"The bodybuilder wants you to be there at eleven o'clock instead."
This was Denise calling, just as my cab pulled up to the Marriott Eaton Centre.
"Oh man," I said. "What am I supposed to do for an hour?"
But my boss had already hung up. I got out of the cab and walked toward Coffee Time. Then I called Simone.
"It's an all right call actually," I said, "this bodybuilder. I lie on top of him for a while and then use my hand—or thumb and fingers I mean. There's no other way to do it. We're talking microscopic. And it doesn't get any bigger. I've never seen anything like it."
"Roids," Simone said.
"Maybe. He's self-conscious about it. I feel sorry for him. You working tonight?"
"I got one over by the airport at eleven-thirty. I might blow it off though and watch TV. I did two last night."
"Really? Last night was dead for me."
"I'm making out well as a redhead," she said, "even on the doornail nights. I went to see this guy at the Sheraton. We finished up and he was like that was so great, I bet my co-worker would like you. So he woke up his boy down the hall and I went and did that. I told them about you, the second guy will go for a double next time."
"They were both motivational speakers. Then I hauled ass to the Westin and get this, the guy was there with his kids. I walk in and he's all like be quiet and I ask why, why are we whispering? and he points over at the other bed and I see something bundled up in there in the dark—two little heads poking out."
"No kidding. Boys. Six and eight, he said. I told him I didn't do like that. He was trying to get me to stay, offering more money. He was almost in tears. 'What am I supposed to do with them? I don't want to go out on the street . . . . ' He was whining like a crackhead. He said we could do it in the bathroom if the kids bothered me. I'm glad I'm not desperate for money and don't have to consider doing that. I told him smarten up and keep it in his pants while his rug rats were around. Set a good example, you know? I've got to watch TV now."
I got a coffee, added milk and sugar. I sat down at one of the burgundy tables and took my psychology book out of my purse.
"Hello, are you a student?" the guy who was mopping up asked.
"Oh," he said, looking confused. "I thought because of the textbook."
I shook my head and he scurried away, hugging his mop.
I was reading the chapter on borderline personality disorder, which seemed like such made-up garbage that I was inspired to start taking notes. It was a good time. The coffee made me happy too. It was good, hot coffee. Sometimes you could get lucky at Coffee Time. Other times, you could wind up with something else.
When I looked at my watch almost an hour had gone by and I realised with shock that I was pretty much sober. It occurred to me that if I was like this more of the time, I could get a lot of reading done while I was waiting for calls, or avoiding them, whichever activity I was engaged in. I used to do that in fact. Imagine if I'd kept it up all these years. I thought of all the things I could have understood at a deep level: Greek and Roman myth, global warming, the US electoral system . . . . But instead I seemed to be in the grip of a mental decline, attributable I supposed, to the cumulative effect of a decade of committed alcohol and drug abuse, not counting the years of dilettantism before that.
I couldn't recall whether the Marriott Eaton Centre had minibars in the rooms, but I had a suspicion they didn't. I headed to the bar across from the Greyhound station for a quick double and got out the pills a friend had given me, with the information that they were "muscle relaxants and then some." I didn't know what that meant, but I took two to find out.
Denise rang and said the bodybuilder had called again, this time to cancel. She told me to go to the Royal York instead. I figured another drink was in order and after that I got into a cab. A head-spin hit me as soon as we hit Yonge Street, which, it also occurred to me, seemed a slightly circuitous route to take to the Royal York from Bay Street. Strung across Yonge Street were blue decorations that resembled the fringes of a cowboy outfit. They formed a canopy that made the section of road alongside the Eaton Centre seem more tunnel-like than usual, with the buildings close on each side and the mist crowding in.
"What's this, Christmas garbage already?" I asked the driver.
"Stupid celebration," he said, in an accent that sounded eastern European. He began a lengthy discourse about the origin of Santa Clause in pagan ritual and its incarnations in different countries, from versions influenced by Charles Dickens and Washington Irving, to the Nordic Yule Goat, the elf Tomte, Thomas Nast.
"You're a knowledgeable guy." I said.
"It's the cab driver cliché."
"I'm about to get fucked by some guy who earns hundreds of thousands of dollars a year probably, and can hardly read."
He glanced at me in the rearview mirror.
"It sounds as though you're unhappy with your job."
The mist had turned to drizzle and two shimmering blobs appeared on the windowpane, one on top of each other, like a Rothko painting.
"You know you shouldn't go around announcing that kind of thing. I'm a decent person but some people, they're going to get the wrong idea."
"I don't. Go around announcing it."
"What is it then? Everyone thinks they should vomit out any nonsense to cab drivers, like we're nonsense collectors. I'll never see this person again, so what does it matter, is that it? I look like a priest to you, or a shrink? You know what Castro did to the whores when he came to power—I'll tell you. He made them into seamstresses. I bet you don't even know what a seamstress is."
"Yes I do."
"He cleaned that mess up. I'll tell you what you need, it's some kind of appreciation, a decent day's work for a decent day's pay."
I mumbled something, incoherent to myself.
"Where you can find that of course, that's the thing," he sighed. "Why do you think I'm driving cabs? It's dangerous, let me tell you. But it pays the bills."
He had some things to say about economic conditions, minimum wage and rents in Toronto, and kept talking until we pulled up at the entrance to the Royal York.
Meandering along the festooned and curlicued hallway I felt all right, okay. I reached into my bag to check the room number again. 13-151. Right-O. It was a number that seemed familiar, as though I might have just been there five minutes or a week ago. I remembered the first time I'd come to the Royal York. I had just started working escort and I got a four-digit number, like say, 4116. I didn't realise this meant the fourth floor, room 116; i.e., 4-116, so I rang my boss to say there was no 41st floor. He kept asking me what are the other possibilities here? Think about it. Try to find a brain . . . . That was a long time ago.
The guy who opened the door was wearing boxer shorts with snowmen on them. He had a good-natured comb-over and was fixated on a portable DVD player showing an infomercial for a thing called the Bullet Train—evidently a type of blender.
"But you can do all kinds of other things with it," he said.
It was stove and microwave safe for example and would also make mincemeat of stuff like pineapple rind and cardboard.
"What a way to make a crust huh," he said. "I sell." He clutched his stomach and took a swig from a bottle of antacid. "This kind of stuff. I need to come up with a new ad. Any ideas?"
"With the red goop in it," I said—I leaned forward to see what they were blending now, but I couldn't tell—"it looks like a police or ambulance siren. You could put it on your car and pretend."
"Now that's just going too far. What about this?"
He skipped to another ad. "This one's an attachment to cut your hair with, but what it does as well is suction up the hair so you don't wind up with a mess on the floor. It attaches to your vacuum cleaner."
I scratched my head. "How many of these things do you sell?"
"You'd be surprised."
He wanted to chat a while longer. He was on a tour of Canadian cities to meet with people about other gizmos. He'd been to Vancouver, Calgary, Saskatoon, Winnipeg, Montreal—he reeled them off. "Now here."
When it came time to get the show on the road my head-spin had worn off, and I was having little reaction to the muscle relaxants, other than nausea. Even worse, I was going into one of my internal "I can't do this" tirade—a routine I hadn't indulged in for some time. It used to be like that when I wasn't loaded enough and the guy was nice and a bit shy as well, so it was on me to do all the work. It was then that I could encounter a fundamental resistance.
I could just leave of course, but if I started giving myself that option I'd be leaving all the time. Not thinking about it was a far simpler way to operate. I started listing things in my head to fill the time, like a CD repeating, say on musical instruments starting with "c:" somewhere after cymbals, castanets, cello, castrati . . . .
"I need you. I want you," he kept saying, as he gasped and trembled. "I want to be in you."
"No, I want to be closer than this."
Now what did that mean I wondered.
"I really need it. I want it so bad. I need it . . . "
He gripped me around the waist and buried his head into my stomach, whimpering softly. I stayed there for a while rubbing him on the back.
In the bathroom I examined the massive zit—almost a boil?—that had recently appeared on the side of my chin. I dabbed more concealer over it but there was no hiding the protuberance: an impressive indication, I decided, of a prodigious eruption at some deeper level.