I can’t read Lucille’s smile. I know her name and that’s all. We only met a moment ago. Around us, the room is a small ocean of girls, rough, beautiful. It’s long after midnight and Lucille and I stand side by side, a sliver of space between us. We watch the dance floor, drinking hard, while girls hooking and pushers work the sidelines. Women’s voices slap and swing their laughter up against the music on the record player tended by the bartender, Elegant Ivan, who knows most of the patrons by first name. In the center, they’re dancing so close. The johns and dealers just come and go.
I drink deep and gesture with my hands, words spill away from me and I scramble to catch them, raising my voice, to hold this woman’s attention through the clamor, cat-calls, and sweet murmurs in the room.
I tell her I’m Florence and aI do a little bit of everything. “They call me a downtowner, because deep in the city is where I’m at home, living in a ramshackle building with a hole in the roof that could let in the birds.”
“That sounds familiar,” she answers, laughing low and calm, a little resigned. Brushing her dark hair away from her round face, she sways a little on her feet, as if the music has caught her at the waist. Then she glances past me at the endless action. The top button of her blouse has come off, leaving behind a few loose black threads and a soft window of bare skin below her neck that grows wider as she moves.
“First time here?” I ask her.
“Hardly. Yours?” Her question in return for mine.
“These girls are my crowd.” I proclaim, hearing the harsh brightness in my voice. How it must sound to her—like a showman’s, flaunting and eager. I look away. “Any john usually suspects I’m a roller. I’ll steal what I can from him of cash value. So the straight-and-narrow men tend to keep their distance. It don’t bother me much. I’m willing to sell my music however I can, but not my body anymore. I need to keep it whole now, for all the hell it’s been through.”
Lucille turns to face me. “So you make music? What kind of thing do you play?”
“I’m a fiddler.”
She starts describing a kind of traveling show, a musical tour she plans to do the next year. “For 1960,” she whispers it like a prayer. “The start of a decade. It’s gonna be the beginning of something new, you know what I mean? All these different types of girls onstage together, femmes, butches, like comrades in battle.” Taking out a cigarette, she’s talking as if there’s a stage in her mind. I light it for her, relaxing into the rise and fall of her voice now that she’s talking like other women I’ve known before, someone who never stops losing herself, who never runs out of what there is to lose.
“What kind of battle do you mean?” I shake my head, giving her back an unreadable smile.
The stage disappears and she sees me instead. Me and the restless crowd of strangers. “Honey, whatever.” Her voice dips down a little under the weight of the drinking—or something stronger. I’m not into the heavy stuff. Of all the things that could wreck us downtowners, it’s the cops and then getting hooked on H, in that order. I can’t avoid the first so there’s no way I’ll mess with the second. “We’ll play the standards and our own tunes too….”
I nod my head as if it’s a signal to stop her from drifting away.
Then Lucille touches the hand that holds the lighter, rocking slow on the balls of her feet, her lips a soft oh in the smoke. “I promise you. We’ll go from here to Paris, to New York and back again.”
When I hear this, it catches me off guard. That I could leave—to shake off this city like washing away the smell of a long night from my skin. The idea opens me wider and it hurts, a hard fist. I shrug away the feeling, my shoulders up against it like a wall. “Not used to playing in a band though. Usually go it alone.”
“Doesn’t matter.” She steps closer, filling the space. “I want any instrument there. I want you, Florence the Fiddler.”
She remembers who I am. So I kiss her like it’s something to say.
We can hear them at the entrance to the room before we see them coming, a swarm of cops—at least thirty—moving in fast. The flush of their pale skin, charged by force, hats pulled low, thick uniforms, truncheons lifted.
Dancers stumble as they turn towards the sound, still in each other’s arms. The music continues as if stuck in a dream, behind barks of “Police!” “Move back!” “Get yourselves up ’gainst the wall!”
A second ago I’d been ready to kiss Lucille again, slow and long, the burnt sugar taste of her mouth soaked with rum still on my tongue. I can feel her breath on my face. But now my only thought is of escape. Reaching for her hand, I push hard through the panic of the room towards the fire exit.
In the shock of frozen air filled with sirens, women are hastily pulling on coats. They spill from the heavy door into the alleyway behind Dundas and Elizabeth Street. Sliding away, lost and intent, like swimmers in winter, they go diving towards the cover of darkness through heavy drifts of fallen snow.
When I turn to ask Lucille which way is home, she’s already gone. I stumble around in a circle, searching for her, calling out her name once, twice, towards the escaping forms.
Possessions lie scattered on the icy ground, dropped or forgotten in the rush to get away: a single glove, a pair of glasses with its lenses cracked, an orphaned scarf, an undone string of pearls, cigarettes and cigars tossed still long, beer sloshed on the snow and flasks bleeding their gin or brandy—traces of companionship, heat, trade, and sex, left behind in the bar raid.
A woman screams in the street. The tremor tears up and down, burning. It could be her voice. I almost move towards it, but then I stop myself.
At one end of the alley, paddy wagons and an ambulance pass by, speeding north to Dundas. Red lights flicker on the snow then disappear from view. In a second the cops will be here in the alleyway too. I could be arrested, beaten in the snow—and hidden behind the building away from public view, cops’ boots, fists and sticks will swing harder against skin and muscle, even breaking bones. I’ve felt their blows before, a force of pain that bends the body into itself, my head crushed against my heart.
Survival is instinct to me, an old demon friend. I let her enter, let her come. All I can do is run.
The late-night streets in Chinatown are unusually deserted, hollowed out by the glow of streetlights, shops and restaurants lit up with letters. Farther from the Continental Hotel, the quieter and more still the city becomes—just the muffled crunch of my soles hitting the snow, almost in rhythm with my heart.
A stray dog noses and burrows at ripped bags of garbage tossed against the backside of an old building. I stop to catch my breath, which blooms thick as smoke in the cold. The smell of cooking wafts in the steam rising from an exhaust pipe. We lift our faces to the warm, oily scent, the dog and I, and when he sees me, another searcher, we watch each other for just a moment. Through my watering eyes, he’s a blue-grey hound, hungry and hunting.
“Hello beautiful,” I whisper. He barks in warning and takes off down a narrow passage between two buildings.
Can’t remember a time when I wasn’t covered in the traces of leave-taking, the thinnest skein of flight wrapped around my limbs.
My sister, whose cheeks were often damp with tears, taught me the fiddle until I could play with her—dance tunes, folk music, and little classical numbers she collected the scores for that had to be mailed to her from far away. She asked me again and again not to go off on my own, in a voice that grew small and then sharp, rising. I wanted to take care of her. For what the world did seemed to fill her with rage and its lengthening shadow, grief. The more I grew, the more I made her cry.
I had to get away.
I came to Toronto the summer of ’44 when there were good paying jobs for women at the John Inglis Factory on Strachan Avenue. So many of us were working manual production, making weapon parts and other equipment for war. I was a musician, but I had to get out on my own, and I needed money to do it.
Once alone, the body has a way of arguing itself into places it needs to be.
The first time I was with a girl was at a bar room on the east side of town, the Rideau, on Jarvis Street—in the “Women Only” bar room, leaning after dark. That night, we stayed out, under a thicket of trees in Allan Gardens, a couple of blocks from where we had found each other. We couldn’t believe no one stopped us, walking arm and arm along the streets, our hands dipping slow around each other’s hips. Two girls surrounded by a city’s vigilant thrum, its young muscling of new concrete, glass, and light. We made it into the park without seizure, without arrest, though we felt ourselves naked to the world.
Leaning down under the spread of branches, when she pulled off her clothes in the shadows, it was the untying of a knot inside me. The new intersections of her body, a revelation of shifting curves. The space almost became ours, its underbelly of leaves.
I remember her open palms and the way she filled me. I remember her mineral taste in the dark.
I run through the snow that has begun to fall again, try to concentrate on my steps in the flimsy ladies boots I wear—useless because they never fit me right. I can’t seem to feel only femme or butch, always falling in between. But when I’m with a woman, she doesn’t seem to mind.
At the start, every lover is a liar anyway. Love wants to believe the lies, the stories told about where we’ve been, where we’re going. Like a series of true fictions, a pack of cards shuffled, reshuffled, dealt again.
One thing I know is that forcing myself to dress femme, wearing clothes to suit the part, is my armor in the world. Because the more butch I look on my way to the bar, the greater the chance I’ll get stopped by the cops—like they’ve done before, picking me up for trouble—for my “loitering” is what they said, whereas I call it walking freely in a public space at night.
Just encountering my presence on the street was enough of a trigger: a butch-seeming woman, passing them by, minding her own business. Suddenly they were shoving me between them, taunting me, “So you think you’re gonna fight back like a man?”
Was it fear that drove them to try to beat me into pieces then? Because I’m living proof that someone like myself can exist. So they try to destroy the evidence, or at least mark it up badly enough as if they can force it to change.
What they left of me that night was curled tight on the ground. Coughing up blood, I felt a rip in my chest and I knew that with their kicks and punches they’d broken something deep enough inside that it might be buried too far to heal. That wasn’t the last time.
So now I carry a knife, hidden, and dress femme, not because I prefer it, but for my own protection. I’ve learned escape routes, how fast I’ve got to run. Sure as hell no cops are gonna take me to Cherry Beach, where I heard they attack the gay girls they find on the street. Charges of causing a disturbance are what allow them to arrest and detain anyone for being out after dark. This new Chief James P. Mackey and his dirty Inspector Herbert Thurston want all gays gone. It has been in the news, but I know it firsthand.
I head back to the boarding house near Kensington where my small rented room waits. I pick up the pace again, race against my fear, catching myself as I stumble on patches of ice. Under this wool coat, I can feel my skin dampen with sweat, my heartbeat quicken, my lungs tighten from the cold: the familiar exertion laced with terror I encounter in each escape.
There is no knowing when the bar raids will happen, so you always have to be ready. I do my drinking, my smoking, in expectation—even in the company of the handsomest woman in the room, I’m ready to run.
It’s the undercover RCMP lady officers who are trouble. I lay down my defenses with them. Four times it’s been a breath and touch away from arrest. Following a sweet long kiss I was willing to lose myself in, or after I’ve come on to her all evening standing at the bar, or when she’s danced up against me slow, for six songs straight, she takes out a badge, as if to pounce. I like women who know the worth of their weight, women who build themselves solid like planets. But that’s the problem. Because these set-up informers are dirty lawful magicians. They’re the best of all actresses. I swear they shared some mutual feeling with me. I tasted and smelled real lust, felt it in how their bodies moved with mine. But all of this is forgotten when they pull out a badge.
I want to cut open my mind so they can look inside, see the bright rooms and dark spaces. It isn’t sick in there, or twisted. I know it wouldn’t be what they expected.
Over and over, the one thing I’ve learned is that if someone can stand there beside you with her tenderness and her mercies she can also be gone without warning.
Tonight in the back room of the Continental Hotel, I should have reminded myself right from the start: any sweetheart could be an informant, working for the law or otherwise. There are all kinds of sides here, all kinds of business. To survive, you’ve got to keep out of the affairs of others, even when you’re in their beds. Guard yourself. Take everything in stride. The less revealed to a new friend, the less there is to lose.
If Lucille was arrested tonight, I can’t go to the police station to try and find out. I don’t even know her last name—or if she would have told me, had I taken her home. After all, I wouldn’t have told her mine. Now I know I never will.
Just as spring arrives, sliding in, wanting and breathless, they shut down the back room of the Continental Hotel.
Still, I find myself returning to the intersection of Dundas and Elizabeth Street, the way I repeat certain melodies by heart. I keep coming back to the restless movement here, strangers leaving their traces in my tune as they walk away. What remains, one last note then a silence.
Every evening I play my violin on each of the three corners opposite to where the Continental Hotel stands. I serenade its boarded-up back room, windows like eyes that have been blinded. It’s smaller than I remember. Just a tavern really—and after four bar raids, all its girls were finally driven out anyway.
They’ll find another place.
Sometimes when I’m playing my fiddle, I try to become the sound, like a drop of blood enters water. Then I find myself again the way air is remembered in a dream, in a sensation of not being able to breathe. Glancing away from the cycle of passing legs, drawing out my tune for a sight of Lucille the way I remember, in the looseness of a run-down coat, another stranger.
In that back room, dark enough that you have to look twice to tell anything at all. Someone steps out of the shadows into the copper light pooling around the bar, orders another drink, and she leans there for moments waiting, inside the music, breathing in the perfume and smoke, the deeper scent of a woman’s cologne. She’s watching for who is looking, her face and hair streaked, gritty with illumination. To move towards her, every time, is like falling headfirst.
With the instrument in my arms, busking through the rush hours full of workers heading home, cabs and trolleys running by, the memories keep flying back. These city walls of scabbed brick are my backdrop, their grainy surfaces softening at dusk. Everywhere, old industries shutter down, roofs of empty factories caving in—and I can almost hear the rhythm of their closing in the release of my breath, as I lay the bow against the strings. Fingers press along vibrations, the trembling cocoon of the base.
All this time we spend on disappearing.