Rebirth in Etobicoke: A Love Story

Illustrations by Linda Yan

A pink sticky note was stuck to the front door of our house. Kristin loved those pink sticky notes. Why didn’t she just text me? As I walked up the stairs and onto the porch, the words came into focus: Scott, I’m leaving you. I don’t love you anymore.

I peeled the note off the door and examined it. It was Kristin’s handwriting, precise and flowing. The beauty of her script belied the cruelty of her words. 

No,correction: youare leaving me. Ill have your stuff sent to you. Once you have a place, text Terry the address.

I stood on my porch with the pink note stuck to my index finger and looked around — what I was looking for, I was not sure. Confusion slowly gave way to anger, and my face was suddenly hot. My hand was trembling as I tried to slide the house key into the lock. It didn’t fit. 

I walked over and peered into the front window. The curtains were drawn. There were no lights on. I was not sure what to do next.

Terry. My best friend. What did he have to do with this? I paced back and forth and put my hand to my forehead. I noticed Kristin’s writing on the back of the note. 

Terry and I are in love. It’s best for all of us if you just get over it, K?

Kristin and Terry? Get over it? Kristin was ending our marriage with a pink sticky note? 

Get over it? Sure, okay! I mean, K! There, that was easy, I told myself — through clenched teeth.

***

One door closed (or had the locks changed?) and another one opened. This one, sans life-destroying pink sticky notes, opened into a spartan (Kijiji code for unfurnished and dingy) one-bedroom apartment above a seedy bar in west Toronto. New Toronto, actually — a blue-collar village on the shores of Lake Ontario that dates back to the nineteenth century. It was my new home. My landlady Minnie, who owned the bar and the building, told me the Shore, as it was sometimes called, had been slowly gentrifying for the last one hundred and thirty years.

“Do you think they could hurry things up a bit?” I asked her. She didn’t seem to find it funny.

It was almost midnight on a summer Sunday. The bar downstairs, named Romans, depressed me, but I couldn’t stand the thought of being in my apartment any longer. I opted to go downstairs for one drink — a decision I soon came to regret. 

The place was nearly empty. I sidled up to the battered oak bar and sat on a hard stool. There was a baseball game on the TV. A woman with long black hair was crouched behind the bar, her back to me as she put beer bottles in a fridge. Then she rose, revealing a black lace dress that loosely covered a black crop top that flowed down over black spandex shorts, laced at the sides to expose a touch of skin at her hips. Black leather stiletto boots reached her knees, completing the look. She sensed me staring at her and turned. She smiled through painted black lips and a lip piercing that matched the one in her nose. Everything about her was black or white. 

“Welcome aboard,” she purred. “We’ve been expecting you.” 

What the hell? Was I on The Love Boat? This mesmerizing bartender did kind of look like a goth version of Julie the cruise director, who developed a coke addiction in real life. She grabbed three ice cubes, slipped them into a tumbler, poured a generous amount of Canadian Club and slid it across the bar. 

“This is crazy,” I said. “No, creepy. How did you know my drink?” 

She looked at me with hypnotic eyes and offered a barely perceptible smile. I raised the glass and took a sip. The whisky hit my mouth and throat, burning and soothing at the same time. 

“Nicely played,” I said in a low voice with an enigmatic accent, trying to sound suave like James Bond. It fell flatter than a Finnish pancake. I tried to recover. “Where are my manners? My name is Scott.” I smiled. 

“I know, Mr. Colby,” she replied coldly. “I’m aware of your arrival.”

Goth Julie was freaking me out.

“And my name is Lucy. Lucy Fehr.” 

Did she just say her name was Lucifer? 

“You should visit here more often,” Lucy said.

She glared straight into my retinas with her dark, mesmerizing eyes. Suddenly, it felt like maybe she was right.

 “Yes, Lucy, maybe I should.” I shook my head to break her stare and scanned the dark, empty bar, but I could not avoid her eyes. 

“Everything happens for a reason, Mr. Colby,” she said, her eyes never leaving me, like a tractor beam that penetrated my soul. “There is a reason your wife cheated on you. There is a reason you were brought to the Shore. There is a reason we met tonight.” 

I caught myself nodding uncontrollably. It felt, for a moment, as though she were controlling my bodily functions. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t talk. Lucy reached across the bar and placed my hand in hers. Her skin was soft, her hand strong — and cold. 

“There are no coincidences, Mr. Colby.” She was terrifying — but also kind of hot. What the hell was wrong with me? She winked and changed the topic. “How are you enjoying your apartment?”

How was I enjoying my apartment? How does someone enjoy a root canal? Or stubbing your toe on the coffee table? Or having your wife leave you for your best friend? Correction: your best man! The apartment was a hellhole and my life was being flushed down its rust-stained toilet. How did I end up this way? I’d had a marriage, a nice house, a career. But it had all been an illusion. I realized I didn’t know what was real anymore. Get a grip, Scott. Don’t let her smell the defeat and desperation.

“Well, it is a step down from my home where my wife is living with my former best friend,” I said. “It’s all I can afford at the moment. But things will turn around soon. I’m expecting an advance on my next book.”

That was not completely true. I did desperately need that advance, but it had been a few years since any publishers had shown interest in my manuscripts. 

“Hmm, a writer.” 

“I like to think so.”

“What are you writing about?”

“It’s a horror story set at a remote fly-in fishing lodge in northwestern Ontario. It’s called Hooked, and it’s about a prostitute who —” 

“Ah, don’t tell me,” Lucy interrupted, waving a finger. “I want to be surprised. I like surprises. Do you like surprises, Mr. Colby? I hope it has a twist ending. Those are the best endings. Do you like those endings?” 

“Yeah, of course. I’m still working on the ending, actually. I have two endings and I can’t decide which one to go with. There is the expected happy resolution, but I have been toying with an ending where the bad guy —” 

She slapped the bar and cut me off. “Ah, naughty boy! What did I tell you, Mr. Colby? Don’t say any more. But I do like the endings where the bad guy gets away with it, if that’s what you’re thinking.” 

***

A week later, I was lying on the couch in my apartment, staring at the water stains on the ceiling. One looked like a cross between a human and a horse, with horns, a forked tail, hooves and breasts, nursing a frickin’ baby. How had I not noticed that before? 

I felt like garbage because my life was going further to shit. I’d gotten a text message from my literary agent, who informed me that my latest book proposal had been rejected by every publishing house in Toronto — even some that had not received the manuscript. Who does that happen to? I needed the advance for Hookedto get me through the rest of the year. My agent said, “I didn’t hook ’em” with my tales of terror involving a fly-in fishing hooker. Then he stopped returning my emails and phone calls.

I needed a drink and felt compelled to go back downstairs to Romans. The doors were propped open to let in a breeze. Most of the tables were full. I grabbed the last free stool at the bar. Lucy looked my way and grinned. She was wearing impossibly tight black leather pants, those black stiletto boots, and a leather vest with nothing underneath. Her entire outfit must have been sewn onto her body. I wasn’t sure how she could move, or go to the bathroom. I wasn’t sure she even wentto the bathroom; it seemed beneath her.

She enticed and frightened me at the same time. I wasn’t quite sure what I was doing there. I was separated, unemployed, living above a dive bar in a neighbourhood that time had forgotten, and I was chasing a crush on a clairvoyant gothic Cleopatra who scared me.

Lucy poured me a Canadian Club on the rocks. I didn’t even have to order. “How is your writing going?”

“I think I’ve got writer’s block.” I was lying, but I got a sense that she saw right through me, figuratively and, if I was being honest, literally. 

“Is that what you call it?”

“Yeah, writer’s block. You know, when you don’t have any good ideas, when you can’t figure out what to write.” 

Lucy looked at me the way a mother does when she knows her child is not being truthful. Damn it,what did she know?

“Well, if it’s only writer’s block, I may be able to help.”

“Excuse me?” 

“I have something to help with your . . . blockage,” she said. “But you have to be committed. This is not for the weak of heart. All success comes with a price, doesn’t it? Are you prepared to pay that price?”

“Yeah, of course. With great talent comes great responsibility. Or something like that, right?”

“That’s not what I’m talking about. Maybe this is too much for you.”

“No, no, no,” I blurted. I hoped my desperation wasn’t showing. “I’m a big boy. I can handle it.”

Lucy stared at me intensely. Then her face slowly relaxed and she smiled. “I have a natural remedy that can release your creativity. It’s an old-world formula that has been in my family for centuries. I come from a family of writers too. Meet me here tomorrow night at closing.” 

Oh boy, what had I done? Maybe I couldn’t handle this. I didn’t know what to say, so I said nothing. But I couldn’t seem to stop nodding my head.

***

I sat in my apartment the next morning with Lucy on my mind. I was still puzzled by her offer. Natural remedies. What was that? What did she mean by not being able to handle it? I felt like I needed a distraction. I wanted to do something fun — go on a date, meet somebody more like me. I hadn’t been on a date since the last millennium. Everyone was talking about dating apps. After some superficial research, I downloaded one and created a profile. It was modest. I talked about my love of the outdoors, sports, books, my Royal Doulton collection — whatever might make me sound interesting. Then it was time to start swiping. 

Jenny, brunette: I like red wine, dinner with friends, travelling, hiking some far-off mountain, or feeling endless white sand between my toes. I am just as comfortable in a little black dress as I am in jeans and hiking boots.

Marie, blond, power suit: When I’m not running my own architectural firm, I like to relax with close friends at the cottage, sip red wine, or visit the museums of Europe. I am just as comfortable in a little black dress as I am in jeans and barefoot on the dock, reading a good book.

Kate, redhead:I’m a teacher, and after a stressful day in the classroom, I like to curl up on the couch with my cat and a glass of red wine. I like travelling with my friends, running half marathons, and I’m just as comfortable in a black dress as I am in my Birkenstocks.

Then I saw Mia’s profile. She had short blond hair and a healthy, wholesome smile, like she could be on a billboard advertising milk. I wondered what she’d look like with a milk moustache. I’m divorced and am not really sure how to do this. But here we go. I’m a nurse who has worked mostly in developing countries the past few years. I’ve returned to Canada recently after deciding to stop running from my past. I’ve taken up tennis again. I believe in leaving the world a better place than I found it.

Hmm. That was refreshing. I wanted to meet her. I swiped to the right. Then I tried to forget about it. I didn’t want to get my hopes up. I hadn’t had the best of luck with the ladies.

That night, I went downstairs to Romans around eleven. The place was mostly empty. Lucy was behind the bar, and her eyes sparkled as I took a seat. 

“No alcohol tonight,” she said. “I have something better for you later. We’ll go up to your place.” 

My place? I wasn’t sure that was such a good idea. It didn’t matter — I’d lost control of my responses again.

“Okay, sounds great,” I said. “How about an iced tea, then?” 

Lucy eventually closed the bar and looked at me with those hypnotic eyes, then she glanced toward the door. We walked up the dim stairwell to my apartment. I tried not to look embarrassed by its appearance. I’d tidied up and bought some vanilla-scented candles. I was really hoping the place didn’t smell like a guy who’d been living for the past few weeks on Ruffles (sour cream ’n onion, of course) and self-pity.

Lucy looked around. Sheseemed unfazed by the way I lived. “This is all you need, Mr. Colby.” She walked over to the couch and sat down, setting a black leather bag on the floor. From the bag she pulled out a small brown jug. “Please bring two shot glasses.” 

I didn’t actually have two shot glasses, so I went for what seemed clean: a coffee mug and a glass measuring cup. 

“It’s warm in here,” she said as she took off her jacket and poured a clear liquid into the glasses. “This is an elixir, a secret formula from the old country.”

“Oh, really. Where is the old country?”

“Germany.”

“Fehr. Of course, that makes sense. You said you come from a family of writers. Anyone I may have heard of?”

“Unlikely. Their writings were never translated or made available to the public. Their work was mainly read at secret gatherings. My family has always operated in the shadows. One had some fame, however. Google Gustav von Aschenbach sometime. The weak bastard.”

“Gustav von who?”

“Never mind. Let’s focus on why we are here. This potion will open you up to ideas and possibilities you never imagined. I will join you. You shouldn’t do it alone.” 

She drank her shot from the I ♥ East Gwillimbury coffee mug and looked at me. “Your turn.”

I had no idea what I was doing, but I was unable to say no. I knocked back the measuring cup. The drink had a slight bitterness. She refilled my cup. 

“We have to do at least one more and then we’ll go from there,” she said.

I knew I should have stopped, but I couldn’t. I tossed back the second drink. I felt nothing at first. Lucy got up and walked over to my bookshelf. Books were about all I had in the apartment. 

Rosemary’s Baby. My favourite. The Metamorphosis. Ooh, creepy! Hmm. Memoirs of a Geisha. That’s unfortunate.” Then she grabbedDeath in Venice. “Well, well, this is getting personal,” she said cryptically. “Enough chit-chat,” she snapped. “Round three.” She marched to the couch and sat down beside me, her leg against mine.

She poured two more shots of her elixir, then reached over and gripped my hand. Her elegant fingers were stronger than they appeared. My heart beat faster. I was feeling the effects of the drink now. My stomach and tongue started to tingle. The room began to shimmer and I felt a floating sensation.

Oh boy, I need to go home. Damn — I am home.

***

I gradually became aware of sunlight streaming into my bedroom through a crack in the curtains. My eyes slowly opened and I immediately realized something was wrong. Very wrong. I was covered in feathers. And I had wings. And yellow feet with three toes. This couldn’t be. 

“Lucy!” I warbled. No answer.

I strutted to the bathroom, my head bobbing back and forth, and I looked in the mirror. Staring back at me were beady red eyes and a beak. My body was covered in slate blue feathers. My chest was ruby red. I had seen this bird before at the Royal Ontario Museum; I had become a passenger pigeon. Once the most abundant bird in the world, it became extinct more than a hundred years ago.

I walked back into the living room. There was no sign of Lucy, and I had no memory after sitting on the couch. I spread out my wings and examined them. Impressive. What would happen if I flapped them, ever so slightly? I felt my feet get lighter as I rose a few millimetres off the floor. What if I flapped harder? The next thing I saw was the water-stained ceiling speeding toward my face. 

Wham!

***

I was awakened from a deep sleep by three quick, deliberate raps at the door. Three weeks had passed, and I still hadn’t left my apartment. I’d ordered in groceries. Lots of seeds and nuts. I had them left outside the door. The Etobicoke Guardianhad proven useful for lining the bathroom floor. I’d had visions or dreams every night of being a bird, so I’d started to write them down in a notebook I’d labelled Hatched. But I couldn’t read it very well because it looked like chicken scratch. I was beginning to understand where that phrase came from. 

There were three more deliberate raps on the door. Who could it be? I hadn’t ordered more seeds. 

 “Just a minute,” I chirped as I hopped to the door, which suddenly opened on its own. 

I was met by the piercing gaze of coal-black eyes framed by pure white skin, long black eyelashes, and pierced lips, nose and ears. A river of raven hair flowed over her shoulders. 

“Lucy, my God,” I clucked. “What are you doing here?”

“I came to check on you. You haven’t been to Romans.”

“Haven’t been to Romans? Are you kidding me, Lucy? I’m a bird! What the hell did you do to me?”

“Oh, don’t get your feathers all ruffled. I told you I’d give you something to write about. It worked famously for Kafka. Have you been writing?” She glanced at the table, saw the notebook and nodded approvingly. “See, it’s working. I brought something for you to read.” 

“I don’t really need any books right now. But I could really go for same acorns, now that I think about it.”

Lucy’s slim body slipped past me, and she walked over to the couch and sat down. “Sit with me. I may have some sesame snaps in my bag.”

I was feeling wobbly, and finding a perch seemed like a good idea. 

“I didn’t bring you books,” she said. “I brought you this to read instead.” She reached in her bag and pulled out a white plastic stick with a blue handle. A blue plus sign was visible on the device’s small screen.

I looked up at Lucy. “You’re joking, right?” 

“You’re going to be a father.” 

“But we didn’t even . . .”

“We did. Several times.” 

My head started to spin. I needed to sit down, but realized I was already sitting down.

“I thought you said that you like those twist endings, Mr. Colby — the ones you don’t see coming.” 

***

I was awakened from a deep sleep by three quick, deliberate raps at the door. I had no idea what day or time it was. The apartment was unlit, and it was dark outside except for the street lights. It appeared to be raining lightly. I tried to get up but realized both my wrists were handcuffed to the bed. So were my legs. Fuzzy pink handcuffs. And I was naked.

From my bed, I could barely make out the door in the ambient light. The handle slowly turned and the door creaked open. My heart started to race. Why wasn’t the door locked? In the doorway, silhouetted by the dim hallway light, was a slim female figure with long flowing hair and tall stiletto boots. She stepped inside and slowly closed the door behind her, snapping the deadbolt shut and then carefully slipping the chain lock into its slot and sliding it across. 

I heard her boots clicking across the parquet floor. She stopped briefly at the bookshelf. I heard pages rustling. She walked into my room. The street light softly illuminated her ivory skin. Her black hair and leather clothing disappeared into the darkness of my room. I could see her white hands and elongated fingernails holding a book. She pulled the small chair in my room to the side of the bed and sat down. 

“I said I’d be back to check on you. Sorry about the handcuffs, but you were a flight risk. I think I liked you better as a bird. It’s okay, you don’t have to talk.”

I tried to talk but couldn’t. I was mute.

Lucy was glowing. Her milky skin radiated in the darkness, her black eyes glistened. “I thought I would read to you.” 

A feeling of dread overwhelmed me. Lucy’s presence was not comforting. 

“Remember my favourite book? Rosemary’s Baby. How appropriate.” 

I tried to scream but nothing came out — except a single ruby-red feather, which slowly floated away into the darkness.

At that moment, the screen on my cellphone on the bedside table lit up. Lucy’s fingers reached over and picked it up. I saw I had a notification. 

Congratulations! You have a new match!I saw Mia’s smiling face.

A soft, ironic laugh escaped Lucy’s mouth. “Yes, you do,” she whispered. She placed her hand on the phone’s screen and swiped left. “Oh, look, another surprise!”

I stared at the phone as Mia’s image disappeared. Lucy began to read, and the last thing I saw was the fading glow of the phone swallowed by darkness.

***

I awoke and it was suddenly daytime and I was human once more, clothed in a purple velour track suit. It was rather slimming, in fact. Was this real? Was I hallucinating? The apartment door slowly opened and there was a blinding white light. A man with round glasses, salt-and-pepper hair, a red velvet smoking jacket and paisley ascot appeared from out of nowhere. He was smiling — and shimmering. He was somewhat translucent, as if he were an apparition. 

“Guten tag, Herr Colby,” he said. “My name is Gustav von Aschenbach.”    

 “Gustav von who?”  

He tossed his head back and laughed. “I was told you’d be Googling my writing. Come with me. We can Google together. Forever.” 

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