She would see him sometimes around Yaletown, her former counsellor, heading glassy-eyed toward a bar or creeping up the back steps of the massage parlour. The prostitutes often congregated in a doorway above the alley, wearing silk kimonos over their undergarments, and a corresponding cluster of men would gather across the street to sneak a peek at the merchandise. Recently, someone had spray-painted “Can Cum for Money!” across one of the parlour’s blacked-out windows.
It was difficult to see him disgraced, this man who used to sit opposite her once a week in a lamp-lit office, nodding in sympathy, injecting his gentle humour into the tide of her adolescent despair. Now his face was bloated from anti-depressants, and the rest of his body resembled a stick insect’s. When they encountered each other in the neighbourhood, he would invite her to lunch and they would sit awkwardly at a restaurant table, fumbling for conversation, relaxing only when one or the other assumed the role of therapist or patient. He was in love with a twenty-two-year-old at the massage parlour, who in her off hours was studying to be a doctor, or so she told him. He insisted on showing her a letter he’d written to this girl, ink dashed messily across sheets of foolscap. It was simultaneously vulnerable and graphic—a line about the girl’s “liquid centre” almost made her stop reading, but he was urging her on—and for a moment she missed the days when she had inspired similar outpourings of devotion from middle-aged men. Oh, how she missed it, the way the price tag she put on her body made her instantly more attractive, mysterious, worthy, when otherwise she barely warranted a passing glance on the street!
After their lunches, when they parted with a stiff hug and he continued grimly on his way to God knows where, she would find herself feeling bleak for the rest of the afternoon. Once her counsellor had viewed prostitution as a self-destructive act, like cutting or drug abuse, and it hadn’t occurred to her that in his private life he was fighting an attraction to these women, an obsession that would win out over his fierce morals. Now she imagined him climbing those cigarette-littered stairs to the massage parlour, his eyes darting back and forth, choosing a girl, choosing a theme room—S&M? Asian fantasy? Tropical paradise?—into which he could escape for an hour, the length of a therapy session.
When she moved into Yaletown twelve years ago, it was rough concrete and abandoned warehouses. Now it was the trendiest neighbourhood in Vancouver, flooded with young women who spent their salaries on their wardrobes and lived three to a one-bedroom suite in the glass towers. She felt a certain pressure just walking out her front door, to fit in with her surroundings, not to be a blight on the landscape. It was like high school all over again, especially outside the gourmet market where people sat in a row at little café tables, watching you pass, just as teenagers used to do in the hallways at school—
sprawled in front of their lockers, loudly mocking your outfit as you went by. For all she knew these people were doing the same thing, in their heads, if not under their breath to one another.
Countless women more attractive than she was passed her on the street every day, yet men still singled her out sometimes, older men with a faintly sinister air about them, something calculating and predacious. They would start talking to her during one of her solitary walks around the seawall, or in the lineup at the organic grocery store, or at one of the innumerable coffee lounges. They would lean in too close, and she would automatically put a hand on her purse, as if they meant to make off with her wallet while distracting her with the cadences of their smooth talk. Well, why not? What did they want with her, anyway? She forgot sometimes that she was Asian, and perhaps looked like an ESL student or a recent immigrant—enough so that panhandlers would sometimes ask, “Do you speak English?” before harassing her for money.
Before long, these men would ask where she was from, China or Japan. How long had she been in this fair city? When she said all her life, she was born here, that would end it for them, they would risk rudeness in their rush to get away. Had they been envisioning a future with her as their exotic, compliant bride, who would giggle behind a raised hand and hurry off on tiny lotus feet to run their errands, then hide in the kitchen to whip up nightly feasts scented with lemon grass and ginger? Ha! Ha ha ha! If only they knew! She was ruined, one of those Canadian-born independent-minded women who bought her dinners from the deli. Already she had lived twelve years alone in the same apartment, and before long she would be known as the scary spinster on the fourth floor. Even now she was the only one who voted against every building improvement suggestion put forth by the strata council. The one owner too poor and resistant to change to pay out yet another special levy. The crazy cat lady—but without any cats, because she could not stand the thought of looking after anyone or anything.
D. had left his wife and moved into Yaletown. So it did sometimes happen, even after decades of marriage and houses and children, that myth: men did leave their wives. Now he was practically her neighbour. They had coffee together one day, in an outdoor café by the marina—
the blue dazzle of water, the ping of bicycle bells, the sleek boats bobbing in the sea breeze. He pointed out his building, shaped like a ship’s prow. It seemed idyllic, blooms spilling over onto the sidewalk from the flower market, the taste of vanilla mint tea on her tongue, no hint of the downside of downtown life. No urine and vomit steaming off the pavement on weekend mornings, no nightly opera of screams, hollers and police sirens outside her window.
He was wearing shorts and sunglasses like some overgrown teenager—well, this was his second chance, his second life. He was dating someone, and his eyes gleamed as he turned the conversation again and again to the new girlfriend, whose picture was on his cellphone—one of those absurdly fit middle-aged women, black nipples through a sheer T-shirt, a flat belly, a wrinkly smile giving it away. She was almost his age, but looked thirty-five, he said proudly. Who would have thought, after their frenzied afternoons together years ago, that they could sit like acquaintances and sip from their giant enamel cups of imported leaves and beans? Even more surprising, his wife had been untroubled by his defection.
“Would you have a problem with it?” he asked, telling her about his wife’s deal in the divorce—the multimillion-dollar house, the retirement bonds, the staggering monthly stipend. “Wouldn’t you want a gig like that?”
Yes, but she had chosen the career of starving poet instead. He was a born provider. She had been in need, and for a year she had been one of the women whose mortgage he paid and whose little apartment he visited when his wife thought he was golfing or meeting with clients. He was still fond enough of her to send her a card and money a couple of times a year—Christmas, her birthday. She never knew what to do with the money. It felt special somehow, like it shouldn’t be squandered on everyday stuff like groceries or bill payments, but also faintly dirty, like money in exchange for sex. She thought of doing something selfless with it, like giving to charity or buying presents, and the thought suffused her with a warm glow of goodness—but in the end she always spent it on herself. Something frivolous, clothes usually, in a dazed shopping binge that left her feeling hungry afterwards.