Toby Sharpe


A bad dream brought him back to me. Michael teaching me how to skate. Michael giggling, effervescent. Michael breathing on my neck. Michael in the smog, snot dripping, eyes hollow. Michael. Michael. A good dream.


The shiksa is twirling chopsticks, looking outside, waiting for Michael. I sit on a bench opposite, waiting too. That cat (you know the one) waves its arm. Michael is late. Winter in Vancouver. I eat gyoza whole, one at a time, while I flutter my eyelashes, practising for when Michael arrives. The shiksa makes conversation. I dodge it, and then relent. I spent all day choosing my outfit and have already spilled vinegar on my shirt. I can see myself half-reflected in the tiling above her head. I am waiting for Michael and I feel like I have been waiting for Michael since I was born. I am an Ashkenazi mess of an undergraduate in a pan-Asian restaurant in the middle of the most expensive city in North America. My head hurts.

The shiksa grew up in Grande Prairie and is taking our Jewish Studies class to broaden her metaphorical horizons. I picture Albertan skies stretching out forever, something frosty and balletic about her childhood, so far from my own. She loves lacrosse. She is thrilled to get to know “people” like Michael, like me. We will only know if Michael likes lacrosse if he ever arrives. I see curls by the window, eyebrows across the street. On the way over, I saw the promise of him glinting in a puddle. I want him to make me glint too.


I was already familiar with the idea that friends can vanish, simply disappear. My friend Jeremy evaporated when we were teenagers, into dark water after a house party. His parents never believed he just slipped. They preferred the idea that one of us had killed him rather than believe that Jeremy was just very, very drunk, and very, very unhappy, and that the canal’s depths were deceptively hungry. The night Jeremy died, he had reached for me in the kitchen, reached out as if to take something from me, but then decided not to.

Jeremy doesn’t matter much to me now, but sometimes I think about him when I’m dicing vegetables, throwing the compost away. It was one of the first anecdotes I told my now ex-boyfriend Deon, the story of the party, the story of the drowning. I showed him Jeremy’s memorial page, still online, and then regretted it immediately, wincing at my cruelty and how keen I was to pimp out my dead friend for profit. I wanted Deon to think I’d had it rough, that I knew what life was like, that I was deeply deep. I didn’t tell him much else about other men I’d had feelings for. I never mentioned Michael.


There is an abundance of tea lights and the floor is sticky. I am here! With Michael! Only days after our dinner date, Michael is leaning against a counter, beer in his hand. The beer sparkles. Michael sparkles. I am sparkling too, because I am determined to sparkle.

Tim is staring. I am beginning to realize that I live in a world in which Michael exudes a certain gravitational pull. Tim is captivated and jealous. Michael has offered to drive me home. It is only my fifth party in this city and I am impressing even myself—I am making an impression, growing roots. Michael is my soil; I want him to nourish me. A redhead is from Ottawa and likes horror movies. She and Tim are going to travel around Eastern Europe this summer. Then there is a time limit to Tim, with his bad hair and bad vibes. A Tim limit! I will be nice to him—I can be kind to him as I watch him drift out of orbit, into the darkness of space.



I considered messaging Annabelle early on a Thursday morning, still awake from the night before, my stomach roiling, sitting on the toilet, scrolling through the cosmos on my phone. I’d been sleeping poorly since my breakup with Deon. And then the memories of Michael swam back to me through dream, brackish and wet.

Something had gone wrong in that year in Vancouver, something went off course, and in the small hours of blue nights, I ruminated. I stalked myself, my own online past, and that’s how I remembered the people I’d spent time with back then, more than a decade ago: Michael, the academic; Tim, the dweeb; and Annabelle, the shiksa.

I wasn’t sure if she still counted as a shiksa, given that she’d likely converted. I hadn’t been invited to the wedding, but the photos made their way onto my feed and into my stories, and her husband was unsurprisingly one of us, a dudebro with big teeth, bad facial hair, and an ass that rivalled mine. I bet his parents were horrified when he brought home a blond from Alberta, one who didn’t even have oil money to keep their nebbish son safe and warm.

I’d always figured she had a reason for hanging out with Michael and me so often, but I hadn’t thought too much about how maybe she’d wanted some aspect of us. I hadn’t considered why she’d let us sit on her bed and cuddle, how she’d found a way to follow us from date to date.

I sent her an emoji at first. She called me a few minutes after my message was delivered, surprised to hear from me and eager to catch up immediately. Across the continent, I told her that I regretted calling her “the shiksa”—was it goyphobic? misogynistic?—back in the day. She laughed, but only for a moment, enough to smooth things over without explicitly offering forgiveness. We talked for a little while, and I could hear children bickering in the background, fighting over carrot sticks and bagel bites. She told me about her wedding (big), her parents-in-law (tiring) and the family’s synagogue (big and tiring). Seeing a segue, I leapt on it. Speaking of tiring Jews: had she kept in touch with Michael?



Michael, the shiksa and I are walking down the hall in Buchanan, talking about nothing in particular. Our meals, our little parties, have gone well. We are a unit now, and I am eager to keep that going. Tim is trailing behind us, slime on my heel. I wish he would hurry up and go abroad already, or at least walk from campus into the ocean.

Michael looks handsome. I am stuck talking about nothing because I have very little on my mind apart from him. I like the way his head bobs when he speaks. The shiksa asks us if we want to get dinner again sometime, carefully not including Tim in the invitation, and Michael says he’d love to come, but only if it’s not too early, as he wants to get some work done first. He’s researching a new project, he says, an essay about kabbalah, about forgotten secrets and old magic. I make a joke about how I only know about kabbalah from reading about Madonna and Britney Spears on gossip websites. His lips purse. I have somehow fucked up.



Annabelle asked me about Deon, said she’d seen photos of me looking happy, and that she was surprised to see that I hadn’t ended up with a Jewish guy (like she had!). I told her the phone line was breaking up, and that I had to go.

I thought about the collapse of me and Deon, and then about what Annabelle had said about Michael, about the religious heights he’d climbed, the hands of God that may have met him there. I was alone in a bathroom, hundreds of miles from anyone who cared about me. I did not feel heavenly. I stared at the bathroom light, almost hoping it would shatter.



Chairs squeak against linoleum. We are watching Michael talk. The professor has asked him here to speak to our class. Michael is one year and one month older than me and ten years younger than my professor. I am preening, even though it’s not me who is speaking, and Michael does not belong to me. I should not be preening. Michael is talking about a third-century religious tract found in a cave, remarkably well-preserved. He likes this text. His enthusiasm is contagious, or at least it is for me. I didn’t know anything found deep in a cave could give someone so much joy.

The professor will recommend Michael for his scholarship, of this I am sure. I take Michael’s hand at the end of class and he is grinning, and he lets me hold it for a second, two, a whole minute, before pulling it away. I ask him if he likes teaching and he says yes. He is throbbing. He takes my hand again, and says, directly at me, almost into my eyes, “I am never happier than when I am talking to people about the divine.”



 Over the phone Annabelle had spoken with a note of incredulity untarnished by the years. Not long after my own furtive departure from Vancouver, Michael had told her that he would no longer engage in the secular academe. He wanted to break free from their toxic and godless sphere. She had thought it was a joke at first, albeit a bad one, but then Michael had shown her the emails he’d sent to the head of department, explaining how he didn’t belong amongst non-believers, how he wished to be scrubbed from their list of students as if with bleach. After he told her and Tim to repent, he got on a plane and left the city. She didn’t know where he went. New York, maybe, or Berlin. So, no. She didn’t keep in touch with him. She’d assumed, instead, and despite everything, that I had.

Alone, still on the toilet, this news made me feel strange and sour, my stomach wobbling again, the last drunk on the dancefloor. When Michael and I first met outside Koerner, he went to gay bars all the time, he’d told me, showing off a little. He was a sweaty little insect at the clubs, I later discovered, but still I wanted him, yearned even.

Outside the pub that day, he’d been wearing pink jeans, of all things, and there was a rainbow pin on his hoodie. He had seemed like a prouder version of me. I don’t know where that person went. I don’t know where a person can go when they disappear, apart from underwater.



Richard Gere is flickering on pause. We are on the shiksa’s bed. She is in the bathroom—she’s been in there for a while. We had been watching a movie. Michael smells like juniper: an autumnal scent that doesn’t match the blossom outside. His hand creeps onto my shoulder, my bicep, my elbow. Since Michael said we’d be better as friends, he has been very careful not to touch me. I hope the shiksa stays in the bathroom.

Recently, I’ve been looking at myself in the mirror and trying to see myself the way Michael sees me, sucking in my gut and flexing my arms. There must be something very wrong about me, with me, in me, to make him suddenly bend away from me. Just last month, on Wreck Beach, I’d leaned in for a kiss and he obliged me, but only briefly. There’d been a hint of tongue; I noticed a bead of sweat on his forehead.

The shiksa comes back in, after a flush and running of water. Michael moves his hand. I am alone in the universe.



Last week, Deon said that I was too narcissistic to be in a committed relationship. I replied that only gorgeous people can actually be vain, and I was simply making the best of a bad situation, but he’d already left the apartment with his keys in one hand and his toothbrush in the other. He left his toothpaste, but I threw it into the trash in an act of defiance, before fishing it out and putting it back on the sink’s rim. The whole place felt dead without Deon in it, but he was already feeling foggy, as if we had never dated, as if we had never spoken. There were too many men in my life.



Forest fires. Smoke rolling in from Washington each morning. We sit on the see-saw, at either end. I am heavier. I eat my chicken in its sweat as Michael is knocked off the earth by my bulk. He says he’s sad to see me flee the city, that he feels glad to have spent precious moments with me, that I’ve touched his life more than I know. I scoff at that, spraying the air with poultry juices. I feel gnawed at by the triteness of his words: his sadness, his gladness.

There’s so much to say and I don’t know how to say it. Am I meant to bend down on my knees in supplication, beg him to make me stay? Am I meant to reach for him with my mouth? Am I meant to tell him that this is entirely and yet totally not about him, that I’m giving up my life for no reason at all?

“You barely made it here today, Mike. I don’t want to—let’s not pretend I’m a priority, okay? I don’t want to leave things on a shitty note.”

“I hate it when you call me Mike.”

“All right, Michael.”

We chew. Silence. I can’t decide if I am giving into something or condemning something. His feet are like little see-saws themselves, dangling and rearranging themselves. I resolve to never speak again. Until he tries to affirm that we’re still friends. That we’ve had good times, especially with the shiksa, and that he’ll always treasure knowing me. He’s even told his new boyfriend all about me.

“Your new what?”

“Aaron? He lives in Bellingham. I had to set my JSwipe search pretty wide to find someone compatible. He works for a travel company. You’d like him. I mean: I like him.”

“Did you seriously come here to tell me that you have a boyfriend now? The day before I leave?”

“I figured Tim had told you.”

“Tim hates me, Michael. He thinks that you and I are, were, going to fuck and get hitched. Move to San Fran or something equally gay and dreamy. He thought I’d take you away from him, like you were in love with me or something.”

“Well, that tracks, I guess.”

“What? Mike.”

“It’s Michael. And it would never have worked. You don’t, you aren’t, you’re—you’re irreligious. You would have been a…”

“What? A distraction?”

“A kind of temptation. We would have been great, but I could never have married someone like you.”

I picture a chuppah laden with jasmine, locks of hair intertwining as we bend toward one another to kiss. I hear the sound of shattering glass under foot, the sound of something ended, a single life wounded and left to rot. I want to take my fist and make my way inside his entrails. I want everything and nothing. I want him to kiss me.

“Fuck you, Mike. Manipulative…  fuck. Fuck you. Eat my whole stinking ass.”

I leave my chicken on the see-saw. I see Michael shiver, empty, trying to regain his balance. He calls after me but I leave anyway, pushing through the smoke-streaked air. Back to my studio. I look around at the brick walls, my suitcases, the gilded mirror too heavy and fragile to take to Toronto, and think about how ugly he makes me feel.



All I do these days is stare at myself in my front camera and compulsively tweet. And reminisce, but privately. I don’t tell the world my memories. I just share my thirst traps, mostly without captions. Annabelle sometimes likes them; Deon seems to have me muted on socials. I am wasting my time on the planet, bit by bit.

It took a day or two to cleanse Deon from my apartment, return it to its default settings, make it a sad bachelor pad once again. It shocked me how quickly he’d seeded himself about the place: his expensive lube, which didn’t irritate his crotch, was still hidden under my bed, and the quilt his grandmother made him hugged my sofa. I put it all in boxes, all of it, even the books he’d bought me: I taped them up, and I texted Deon to tell him to collect them whenever he wanted.

Once I’d packed everything that smelled even slightly of him, except his toothpaste, I ordered takeout and stared at the wall. I lit up a cigarette, my first in months, and opened my laptop. I went to Jeremy’s memorial page, as if by habit. His mother had updated it: she was going to plant a tree for him, in the town where we grew up, the town I’d never go back to. I paused for a moment, then hit the like button. And then I went looking for another ghost.



Michael twirling down a staircase, smirking. Michael frowning at me, exhaling smoke. Michael twisting linguine around a fork. Michael proofreading my essay, a pencil between his teeth.



I am at the airport looking at my overpriced sandwich in its six layers of packaging when Michael sends me a message. I picture him still on the see-saw, covered in forest ash. I delete the message instead of reading it and block his account. Eight seconds later, I want to take back my decision, but I do nothing. The gate brightens, a steward’s voice crackles. It’s time to board.



Yesterday, I found a person online. Same surname, different first name. No mutual friends. Michael? A photo that could be him, just older. The more I look, the surer I am.

The posts are strange. Jagged and ugly words, often tagging celebrities’ profiles. He’ll demand a pop star grant him an audience, beg a comedian to spread the good word, ask an athlete to convince his fans to give up their mortal belongings and walk into the mountains. I am reminded of him telling me that Britney was a moron for wearing a crimson string. I messaged Annabelle again (“this him? weird statuses: breakdown or performance art?”) but this time she did not reply.

I keep looking at his profile. This Michael has grown a beard. This Michael likes golf, fears chemtrails, and runs, of all things, a tinfoil business. This Michael has a wife. In his profile picture, they are holding hands—almost. There’s a slight gap between their fingers. I find myself zooming in on it. I have done that a lot. Does the empty space speak volumes? Or am I just lonely? I move over the button to add him as a friend. I hover.



 My first week in Toronto I pause as I walk by a synagogue. I shake my head, as if disagreeing with no one in particular. A woman in a sheitel glares at me. She hurries her children along. I want to reach out, beg for forgiveness, but I don’t. I think about texting Michael. I don’t. I try to push the memory of him out, so hard that it takes me a second to notice I’m digging my nails into my palms.

If you’re going to be rejected because of anyone, it may as well be God. How could one compete against God? This is what I tell myself. It isn’t a comfort. It doesn’t work.

I pass the synagogue again years later and want to vomit. Looking for something, anything, I meet Deon in a bar on Church. I enjoy his shoulders, his kiss. That night he tells me that I’m the first Jewish guy he’s ever had sex with, that he’d always wondered what it would be like. I take it as a compliment. I feel guilty the next morning. It should not have been taken as a compliment.



I think about Michael ranting online, telling us that we’re all going to burn, telling us who to vote for to prevent the end times, telling us to root out the sinners in our own communities. I think about our time together in Vancouver. I think about holding his hand, leading him astray. I think about how we could have been happy.



When Deon asks me what it was like to go to school somewhere so beautiful, the city framed by mountains and that cold sky that yawned pink each night, I tell him nothing transcendent happened there. It was just a place, a place I barely knew. I change the subject.


I could have made him happy. Here on Earth.

Image: Rydel Cerezo, Gilles and Andreas, 2019


Toby Sharpe

Toby Sharpe is a queer writer from London, UK, a graduate of the University of British Columbia's MFA in Creative Writing. Find Toby's writing in Hey Alma, The Ex-Puritan, and filling station.


Toby Sharpe


I don’t know where a person can go when they disappear, apart from underwater.


Young Earle Birney in Banff: September 1913¹

what a day!at the Basin2 dove from the tufa overhanginto the water, playing my trick ofseeming to drown, not coming up until I finish wrigglingthrough that underwater chimneyand burst into air. always startles the tourists.


Zamboni Driver’s Lament

i know hate, its line-mates. believe me. you kids have, i’m sure, wasted—all early morning anxious and weak-ankled—their first impatient shuffle-kicks and curses on me.