First Love, 1983 (an excerpt from The Donkey Prince)

Toronto is a new city of the mind.

I think it was Samuel R. Delany who said something about the way cities change, how going to one changes the one you’ve come from, changes it in you, and changes you at the same time. Maybe it was Ray Bradbury.

From the bus that morning I saw Toronto for the first time, apartment complexes and office towers of glass and steel, cavernous downtown streets and the harbor with miles of urban landscape spreading out around it, and I thought of Montreal’s soft rounded corners and domes with a few tall buildings in the center and a river and a mountain on either side.

Glancing sunlight erased all feeling, except in my stomach, which lay hollow and open from lack of sleep. Would Kate be happy to see me?

If she wasn’t, where would I stay, what would I do.

I climbed north on Yonge Street after calling from the depot where I’d sat writing a poem in a food court permeated by the smell of baked muffins, and where crowds flowed by on their way to work, more people than I’d ever seen. A woman seated at one of the molded plastic tables stared as I wrote and I wondered what she was seeing. She seemed alone and old and lost. I climbed past knots of skyscrapers, until the buildings grew smaller behind me and the street became an overpass along vacant lots giving way to more buildings.

Under a stone bridge the tops of trees swayed, a channel of green descending through the urban sprawl with brown paths winding beneath.

She lived in one of a row of houses near a park, a neighborhood like other neighborhoods, like mine but nicer; comfortable, middle class, residential.

I left the poem folded in her mailbox and went back across the bridge to a small library and called from the payphone in the entrance. This time she answered.

“I was here,” she said. “I didn’t get to the phone on time. And I was in the shower when the doorbell rang. Why didn’t you wait?”

“I thought you wouldn’t be happy I came,” I said.

The sound of her breath whispered like a kiss in my ear.

“Oh, no. I’m really glad you’re here.”

“You are?”

“And thank you for the poem.”

“You’re welcome.”

“I’d tell you to come over but I have to go to the library.”

“This library?”

“No, the one downtown. I have to work on my paper. But I’ll be back.”

“Maybe an hour or two. Come here in a couple of hours, I should be back by then.”

I needed rest. I was road-weary and my stomach ached. I sat in a booth in the audio-visual department with headphones on, head on my arms, eyes closed, listening to Mahler’s first. In the music clouds gathered over a forest, then dawn broke and sunlight poked through and the birds sang. I’d seen Ken Russel’s Mahler with my father, remembered fire on water, a house burning, this music.

A rolling darkness swelled behind my eyes, flecked with light, and I slept.

When I woke my face was stuck to arm in a pool of spit. I sat up and wiped the wetness from my chin and wondered if I’d been seen. Was I allowed to sleep in the library? Had I been grinding my teeth?
When I brought the tape to the desk the librarian smiled.

On the steps of Kate’s house, looking across the street at the park, I took out my notebook and tried to write. I kept thinking of Whitman, the rambling soul. I closed my book and opened his.

I had read him on the bus, trying to shake the flavor of the night, every word rubbing against something tight inside me, an invisible untested surface, a cover on a deeper well. How had I waited so long to read this book? I had grabbed it because it was poetry and it was thick and I needed something unfinishable for where I was headed. He said everything I wanted to believe but hadn’t been able to imagine. His voice, his being, was, he said, in the words, the poet himself in my hands when I held the book. If everything he said was true then I was free. I was a soul, alive, and would always be alive, this moment magical, this actual moment eternal, and each moment after that, any and every moment. Explosions of light rang within when I read him.

I lay back on the porch and closed my eyes and felt the sun on my face. I lay there for a long time listening to the sounds around me, imagining the street, the dimensions of space, cars passing, occasional voices and the distant cries of children.

In the dream she appears on the horizon, long straight brown hair waving, the feel of her smile traveling half a block of distance to meet me, her hips swinging perfectly in frayed jeans. I am reminded of album covers I’ve stared at for hours, and songs about freedom and the land and sky. She’s as sweet as Tupelo Honey. I go to the sidewalk and she comes into my arms, smiling, breathing, saying ‘Hi’, sunlight on her face, the smell of skin and scented oil as she kisses me with warm lips. I kiss her back like a grateful child, tentative at first, then stronger to show how grateful I am, saying something, murmuring into her breath, something like: “I think I love you.”

She smiled and pulled me towards her house.

It isn’t a dream.

The house was cool inside and smelled of Kate. She put on a record, The Kick Inside, told me Kate Bush was a dancer too. Two dancers named Kate, I thought. The song came on that always made her think of me, ‘The Man With the Child in His Eyes’.

How long, I wondered, had she been thinking of me?

She took my hand again and brought me upstairs to her room, her bed.

I stood in the doorway and took it in. A young woman’s room, Martha Graham on the wall beside the window, worn ballet slippers untied, and a chest of drawers over there with jars and bottles on top: rosewater, patchouli.

The bed is a mattress on the floor with a duvet.

I learned about duvets, how they are warm in the winter but cool in the summer. I kissed her breasts, inhaling the perspirant skin between them, caressing her arms, the backs of her shoulders, looking into satisfied blue eyes that seemed as dark and deep as the daylight as it melted into evening. We slept and showered and lay on the cover again and talked about what to do. I could have stayed in that room for the rest of my life.

She made pasta primavera for supper. I’d never eaten it like that. Spaghetti, yes. But never called it pasta. Pasta had always been part of something, a feature of spaghetti, or something out of a box. This was noodles tossed with fresh vegetables.

“I’m not a vegetarian,” she said. “But I love fresh vegetables.”

Afterwards we lay on the floor in the living room in darkness and tried to make love, but I’d never made love, or used a condom, and neither had she, and the condom hurt so we stopped. I drank her father’s liquor until she made me stop that as well.

The next morning she made us coffee in bowls with milk for breakfast. Café au lait, she called it. “They drink it this way in France.”

She had to go back to the library on Yonge and Bloor to work some more on her paper, an article on Flannery O’Connor.

“Maybe I can help,” I said. “I’ve read a lot of her stories.”

I’d never seen a building like the Toronto Reference Library, a clay-colored square with straight sections cut out of it and filled with glass. Hollow inside, with plants dripping from the rails of each floor. Plants inside. I thought of Howard Roark, insisting on designs that didn’t make sense in classical forms. Was this what The Fountainhead had been about? Was this the city I was in? A city of the new, imagined out of a book. I remembered a documentary with Glenn Gould walking around his city, the city he loved, this city.

The air was cool, the shelves endless, each floor rising above the next, air buzzing with muted voices and the low rustle of footsteps and turned pages, a hive of thought, room of awakenings.

I walked from shelf to shelf, grazing, thinking of nothing, waiting for time to pass, to move on.

She finished and found me after an hour and we went shopping. She bought an album she’d been wanting to get. Back at the house we listened to it and each song brought new surprises. Face Value by Phil Collins. I recognized the last song on side one from the radio, ‘In The Air Tonight’, with its mysterious beginning, it’s thunderous crescendo, like Mahler, echoing mysteries in us through sound.

“I love that song,” I said.

We listened to the side again, singing along with ‘This Must Be Love’.

That’s what we were feeling.

I tried not to think about what was coming, what I would have to do, but it kept coming into my thoughts, and with it the caving in my guts. From one moment to the next the moment becomes a trap, the point in time a poignard with me wriggling upon it, captive heart, quaking with fear.

“You have to leave soon,” she said.

It was such a big house. “Can’t I stay in one of the empty rooms?”

“My father would never go for that. He can’t even know you were here.”

“When’s he coming back?”

“It could be in two days, or three. Sometimes he comes early. You have to go soon, to be safe.”

I imagined sleeping on the ground outside somewhere, in a park, perhaps. “I can’t go back.”

“Where are you going to go?”

I didn’t have an answer.

“Maybe you could rent an apartment in town?”

Something folded in my thoughts, a felt image getting small, shrinking inside, like a flower closing its petals: my life force, hope.

“I don’t have any money.”

“You could get a job.”

The thought of being in the world, being out there and in something. Again something closed, forced by some determination to never do what I’d always been told I would have to do, what everybody does, and behind that leaden closure, barely able to recognize it, fear, perhaps even terror. My chest began to hurt, a pool of sorrow re-opening in my belly, cascading like a running sore, old familiar wound.
She smiled and touched my arm. “I know what we can do tonight.”

She took me to see Quest For Fire and I was amazed. Every minute was new. I thought of the librarian in Montreal giving me The White Goddess, and everything else that had happened, all the individual incidents that had conspired to bring me to this moment. I even thought about Anthony Burgess writing the language, how he had written A Clockwork Orange and how my father had taken me to see that film years before. A whole language created to make a film, speaking without words, a journey to save a tribe.

How does one do that, I wondered. How could I follow my bliss and save a tribe, save myself. How could I escape the world I was in.

It seemed like everything to go on a quest.

This was my adventure, this love: Kate.

“Let’s go,” I said. “Let’s just go and find our way.”

We were walking back, city lights and car lights flaring in the night, lighting crazy street corners, angling around rollicking partiers who laughed on their way to clubs and bars. Life whirled around us, a smokey gauzy bright-spangled chattering chorus of night.

“What are you talking about?” she asked. “Where?”

“Anywhere. Let’s take off and go.”

“I can’t do that.”

“We can start hitching and see where it takes us. If we go together we’ll find something, some place, settle, have kids.”

“I’m too young to have kids.”

“We could go to Findhorn and grow our own vegetables and I could be a poet.”

Anything, I thought, to get away from this world, to get her and run away and take her with me.

“I can’t do that. I have one more year of high school, and next summer my father’s taking me to Europe. I want to go to art college. I have plans.”

We walked in silence, the noise of downtown falling away.

I was running out of time. I couldn’t stay with her, couldn’t go home.

“I can’t leave you,” I said.

“You can’t stay here,” she said.

At the house I wanted a drink. She let me have one, but wouldn’t let me have another, afraid her father would notice. I trembled with rage, barely contained in a splinter of annoyance in the sound of my voice.
“I’ll take a little from each bottle, he’ll never know. I swear.”

“But I’ll know. He’s my father. I don’t want to lie to him. I’ll know.”

What did it matter? My world was falling apart. I could have drunk time into oblivion, could have drunk all night.

In her perfumed bed I couldn’t sleep. I listened to her breathing and stared at the ceiling. There were claws in my stomach squeezing glass.

The next day I sat at the piano, playing aimlessly. She went out to work on her paper. I was there when she came back. She couldn’t look at me.

“What are you doing?” she asked. “My father could walk in any minute. You have to go.”

I went to the dining table and sat facing the big window that looked out back where an old tree grew. She put the phone in front of me. I wanted to cry, to weep like a child. I picked up the receiver and dialed and listened to the ring. My father answered.

That evening she took me to the bus station. I kissed her goodbye. I talked a blue streak about love. I would have cried if we’d been alone but there were people all around us. She smiled patiently.

I’d been on buses before, said goodbye before. Too many times.

I got on board and sat at the back and looked through the window. I put my hand on the glass when the bus began to move. A cry had lodged in my chest, a shout of something. She waved. The bus pulled out, turned a corner, and she was gone.

About Thomas Bauer

Tom Bauer has worked in television, researching shows for Discovery and History channel, editing pitches, and developing original concepts. He has written short scripts as well as several features. He’s had fiction and poetry published in Maple Tree Literary Supplement, Headlight Anthology, and in the anthology In Other Words: New English Writing from Quebec. His stories have been short-listed for the CBC Literary Competition and the Quebec Literary Competition, and recently accepted for publication in Numero Cinq and The Smoking Poet. He lives and works in Montreal.

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