Joyland

Vancouver |

Swimmers

by Alex Leslie

He falls asleep on a beach in the city’s elbow and night blows newspapers over him. In the morning rain has soaked yesterday’s newsprint across his forehead, yesterday’s news. Dawn is happening. First light on water, first ink. Sidewalk unrolling there to stumble up, away from the Pacific. Back up the street past all last night’s doors. Kids across the street, parallel lines pointing the way to school, jackets in every primary colour, shouting morning. * Just dance. Club darkness muggy with liquor breath, ice cubes snapped between teeth and under rhythmed feet, bare shoulders like lit fish teeming the crowd’s surface. Faces press into the glass of each other. Who are you? Come near me. Get away. He dances like a third-grader, like a sexbot, like a snake charming another snake. Jump up, flap arms, shimmy down and move your butt, every slut since Chaucer knows that move. Dark early-morning/mid-night. Rain hurtles down gutters toward the ocean. He breathes himself out into the chill air, a clove-scented cloud following the street to the water. This is where he comes after everything every day is done. * The first time she sees him. Shoulders like a tall riverhunting bird, eyes trapping fish thoughts. Black hair swinging low. His laugh, making a crack in the sounds of traffic. He lies on the curb laughing, a body like wires thrown down on the road by a windstorm, electricity startling his arms and legs, hurling back the bodies of others. She sees him most nights in the places they both go. On the balcony above the crowd, looking down at the bodies swinging together, they rest and drink and watch the dancing ocean, heads and arms tossed into light. -Why are they all here? -Fashion, fun, drinking, sex, nothing. They become a familiar creature. This strange space that will keep them together. * This season sidewalks make glistening landbridges between seas of yards and streets, cement and metal and plastic signs, and everybody in the city waits for sunlight, waits to surface. Every night, they meet at the same corner. They dive into a dancing crowd again, again, but each wave of music pushes them back to where they began. She does not think of her classes that feel like bloodletting, the dimming eyes of her daylight friends. Outside, dark-veined rain lifts up the city’s lights. Take my hand, turn me round. Nightworld, forest of glinting dull-eyed buildings, this nightwood. They spill out onto another street. The ocean glowing at the endpoint of the gutter’s slope, the moon’s turned bright stone. * They don’t talk to each other about their lovers. She goes to bed with a girl in one of her classes. It feels like the swell around a smoothed-out knot on driftwood, a strong turn of bone between two of her fingers and smoothness shouldn’t be mistaken for softness. Her body something long and turning between her palms, something loose, rope-like. She holds her hard, a surprised face freezing in the air, like that, between reliefs. It is something. He goes to the park beside the ocean. Men slide among the quiet trees. Their chests reflect light, the smoothness of the urban lake in the distance, dark mirror littered with crisp curling leaves. He guides her eye with one extended finger. -All the people in my world are crazy, see? Laughing, face stretched and turning through rye-rinsed glass. - The guy at the all-night gourmet French fries place, the one with the cute/robot voice, he’s crazy, see? This is what it’s like when you live at night. He has a job during the day but she doesn’t know what and she doesn’t ask. Her days of classes, students in rows, faces turned to the blank light. When she mentions class, his face goes blank with disinterest or lack of recognition. She is surprised to discover how simple it is to slice off nights from days, light from dark. How easy to double up on silent living, hold one hand beside the other without touching. * -Shit what was that sound? A wave of crashing on the pavement, a piece torn off the sky. -A car just went through the window of that store. Right through that huge window. A busy street but pedestrians sidestep, keep moving, their voices and the horns of other cars rising in chorus. The driver stumbles off unharmed with his phone pressed into his ear, a gash like a red feather pressed to his forehead. She’s taken a picture of her dancing partner posing glum-faced with the fresh wreck. Metal dug out and twisted. In the image stored in her phone: an astronaut posing with his stranded craft, street moonscape cratered with starlight, streetlight. This is her only evidence, she thinks. A man sprints down from the apartment above the store and a shy cornered fire is smothered as instantly as it started. * He points at the crowd coming out of the Blenz at midnight. Students slope down the oilslick street. Jeans like denim leggings. Earmuff headphones. Briefcases moulded around laptops. Shoulderbagsipodsleathertinybuttonsplansplansplans. -Robots. -What makes a person not a robot? -That line between capacity and ability. Just dance. How much can happen in what amount of time? How they fall into the folds, surf the edges for months, not wondering. *** Dancers flee from heavy bass like birds sensing a thunderstorm. Monsoon season in Vancouver. Busses are hired boats, nosing flooded corners and riverbends posted with newspaper boxes, moving rows of picture windows of faces soaked with the future months of water, dark with the knowledge of their collective slow drowning. * Before, she had a theory she doesn’t believe in anymore. All-encompassing adolescent invention. Hit her in high school physics class. Looked up to the blackboard on a day late in winter, glassy classmate faces stained opal, and saw it there, a phrase from the clouds: Particles of energy exist on different levels and their travel between is untraceable. The same goes for people, she thought. Thinking a round trap. Minds are winding or they are still, brain quiet as burping frogs in a wet ditch. What is between this dug-up turning and women with taped-on smiles riding all the busses splashing up water-wings from the gutters? She saw it then — no belief in epiphanies, just in fossil selves coming up under the skin, the blank levels people walk on, rows and rows and rows. Now, she stares into the open darknesses between buildings, bodies, days. She could be pulled into those spaces, a body disappearing. -Get that heart off your sleeve. Be more scary-lady, more regal-trashy, more you. -Diana Ross, Jane Fonda with caterpillar drag queen eyebrows. -Celine Dion as a crypt keeper, waltzing with a mannequin. -Would you stop it with the references? -I think I need a lobotomy while I sculpt dead air. Just dance. Impulse over awkwardness. Fascination. What will the body do without thought? Pull in liquor like spacemen drinking nozzle-mouthed air, glass-faced, music lifting bodies from this blind floor. Underworld trappings. Nothing more cliché so turn off all the lights. -I am tired of the helplessness of desire of everyone around me. -Don’t pigeonhole people. -People. Pigeons in their holes. * They dive into the ocean at the foot of the street. He sees her body moving away from his, a radiant thick fish. Through strong water, she is a dancer under black light. She sees him swept, close and far. She slips under. He floats nearby, his skin faded blue and his eyes flashing ciphers, and he raises his arms and gyrates, his limbs slowed by the weight of water. She looks upward. Here, seen from underwater, the city hangs from its concrete roots. Reflections of buildings dangle from the surface, windowed spears, entering her eyes as she swims upward toward the air of the world. It is raining and the raindrops wash the salt from her eyes, burns the world new. * Windows of late-night workers, dull white squares in the sky, spreadsheet starchart. The dark rooms they move through, music coming out of the bouncing floor, the floor moving like a chest, the heart inside it a drum under the floorboards, old hard beat. Music pushes up through her muscles, works them until they hurt and pulse with waterfisted rhythm. He shouts over the sound. -When I’m too old to come to these places, I’ll get married. Ice sculptures, martinis and silver body paint. They walk into the rain like seals underwater, water parting around their bodies, preordained paths in the thick airborne wet of this city. She sweeps a hand at his dark-eyed bravado. -No, you’ll marry a boy with a dog and gym shorts on Sundays. All of Canada will join you at the lake. * She finds him outside a club, crying against a brick wall about an older lover who said, I only wanted to be good with you, then disappeared into the dancing bodies, the lights and small glasses flashing. Who is he? She asks him. How long was he with the lover? He shakes his head, shrugs, because there are relationships that come and go, fade and appear but are always there, are untraceable in the paths they work. She does not know him at all, she knows. -People will say anything to get to you. -Anything if that’s what they want: you. -Can’t give yourself if you don’t. * Mornings. Lawnmowers hunt at her basement suite windows, crawl up like metalheaded mice. Thrum of waking eyelids. Just waiting for night again, gnawing for darkness, headaches the colour of sunlight, stretching the curtains to keep the brightness out. Spring starts. Everywhere sunlight, a common insult, shameless sparkle. But still the rain. He sings: You come and go, you come and go. Mantra of the undecided. * -I can’t do this anymore. No beginning for this. Falls like a black bird shot out of the windowed sky. - What do you mean? - I’ll stop thinking and will be ordinary. -I don’t know. I’m the same. She always knew he was held together by the tinsel that glitters at the corners of his eyes when excited or breaking. People with sturdy reassurance scrape her deep as the thickness of a fingernail. * She staggers into lightfooted ground. She watches the club’s searchlights sweep his chameleon skin, colours flashing through smoke like a weather system working out its hurricane core. *** The top half of the province is burning, the bottom half is sliding into the sea, the part above that is melting. This is always the way the weather ends, they say it in all three newspapers. * He watches her slide between beats thrown off the ends of the DJ’s fingers. She is his guest from the daylight hours, fallen through the trapdoor. Where did she come from and when will she leave? They gather shooters on the bar near their dancing, amber, honey-brown, orange, a collection of fireflies trapped under glass. * She waits for him on their corner, in all the usual places. She hasn’t seen him for six nights, a width of wordless nights. No rain tonight. Fog ghosts rub their white bellies on the black streets. She watches the dancers, silent traffickers of shadow and light, lovers without lovers. She looks for him down by the ocean. The Pacific moves out there, a separate black planet. Sound of a broom sweeping the sky clean of its hard sharp stars. Top layer of water moving on and off, dark eyelid for the shining day of water. He told her once that instead of paying for taxis some early-mornings after dancing he fell asleep in the sand, stretched against a log, invisible from the street above. Once a newspaper blew over him and dew soaked it against his skin, printing the cheap ink onto his cheek, a direct transfer tattoo. He told her how he crouched in the surf and washed off yesterday’s headlines, walked to his job damp, head spinning with fading liquor and the waves that pounded on last night’s washed-up bed. She walks slowly among the logs, calling his name, morning birds chirping angrily at the human racket. * Spinning in the darkness of static/rain. The sparks from blown-out speakers hit wet skin like fireflies and stars and bodies swim together. Her limbs move slowly underwater. She does not know what it is for anymore, listening to her thoughts like the heartbeats of other people. It is exhausting to be a chameleon, it’s a headache to wake blue and sleep green, to eat yesterday’s words and to not know the next day’s. She does not know what that will be, what she is now. * Now she knows how to do tricks with her skin. This is what she learned from him. An allergy to one temperature of air, a witness protection program for the other person living inside. Where did he come from and where did he go? * That brightness from before what was that. Darkness now. Moods, cold water tickling long fingers down, looking for something in weather. When we dovetail darkness like this we can’t get away. Why he plunged when she did. Made a space in her, a small cave in the corner of her foot, too out-of-the-way to be worn down by leaving. She climbs the stairs through darkness to the balcony above the dance floor and watches through her glass, looking for him. The bodies below, vertical, hands swinging, dogs swimming through rough water. * She sees him once in daylight: Holding a pocket thesaurus open in one palm, flipping the waxy pages, fingers flickering like a waterwheel. She always thought it was a joke, what he said about himself: Barstar to bookstore. The fluorescent lights, off-white linoleum, neat dark lettering, worlds packed in volumes placed in rows and rows around him. His face resting, eyebrows up, arch dandy put-on. His patchwork jacket and dark-rinse jeans. His cheeks the pale tenderness of a fish’s soft underbelly. Inked shadows under his eyes. A creature pulled from the bottom of a shining tank and left on carpet. She watches him, fingers skimming spines of bestsellers gold and cerulean thriller blue, and knows that she is saying goodbye. She is saying goodbye to her friend. He strides towards an exit, the PA system barking news of the summer’s coming bargains. The spinning rack of bestsellers she hides behind, gold and purple covers, metal branches, a wild indoor tree, but any shelter is good enough. * Leave it like oil on a wet road. All the people passing through this life will smear and press in the old bloodlet stuff, it will be a stain on her skin she can only see when she traces its edges with her fingers. Don’t dare to try, she tells herself, don’t make it spread and shimmer. There is nothing after blacklung bitterness, the only thing is what to do after and after. Capture a daylight lover. Things quickly change away from here. * Morning streets and rain has washed all the city’s ink away. Editor’s Note: This story was originally posted last spring. It was removed after a personal disagreement online. To be clear, this dispute had nothing to do with the author’s political beliefs, but had to do with the author’s manner of behaviour on a private Facebook page. It is being restored because we don’t want to be accused erroneously of censorship. The author’s statement regarding these events can be read here.