Dunda Street

Toronto Chinatown, looking east along Dundas St from Spadina Ave, in 2008. Photo by The City of Toronto / Flickr

HE SPENDS HIS WHOLE DAYS BUILDING HOMES, not 9-to-5, but 9-to-9, or 5-to-9 when duty calls, and yet does not know what home is. He rises with dawn, and witnesses the navy blue turn pink and orangey and then blue again, pure sky-blue. Through this lonesome journey his hands – when not being lacerated as a collateral damage of wood-cutting – are poured in concrete. That thick-and-gooey, plastered compound of matter that still permeates his roughed-up calluses when he packs his construction materials in his knapsack – the signaling of the completion of a grueling workday. That same substance that penetrates his blisters resulting in sudden increments of pain, a pain that – like many – creates a feeling of pleasure beneath, that forbidden and infuriating pleasure, because it also reminds him of the blisters of the golf course – once his favourite sport – that he used to play not just every Sunday but every morning, and from which he remembers all the staple names of his era – from Gary Player and Jack Nicklaus to Mark O’Meara and Colin Montgomerie – and still wonders if he could have been one of them. The only thing he truly ever wanted. He wipes away his sweat, which drips in slow-motion frequencies from the blond, curly hair underneath his traditional sombrero and is about to ruin the dark-shade, UV-proof crystals of his Ray-Ban Wayfarers, and simultaneously takes another sip of Jack from his carefully-hidden flask. At least it is still the summer, though at its paramount ending – he feels the breeze of the wind and counts, there are still ninety-four days for the official beginning of the winter. Smiles.

Soaking the mildly-intermittent rays of sunlight – better some than none, the old adage goes – he squints at the scenery that unfolds as he climbs the stairways with his black-and-red, J.G.-weaved Craftsman toolset bag that immerses him on the jam-packed pathway that connects the overcrowded TTC vehicles to leafy ravines and tree-lined streets that encompass one of the top-notch addresses in Toronto – the coveted neighbourhood of Forest Hill that extends through the intersection of Spadina Road and St. Clair Avenue West. He immediately foresees – this will be more than a job. Isn’t everything more than a job? His mind wanders, the mansions that cover historic Canadian landmarks, whether touristic – Casa Loma – or educational – Upper Canada College – prompt him remembrances of the past. That past that he has fought so hard to escape. That past that personifies itself in the shape of the limestone mansions, rigorously-landscaped gardens and pristine black Porsche Cayennes parked in brick-paved driveways. A past brimming with questions – and quite laconic on answers. A past that he thought had left behind eleven years ago with the purple Lester B. Pearson International Airport stamp on his passport that indicated that he had been admitted to Canada, all thanks to a forged hotel reservation and faux return ticket.

It was a past that he thought had left behind eleven years ago with the purple Lester B. Pearson International Airport stamp on his passport that indicated that he had been admitted to Canada.

THE DOORBELL CHIMES WITH A CELEBRATORY TUNE. For the past minute he has been pondering whether to allow the kinetic energy to flow – a.k.a. pressing the rounded button indicating his prompt presence. He hints at his Timex stopwatch, which responds with a flourescent-green wink. Its two fifty P.M. Ten minutes early than expected, he has arrived, yet he’s still not there. He reminiscences, his memory backtracking to that tedious, but – strangely – uplifting and pleasant ride at Bombardier Wagon 5396 of the often repudiated silver grey steel vehicles with firefighter-red logos that recklessly bluster its annoyed riders: 2017 APTA TRANSIT SYSTEM OF THE YEAR. Since his landing at Toronto Pearson International he had not witnessed such a colourful mosaic of faces, all – or most – ridden by the anxiety or eagerness or excitement of getting somewhere. How many identities exist within a person? How many souls reside within a body? When does someone stops becoming the person who was unconsciously born to become what he/she/it truly wants to become? He has a gander to analyse the diverse set of characters that coexist in the nearly-claustrophobic space, claustrophobic because of its crammed stools in red-velvet coloured seat covers, many of which now could carry two a piece.

“How long ‘till we get home?,” challenges a hollering voice, as if disgusted, belonging to an blond-haired male infant who is wearing a Maple Leafs jersey and a Tiger Woods hat. The sporty lad wails synchronously as he attempts to climb and subsequently slide the steel bars. It sprouts recollections of himself when he was a kid, because everything around us reminds us of something we were, something we are, or something we want to be.

“Only a few more stations, Darling: We get off at St. Clair West,” responds an Irish-accented, athletic-figured woman in a Nike Livestrong running outfit – assumingly his mother – and who looks bothered that her reading of The Handmaid’s Tale was bluntly interrupted. The speakers blasts in the background.

“The next station is St. Andrew, St. Andrew station.” Like with everything, the concept of “a few more” is merely subjective.

“Can I play videogames while you prepare macaroni and cheese?,” echoes the angry-shout-now-turned-innocent-whisper.

Photo by Javier Ortega-Araiza

And while the seemingly loving family plots its upcoming home-arrival dynamics, a buttoned-up executive gruntles as he frantically checks his Blackberry in intervals that happen approximately every 10.2 seconds. On his home screen besides his 793-new-email notification there is a picture of a newborn in what resembles a cradle. “Shit,” “shit,” and “shiiiit,” he keeps fallibly undertaking the daunting task of logging into the TTC-sponsored wireless network underneath the tracks. There are three unsent e-mails with the urgent exclamation mark on the side. The sqawks reverberate across the infinite line of other users who are suffering from the same problem, but prefer not to vocalise their frustration.

“That’s why I don’t want a job in Banking,” semi-defeatedly cries a woman of dark complexion, or girl, in all likelihood a University student in her early twenties, who is wearing a hijab and has been thoroughly attentive from a distance to the irked businessman. “Can you imagine? I would never be able to be home, even when I am physically there!”

“Not that I want to be there, anyway,” responds her friend, or classmate – previously engaged with the Sketch the Line pencilled drawings that cover the erstwhile sleek-white wall panels – with a wild gesticulation. A bright redhead, freckled face, she boasts an approachable smile and sporty looks, enhanced by the MEC backpack embroidered with a University of Toronto logo and counters in an Australian accent, “Think about it, at least you have people around. At home I am usually alone. There is nothing fun in loitering in an empty glassbox.” Then they chatter about switching careers. The hijab-wearing girl mildly discloses she is devising a change of direction to a medicine related field.

“So you mean you are switching your definition of ‘Home’ from a cubicled-office to a hospital, is that what you are trying to say?,” answers the condo-dweller, perplexedly.

“Well, in another words, perhaps. I just believe I would feel more at home if I were somewhere where we were, I don’t know, helping people, I guess.” She shrugs her shoulders.

The megaphone-bolstered Voice emerges again. The next station is Spadina. Spadina Station. Please connect here for Line 2. The still-enthused students hang their mountaineer school backpacks onto them and rush out. For him, only two more stations. He can’t wait to put his hands to work.

Toronto subway

Toronto subway. Photo: Public Domain

HE WISHES TO TALK TO EVERYONE, to greet them, to grill-and-quiz them about their lives, but he won’t. He won’t because the Dr. Dre Beats covering his ears – which he has worn solely to pretend he isn’t listening – have by now closed up his body language, and his mind. He won’t because he is heartily mentalised for his next job and will not let anything distract him, and because he can’t take up any more stories until he fully makes sense of his own. He overhears a conversation in Portuguese – that suddenly turns into English when they learn that one’s from Porto Alegre and the other one hails from Fortaleza. They both talk about Brazil in myriad different, albeit boundlessly nostalgic ways.

“Do you ever go back?,” asks Voice One, in a solid Gaucho accent.

“How?,” echoes Voice Two, belligerently with an underlying tune of mellowness.

“What do you mean?”

“Well, I can’t get out, to put it out there, plain and simple. You know what I mean. But my kids. You know. They will be born here. For them, it will be worth it. They will be able to call this land home, which is technically our home, but, isn’t. Just a golden cage, really.” The tone of Voice Two decreases in contrast to the emotive interest of the listener.

Silence.

The conversation changes apace, in topic – to affairs as sensitive as illegal immigration – and in language – to muffled Portuguese – they argue about Québec and a way in which you can still – avowedly – cross through an unguarded, unsecured border. You can infer that the first question emitted by Voice One is related to the lines of “How did you do it?” that the listener can understand for his native comprehension of Spanish. How swell, to believe to be speaking a language others can’t understand.

And then Voice Two reverberates, back into English, or Porglish as if striving to prove a solid point for the crowd. “Call it a failed attempt of an abortion. If we are travelling to be reborn, aren’t – some – immigration officers denying the effective rebirth of a soul? Some of them, like some of us, are just meant to be born.”

HE REMEMBERS HIM. That chap. Chap. With the ranchero hat, the piteado belt, coffee-brown skin and the dark blue, unblemished denim jeans with a brown “W” deeply knit in the back pockets. There he was, standing in front of him on the line, that loathed three-hour line packed with passengers proceeding from anywhere from Jeddah to Seoul, carrying a red folder with stickers that thoroughly classified his supporting documentation – as meticulously as advocated by his jurisprudent. He has tried to forget him, his grin, the sadness hidden beneath his eyes as black as coal, but he can’t. He vividly reminiscences how he unhesitatingly spoke about everything, his family, the wearisome struggles back in his hometown in the outskirts of Mexico City, on the forgotten territories of Mexico State, how he borrowed money against his small piece of land and worked excruciating hours to save barely enough for a Toronto-bound plane ticket and room and board, how he was planning to send fifty percent – or more than fifty percent, because those bastards would charge a higher commission – to feed his household, how he was impatiently expectant to learn English, and how he was so ecstatic, that not even a three-hour line bothered him, because he knew what awaited on the other side.

There are enough incidents happening, enough stories worth telling that take place at a Customs line. But only a petty minority make it from “worth telling” to “worth remembering.” This was one of them. It materialised when his brand-new iPhone timing clock pointed out that they had been stalled at CBSA for exactly 3 hours and 17 minutes with 34 seconds when the immigration guard, Chinese-born, wide-eyed, with a hair sticked down so vehemently that it looked like a plaster of gel adhered with wig pieces from the street, calls him over. Not him, but him. If him and Chap share something in common is the place of origin (per metropolitan area terms) and that both have the indispensable Canadian – or anywhere, really – immigration kit: a faux return ticket and a forged hotel reservation. Nothing more, nothing less.

Chap doesn’t even last the first hate glance.

“To that line, Sir,” the guard points him, singles him out and sends him to Secondary Revision. He doesn’t understand – his English is minimal.

There are enough incidents happening, enough stories worth telling that take place at a Customs line. But only a petty minority make it from “worth telling” to “worth remembering.” This was one of them.

“ENGLISH! DON’T YOU GET IT. HERE WE SPEAK ENGLISH.”

Chap holds his head down. He looks sad, deposed. He unwillingly takes a seat to await for the instruction of the next CBSA agent – a.k.a. failed midwife – that will, in all likelihood, issue his deportation order.

He never heard from Chap afterwards. He – when conscience strikes – wishes that he had interfered, he wishes to have eloquently argued his schpeel about equality and most of all, about opportunity, but couldn’t. He couldn’t jeopardize his own breakaway. That breakaway which he materialised successfully, proudly sporting his blond hair, a Taylor Made Cap – his only memory from a past era – and a Callaway polo with the J.G. initials. The same that he was wearing when he won his first tournament. He vowed to never wear it again until the next worthwhile occassion presented in his life – now. Following Chap’s departure to Punishment Waiting Chairs Room #1 he sees the official move his finger in his direction. He’s next.

“Name and city of origin,” forthrightly says the agent, whose countenance is lighter.

“Jorge Guzmán Peña, from Mexico City,” he responds with a shock. He can’t take his sight off the gel-infused piece of hair.

“How long are you staying in Canada?”

“One week, Sir. Flying to London afterwards. Here the ticket.” Gel-Haired Officer fires a dead-eyed glimpse.

“What are you doing here?”

“Visiting. I am meeting my family in Niagara Falls.”

“Whoa. Niagara is.. like two hours away. Give or take. Are you sure you are in the right place?,” responds the heavily-accented but softly-spoken voice on the other side of the door, bringing him back from his memory to the present reality. She pronounces the “w” like the “v” so Niagara vas realistically two hours avay. And she was not an immigration officer. She was his next client, that client that he was so energetically mentalising for, and it is now 3:00 P.M. – The door is open, partially.

But the voice seems so lost, in translation, in commotion, that she is still wearing her Four Seasons bathrobe – you can see it in the delicately-braided black logo that also covers her otherwise spotless slippers.

“Sorry, ma’am.” He shakes his head and continues, “Jason Garrett, from Garrett Construction,” he confusedly gabbles to the svelte silhouette that emerges from the grey door surrounded by taintless and imposing marble columns. He is wearing a sleeveless shirt with a golden Garrett logo – a logo that anyone who has been to Chicago would relate to their classic popcorn. It had been at Chicago O’Hare, as he was rushing through the fluorescent-lit black pathways to make it to the flight that would connect him to a new life that he stumbled across Garrett Popcorn. Jason had always been the name, and the last name had just presented upon himself when he needed it. If he was going to begin anew in the skyscraper-abounding metropolis north of Lake Ontario, a new name would do much help. And so it was that Jorge Guzmán Peña, running away from wealth as many escape from poverty, began a new life in the Great White North as Jason Garrett. So now he is Jason Garrett, and he owns it, he flaunts it, he embodies it in every conception of his new identity, including a sombrero and those Ray Ban Wayfarers. He had achieved the dream, without trespassing any natural geographic feature, without any grabbing smuggler, just a charge on his father’s American Express termination XX0716.

“I understand you are refurbishing your living room, correct?”

Silence.

“Umm… Yes, sorry, over here. Not a good day. But velcome. Feel at home,” she responds, still befuddled.

“After you,” he courteously responds.

She doesn’t move. More silence.

His breath emanates a mixture of Jack and Du Maurier gently soothed with a mint like those you can only get complimentarily at specific diners after a ten-or-more purchase. Hers is surely Camel Menthol. Both linger on the doorway, bewildered. None of them want to be there. Or perhaps they just want to be there and do nothing else, including moving.

“Yes, sorry, come in. She will guide you.”

She points a finger to an empty space.

“Tita!,” she grunts with a digressed, diffused sound.

The door is finally fully open. Jason apologises, but he knows that his faux pas has hit home. She runs up the staircase, the same staircase that Tita is descending simultaneously.

Sherbrooke, Quebec

Sherbrooke, Quebec. Poto: Public Domain

HER NAME IS MARCELLA BENNETT. Not her real name, either, like those you find unflinchingly penned in Ontario-Issued birth certificates or pretentiously laser-printed on DIY-business cards. Its just her name, chosen, firmly chosen like you can choose anything else in life, because just like your age, sex, soulmate, or favourite brand of cigarettes you can also choose your name – or your next destination – or opt to pick it out of a hat if you consciously want to, just like she decided to fly to Toronto from Moscow Sheremetyevo’s overcrowded terminals in a musky and sullen and windy November afternoon back in 1994. Not that she knew a soul in the burgeoning urban area. In fact, it was exactly that which she cherished the most.

She takes her cup and walks down the stairs. History Channel is on the background – there is a special feature documentary about Catherine the Great, whose Russian name was Ekaterina. She stiffens when she overhears that name, she does not want to have anything to do with anyone named Ekaterina, or with anything that would remind her about The Kremlin, the Red Square, Leninsky Prospekt, the Pravda Bar on St. Lawrence, Nasdarovje with a last shot of vodka, the Trump-Kushner-Putin-Mueller saga, borscht with an extra dosis of mayonnaise or the upcoming World Cup – or Vorld Cup. She swiftly brisks to the ensuing channel whenever there is even the slimmest mention of Russia. Which would explain why the TV was syntonised on the History Channel and not on CNN or – God forbid – Fox News.

Vould you like some coffee? Or vater?” She emerges from the snail-shaped stairways dressed sharply, blazer and heels included – long gone is the Four Seasons-sponsored peignoir.

“My kids are there. I go twice a year at least… Work, work, work, so I can have money, money to go! It is so beautiful. Have you ever been to the Phillippines?”

SHE HOPES THAT SHE WILL NOT SPEAK, but she will. You can see it in the Jersey-tomato red blushes of her natural pale cheeks which otherwise would be over-madeup. You can see it in the way her hands – with her nails delicately polished by that manicurist at Taylor & Colt in the comfort of her Forest Hill mansion – shake repeatedly, she will speak because the cocaine and benzedrine blending in her system have told her that she must, because she is about to throw up today’s overdose of Grand Marnier mixed with Angostura bitters, and because there is something deep in her grinny beam that reveals the lurking idea that talking is her only hope of reviving the Good Old Days, those days that looks as far as a Dickensian tale, where she would freely dance in a tighted-up pink ballerina gown to Tchaikovsky’s revered classics The Nutcracker and The Sleeping Beauty to a crowd in standing ovation. The vividness of the memory makes her tiptoe until she realises she is not wearing ballet-suited pointe shoes, but a pair of the most recent model of Louboutin stilettos. Ouch.

Utterly, though, she will speak because she has no idea who this stranger who calls himself Jason Garrett is, and that is precisely the reason why she trusts him. If she is going to count on someone, let it be on a stranger.

Coffee brews on the background as Mr. Garrett unpacks his construction-tool knapsack. Measurement tape. Check. Safety glasses. Check. DeWalt drill. Check. Framing hammer. Check. Tita wipes the furniture to clear it from potential dust particles on the background and moves it around to make space for Jason to work. He is certainly trying, but he can’t direct his gaze other than to that glittering shape that belongs to the woman who opened the door, and now is serving the coffee. In the meantime, Tita and Garrett begin a conversation sparkling from the totally obvious – or not.

“Where are you from?,” asks Tita, curiously beginning the interrogation.

“Oshawa. Blue-collar land,” responds Garrett. “And you?”

“Phillippines!,” answers back Tita, enthusiastically. “You are so lucky.”

“Why is that?”

Garrett shrugs his shoulders.

“It is just that, your family is here, I assume? I have to travel a long way to see them.”

“I guess so.” He nods. “Do you often go back?”

“Oh, very. My kids are there. I go twice a year at least.” She pronounces the same words repeatedly. “Work, work, work so I can have money, money to go! It is so beautiful. Have you ever been to the Phillippines?”

“No, but I am sure it is better than…”

The sentence remains unconcluded. The brunette-haired slender figure is back, making her presence felt.

“Marcella,” she says, extending her hand. “Marcella Bennett. A pleasure.”

“Jason Garrett. Pleasure is mine.”

Eyes interlock and hands linger as if clinging to the perpetuity of the present moment.

“Coffee is served… If you vant.”

Upon the prescient silence the pair walk past the marble arch connecting to the kitchen and take their stools on the dining table. On the way, Jason waves to Tita.

“Bye bye.” She nods and waves back.

Skywalk, Toronto

Skywalk to Union Station, Toronto. Photo by Ville Miettinen / Wikimedia Commons

She reintroduces herself. Simply Marcella Bennett. There is no mention of Yekaterinburg, no mention of the former ballet dancer Ekaterina Petrova, then forcibly married, Ekaterina Petrova-Yeltsin, Yeltsin like Boris, that bastard, that name that tormented her existence in the posterior times of the perestroika, and Yeltsin, like her husband, Dimitri, that other bastard, that tormented her existence whether there was or not a perestroika. No mention of her expected return to Moscow in late 1994 – according to her return ticket, which never took place.

“Sorry to be so direct. But vhat vas that stunt about Niagara Falls?,” inquires Marcella, or Ekaterina, or Miss Bennett, her blue-eyed glare rigidly cinched onto the interviewed subject.

“Seems to me that I am not the only one hiding some mystery here,” he reacts. She immediately knows what he is talking about. The piece of paper with Cyrillic-alphabet hieroglyphs on the wooden bureau. How could she have possibly forgotten?

Her Jersey-tomato red turns cherry-tomato red, a level up in the colour scale. Her fists clench. Her eyes puff. She wants to punch him, but she can’t. She can’t because she loves him, even if she doesn’t know who he is, where he hails from, or how the hell did he end up in a city that was evidently not his own, if anything like that ever existed.

“Look, ignore that shit.” She is yelling on the verge of desperation. “I am a new person. In the moment I crossed that border, that person no longer exists, except on a damn piece of paper, vhich I’d happily rot in hell or throw to the garbage and light fire on it, if I didn’t need it for daily menial tasks as ridiculous as driving or as essential as buying weed. Do you know that cars do vay fucking more damage to our planet?” Tears float and subsequently stream from her eyes, as they do when someone has been wanting to confess something for hours, days, weeks, months, years, but never found someone who listened. He holds her hand and caresses her arm, gently, staring soundly into her optics, which became bottomless pools entrenched with the rest of her body. Silence says more than words. A straight look says more than silence.

“Now, your turn.”

“I am not a man of words, I must confess,” he echoes, “but for some reason I carried this with me today. I never do, but I felt as if I might need it. Had no idea why.”

“Your flask?”

“No, this.” His left hand pulls from his Craftsman a green-coloured passport that reads MEXICO on the front cover, with the name Jorge Guzman Peña on the first page.

She observes. The passport. Her face. The J.G.-weaved Craftsman, one, two, three times until it looks like a ritual. Passport. Face. Craftsman. There is something matching.

“So you are J.G.,” says Marcella, between tears and laughter. “At least you are not that bad of a liar.”

“How did you get here?,” pronounces Garrett, taking the role of the interviewer.

“Like you, possibly. Flying. Is there any other vay? Duh!”

“You did well for yourself, looks like.”

“And you dress pretty sharp for, don’t get me vrong, but, I don’t see very often other repairman vearing brand labels.”

“Well. I guess it might be the only remainder of being a trust-fund baby. Not that I ever wanted to be one or plan on using it. I am better with less, although I am still surprised when I meet people who have ridden boats, who have crossed forests and deserts and jungles on foot to get here and now sit comfortably on the leather-covered seat of a green-and-orange Beck Taxi Cab for twelve-hour days. Like, what the fuck? Is there something I don’t know about happiness?”

“Well, I have a trust-fund that I built myself. Don’t ask me how. But I’ve retired. If you know what I’m trying to say with that. I believe I might have some PTSD though. Hence the numerous flasks.”

Garrett pulls his flask out.

“So glad that we speak the same language,” reverberates Marcella, or Ekaterina, kissing his forehead.

They chat about golf and ballet, about Moscow and Mexico City, discuss whether Canada is the land of possibility or the avenue of broken dreams and agree that, as with anything, it depends on what you decide to look at. “What it is, for sure,” says Garrett, “is a place that gives you with the opportunity to be reborn, whether you choose to change your name or not. Not that I regret it.”

“Would you call it home?”

“Possibly the closest thing to it.”