make more time to see me every week. How did I not put the pieces together? I feel stupid because I am stupid. Shit.

There’s a pack of Camel menthols in a basket beside the bed, and I’d promised myself I’d throw them away, but I didn’t. I’ll feel like crap on my run tomorrow. Whatever. Throw on a sweater and socks and pad downstairs. Light the cig on the stove element and run out the door quickly. The first drag is so good. I realize how scrunched up my shoulders are. Another drag and I’m a little light-headed, probably better to sit down.

It’s dark. There’s a laurel bush around the whole house. It’s over ten feet high and several feet thick. Impenetrable. It’s quiet, like, five AM quiet, like the beautiful still moments before my morning run. I want to cry, but that seems stupid, pre-emptive. No dumping has actually occurred yet. But in one definitive whoosh the certainty that it will happen has engulfed me, even through the comfortable haze of the nicotine.

Phone’s in my pocket. Damn. I don’t want to do this. I don’t want to do it, but I know I’ll feel better. I just want to feel better so I can go to sleep.

I was going to throw the cigs away, around our fourth month dating, when I assumed we were getting serious, and I was going to uninstall Tinder. I did neither. Now I know why. It’s not like I have to message anyone, just swipe at a few faces. See who swipes me back. Nothing soothes the burn of a pre-emptive dump like a smoke, and a pre-emptive search for somebody new.

[1]: https://goo.gl/drsUyW%20%3C/p%3E