By Anca Szilágyi
t’s four p.m.: the sun is gone.
Sandra, a graduate student in archaeology, lurches forward with the bus along Avenue du Parc.
“This roof’s all bone,” Sandra says, rapping her knuckles to her skull. The woman beside her grunts in mock-comprehension, and they sway as the bus careens. It’s a short ride from the university “ghetto” to her gentrifying corner of the city. Living in a dense flurry of cultures had not been desirable, and then, seemingly suddenly, it became the thing to do. At least, in the grand sweep of history it was sudden. Ice ages versus decades. The bus stuffs itself with more commuters at the next stop. Hot air blows down from a vent, and Sandra sweats under her wool sweater. Her forehead prickles.
The temperature outside drops. It rained before and now the yellowed trees glisten with sharp, icy leaves. They clack in the wind like Chinese bone-clappers. Sandra is off the bus and passes the men that linger and huddle in the bus shelter. Their cheeks are red and their eyelashes shiny as the leaves. She unlocks her front door and locks it behind her, as quickly as she can.
Last winter the men propped open the lobby door with a shovel, spread newspapers on the floor, and slept there. She didn’t know until she smelled something sour drifting in from the outside and felt something heavy against the door when she tried to open it. The door only opened a crack and when she peered out she saw a salt-and-pepper head, hair stringy with grease, and she let out a muffled yelp. The landlord fixed the lock. Still, she wondered where they’d go. She remembers stepping over one of them to leave her apartment, saying excuse-me-pardon-me, unsure whether he’d grab her ankle. He didn’t, though. He simply asked for the time. Sometimes she wonders if she’ll find one of them blue-skinned at the bus stop.
Before bed, she pours herself a whiskey and dips her nose deep into the glass until the smell jumps up and stings. And then, to be sure, she sniffs at the cool air flowing in from under her door.
ce fills the morning. Shivering at the bus stop, she wonders if it will snow before all the leaves fall. She slurps at coffee from her metal travel mug, but instead of waking her, it nauseates. By the time the bus arrives, a small crowd has formed and some commuters have smoked one, two, three cigarettes. They board and are hit by the wave of heat. Sandra unzips her coat and inches to the back door, hangs from the metal pole overhead. She looks around at other students fiddling with their iPods, other riders reading newspapers or staring forward.
They pass the big lawn in front of Parc du Mont Royal. Sandra remembers the first big snowstorm she’d experienced here, running down to the little gazebo at the edge of the woods by the lawn, and dancing and spinning on the collecting powder. She was with friends at the time, living down in the ghetto. It had been a first winter in Montreal for all of them. But she never spoke to those people anymore. This was before it was said that irony died. It was, of course, since resurrected, and those friends had succumbed to that resurrection, studying theories she found cloudy, intangible. Whereas she’d kept herself out, moved north, dug ditches, dusted bones.
She is still thinking about this fact as she debarks, stumbles, drops her travel mug. The mug rolls under the bus. She thinks to grab it, then thinks better of it. The bus drives over it: crack, pop! She thinks the mug has exploded. When the bus is safely away, she picks it up. It can still hold liquid. She carries it to the university, shaken.
hat evening, she’s feeling weak; she’s anemic. On the way home, she stops at Quatre Frères (“cat friars,” she always thinks to herself) and picks up a steak. She considers spinach, but rejects that notion. At the Depanneur, she gets a cheap bottle of red and a bar of dark chocolate. 88%. It’s so dark it’s like eating dirt, she remembers a friend saying. Briefly, she thinks of rusting nails.
While the steak marinates, she switches on the computer and signs on to Instant Messenger. Which of her ex-boyfriends will she chat with today? She doesn’t consider them exes, per se. Old boyfriends, one of them offered, charitably. She chats with them simultaneously—two or three at a time. She wonders at this possibility. In person, she can barely hold a single conversation. The wonders of technology. Helps with hibernation. In the summer she had tried to break out and reach for more human contact. She calls it her manic summer: reckless and fancy-free.
“I’m cooking,” she types to one. He’s a vegetarian, so she doesn’t mention the s-word. He lives hours and hours away, in an urban commune in Hoboken. They had had an “open” relationship, so she doesn’t think it’s fair to call him an ex, since an open relationship isn’t a real relationship. She’d read in a novel once that it was the bisexual boys that broke everyone’s hearts.
Back in the kitchen, she slaps the steak onto a glass tray and switches on the broiler.
“How long to broil a steak?” she asks another, more of a guy’s-guy, the one who’d offered the “old boyfriend” label. He lives in the back of a low-rise apartment building, in a shack-like studio next door to a grizzled, weed-smoking, arthritis-addled draft dodger.
“Shouldn’t be too long,” he writes back. “10-15 minutes.”
In that time she chats, checks her e-mail. This is the time in her life when she corresponds with numerous strangers. They exchange long, densely written emails about their personal lives, but she never intends to meet these people. Her stories are scattering the globe, one reader at a time. She does not think that, two months after exhausting each other’s interests, neither she nor these correspondents will remember one another. Meanwhile, the vegetarian writes of installing solar panels for the commune, and the carnivore is shipping off, maybe, to Afghanistan.
Outside, the snow officially starts. It will not stop for many weeks, at which point it will be too cold to snow. The dense clouds will rise up and give way to a stark January blue and she will look up and feel the moisture in her eyes begin to harden. But before all this the snow is almost merry.
From the kitchen comes a deep, shuddering bang. A huge, clacking pock, louder than a champagne cork popping. Then she hears little tinkling hard bits skittering downward in the oven. Sandra rushes in and switches on the oven light.
The glass tray has shattered.
She turns off the oven. The steak’s sitting on a giant shard. Another large shard is beside it; many small bits glisten below the rack under the oven lamp. Forking the steak onto a plate, she despairs. “My dinner,” she murmurs. With rubber dishwashing gloves on, she disposes of the hot shards into a brown paper bag and inspects the meat for smaller bits that might have stuck. With a healthy glass of wine beside her, she types her dilemma to the vegetarian.
“Is it safe to ingest microscopic bits of glass?”
“Probably not,” he types.
She doesn’t want to throw out the steak. She feels as if she deserves the steak, imperceptible glass included.
“Will I die?” she asks.
The vegetarian doesn’t urge her to not eat the glass-shard-speckled steak. He says: watch for stomach pain. She decides he is more of an ex than an old boyfriend. She drinks half the bottle and eats the steak and waits.
“I don’t think you’re supposed to subject glass to a broiler,” says the other boyfriend.
“I might die,” she types back. He lives closer than the vegetarian, in the city. But he doesn’t have a bus pass and it is snowing and he can’t ride his bike in this snow.
“You won’t die,” they both say, in their own ways.
he doesn’t die. She doesn’t even get a stomachache. She’d used her archaeological skills to pick out the visible glass and had done a good job. She thinks about this as undergraduates wander the archaeology lab, identifying the skulls of hominids, Homo habilis, Homo erectus. Her job is very simple today—put out the trays of skulls, hand out the worksheets, collect and grade them at the end of the hour. A junior archaeology major has scrawled “Long live the dead!” on the chalkboard.
After lab, a fellow graduate student invites her to a mammoth reconstruction party. Lights in his eyes dance as he says the word mammoth.
“There is an atlatl demonstration going on at the same time,” she says. “I’m going to that.” This is a type of spear-thrower. Her professor will be surrounded by eager undergraduates as he launches a spear over the covered reservoir behind the main campus. He does this every year for the Intro to Prehistoric Archaeology class. She touches a gap in a yellowed habilis skull. She hadn’t been planning to go to the demo. She will probably just go home, she decides.
“Maybe the flint knapping party next week, then?” For some reason two out of three of the male graduate students in archaeology have red hair. She imagines they’ve all emerged from the same peat bog; she remembers red stubble on oxidized skin. Almost imperceptibly, Sandra nods yes, maybe.
On the crowded bus in the dark afternoon, a stranger touches her hand.
“Fuck off,” she yells at him. She is surprised at herself, but it works. The stranger recedes into the damp crowd.
he doesn’t remember when she started feeling angry. Probably before the manic summer. The manic summer was a break from anger, veering into carefree delirium. She remembers how the death of irony had overlapped with a particularly numbing long-term relationship. Half a year after, they’d remained together. But they shouldn’t have. He’d said upon dumping her: I’ll miss your irony. She wanted to correct him, say that it wasn’t irony but sarcasm, but she let it be. The end of the relationship had been a non sequitur.
So, irony ended and mania took over for a little while. But with hibernation fast approaching, anger has reemerged. She thinks about this intently on walks from the bus stop to the university. She remembers caffeine is a mood enhancer and stops for an allongé in the Lebanese café. They only play classical music there, so music cannot get stuck in her head. She dumps three packets of sugar into the coffee.
One of the strangers she exchanges emails with is a producer in L.A. Her only photo of him is in profile, and he’s wearing sunglasses. She imagines him as a Sam Spade character, a pink shaven bear. In his last message, he wrote about a yellow silk kimono that made him think of her and about his only visit to the Museum of Death. It was an unusually hot day and he felt like doing something different and the inside of the museum had been cool and dark. The front desk person, the owner in fact, had said that behind the red velvet curtain were artifacts of serial killers, execution chambers, embalming, and catastrophes, but to get beyond the curtain he must first take a gander at “the longest man in the world”: a photo of a body stretched along a road, torn apart and flattened by a speeding semi. Her correspondent looked and then, he claimed, backed out of the museum and lay down on the asphalt to feel its rough heat on his cheek.
The black coffee and sugar cling to her teeth, and she thinks about the soft tissue that had once surrounded all the bones gathered in the archaeology lab but that had long since disintegrated. Brain matter, heart matter, flesh, nerves. Shriveled, muddy skin. What would it be like to be drowned in a bog? Or else preserved like a Pompeian in lava and ash? Outside, the snow resumes and the sunlight is diffuse, gray.
At the end of the day, she approaches the intersection near the bus stop. The traffic lights are broken and everything is blinking red, red, reflecting on store windows, windshields, the snow on the ground. She is thinking about peat bogs, polyamory, adultery, capital punishment. She crosses slowly through the intersection thinking about how it would feel for her bones to collide with a bus plowing through the graying slush, how the shock of it might, in a way, be just the jolt she needs, just the right amount of physical contact, the ultimate breakthrough to shake off her endless mental nattering.
A bus honks at her, a blast louder than she expects, and she welcomes the sound with a laugh. The bus slides in the slush closer and closer to her, its honking more insistent. She opens her arms to it.
“Tabarnac,” an old man shouts in the street. But it is dull in comparison to the roar of the bus. The driver, skilled as he is, stops the bus almost at the tip of her nose. Sandra lets slip a sigh, leans in and presses her cheek to the bus’s wet grimy metal, kisses it, and the old Québécois curses—ostie, tabarnac—continue from the sidewalk, and Sandra peels herself away, grit on her nose and lips, and instead of shakily boarding the bus to go home, instead of addressing the bus driver yelling at her through the open door and the old Quebequer cursing on the corner and the impatient car honking behind the stopped bus, she slips into the subterranean mall in the Towers on Parc, glides down the escalators past the supermarket and the dry cleaners and the kebab shop, down a level to the cinema, where she buys herself a movie ticket and a jumbo raspberry slushy, and, in the theater, slurps hard on crushed ice, feels the cold blue syrup slide between her teeth, pictures them slick and rotting and shining brightly through the dark.
Anca Szilágyi's fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Washington City Paper, The Massachusetts Review, Gastronomica, and Fairy Tale Review, among others. She was awarded a 2012-13 Made at Hugo House fellowship to complete her short story collection, More Like Home Than Home. Her book reviews appear on the Ploughshares blog.