You should be sleeping. It’s only your second morning in Toronto and already you look and feel like a spent hooker coming down. Your body aches, your throat is parched, your head pounds. You sit up in bed—where you have slept alone because you’re visiting your sister and she is sleeping on the couch in the living room—and reach for your immune booster pills. There are three different ones. Including your digestive enzymes and your homeopathic tinctures, this is as close to a druggy as you’ll ever get.
Your sister and you are close, even though you are the oldest and she is the youngest of four girls. Growing up, you got along best, perhaps because she was the only one who seemed then to share and be receptive to your profound love of books and stories. Never mind paper dolls; you and she used to lie on her bed or the floor and you read to her from Dickens.
Somewhere along the way, however, you became delicate, neurotic, afraid, self-deprecating, judgmental, whereas she blossomed into a young confident women, slender and intelligent, not afraid to live among trannies and damaged men who with crazed eyes solicit sex in such a way that makes you throw up in your mouth and almost run with palpitating heart to hide.
You feel old and embarrassed. Every time you come here you act like a tourist and vocalize everything you feel and smell. The city affronts your senses. You feel overstimulated but not in a good way. Your pupils dilate. You smell feces and breath and strong perfume and a million different foods. It makes you nauseated.
But there is beauty in the city, it is not lost on you. You are just too goddamn tired to fully appreciate it, to let it override the overwhelming crowds of people, the wearisome fact that you feel as though simply being polite and considerate, quieter and not aggressive, not frantic, not so fashion conscious or appearance proud, not a coffee drinker, has set you apart as the country bumpkin. You are alien here. You cannot fathom how people can harden themselves enough to choose this place as home.
In Hart House you and your sister sit for long hours on fold-out chairs and listen to panelists debate current affairs and authors read from their good books. You take note as they assume their Reading Voice, watch as they adjust or peer over the top of their trendy eyeglass frames, as they sip water at the exact right time in the text; you notice what they wear, memorize what they choose to read, how they choose to read it. You judge.
And then you picture yourself up there, seasoned and not nervous, enjoying yourself as you read aloud from your own book marked with torn strips of Post It notes, as you introduce the story. They laugh, they appreciate. You are good at this.
You look around you at the sea of black attire, the stylish hair, trendy quality shoes and mostly red handbags, cashmere scarves around those educated necks. You feel as though you are watching a runway show as they walk by and find a seat, you keenly aware of how normal this is to them, how utterly abnormal to you to see citizens in something other than cheap clothes from Wal-Mart, clutching PVC purses and reeking like cigarette smoke. The Converse shoes you thought you wanted are so plentiful here you’ve decided you don’t want them anymore.
All your eight years in Belleville on the Bay of Quinte, in that relatively quiet town of 46,000, you’ve wanted to get away. You long for class and intelligent people, you long for educated discussions on books and art and theology, you wish for cafés and vegetarian restaurants, for outdoor markets and shops where you can find quality accessories, stylish clothing, petite pants that fit. Most of all you long for inspiration, and you are crushed, troubled, disturbed to find that it is in this city you find characters and stories with every step. It is here, in this mishmash of faces and odours, this conglomeration of cultures, that you understand why writers live in cities. The stench, the squeezing panic of so many bodies in one place, is a fair tradeoff for the ideas, the stories that flood your mind. A well-suited black man in front of Negroni on College, which you naively, romantically, imagine is a black jazz bar but is in fact an Italian panini shop, transports you with his amber eyes to 1930s Berlin; in that split second as you pass by, you imagine soulfully played jazz, feet tapping in a haze of cigarette smoke in the room at the bottom of the stairs at the back of the shop. Shit only a white person would think, it occurs to you, and you turn from your daydream, embarrassed.
You are naive about the city, about its workings. You confuse Nathan Phillips Square with Madison Square Gardens, you gape at and feel threatened by skyscrapers, you fumble your change on the tram after panicking about crossing lanes of traffic to get on. You are afraid of getting lost, of wandering psychiatric patients, of not knowing how exactly one must conduct themselves at a hip café. To fit in, you must buy a newspaper, your shoes must not be from Payless, and you must carry a handbag worthy of recognition. Perhaps you should take up smoking Benson & Hedges and drinking venti non-fat, lactose-free (even though you’re not), half-caff, sugar-free hazelnut latte, hold the foam, and cinnamon on top.
But you don’t want to fit in; you want to go home. You want to go back to the town you actually hate, because there at least are familiar faces, old loves, things you can afford. There at least your handbag looks expensive. There you don’t say stupid things, because you are more educated than the average person. There it smells of water and frogs and green and you can at least avoid the dirty slobs who piss on library chairs—whereas in the city it’s difficult to avoid anyone—and instead sit in your backyard and goodnaturedly curse the squirrels eating your tulips. You don’t belong there, either, for various reasons, but until you determine who you are and what you want, you will not ever know for sure where you can comfortably call home.