Tag Archives: toronto

Bystander Effect, Or Why This Week Has Been Really Scary

18 Apr

I woke up Wednesday morning to a message from my friend Nathan. He had been attacked on his way home from another friend’s house. Someone had jumped on him from behind and put him in a choke hold until he’d passed out. The attackers took everything he had on him – his phone, his wallet, his passport, his e-reader, his iPod, his fancy headphones, a book I’d lent him, a sweet pair of corduroy pants we’d found earlier that day at my favourite second-hand shop. Nearly everything of value that he’d owned had been in his messenger bag, and when he woke up it was all gone.

He’d spent the night at the hospital, his message said, but he was mostly fine – just some soft tissue damage in his throat and some bruising on his back. Otherwise he’d gotten off easy. That’s what the two police officers – the ones who had taken him to the hospital and stayed with him the entire time, the ones who had bought him coffee and told him funny stories for hours on end just to keep him occupied – had told him: that he’d gotten off easy. Sure, all of his stuff had been stolen, but he’d been lucky. So lucky. It could so easily have ended differently. Today, as we walked by the spot where it happened, he said to me, “In my head there’s an alternate ending where this is all roped off with caution tape, and it’s a crime scene with my body in the middle of it.” But it didn’t end that way. This – his hoarse voice, the red marks on his throat, the bloodshot eyes, the list of things that need to be replaced – is what lucky looks like.

But still, in spite of how fortunate he is to be alive, this story didn’t have to end this way. One of the most troubling parts of what happened is the fact that no one stopped to help him while he was lying there unconscious and hurt at the corner of Gerrard and Jarvis – which, for those of you not familiar with Toronto, is a fairly well-trod intersection. It wasn’t late – only around midnight. And it’s not that there was no one around. But no one stopped, or even called 911. When he woke up, disoriented and in pain, he had to drag himself to the nearest convenience store and ask them to call someone. The thought of him – of anyone – having to do that makes my heart hurt. And I know that it doesn’t need to be this way. We can’t let it be this way.

If you see someone being assaulted or attacked, please do something. I’m not saying that you should intervene or put yourself in danger, but there are so many ways to help. Take a picture. Write down a description of the attackers that you can later give to the police. Call 911. If you see someone passed out or lying on the street, don’t assume that they’re drunk or high – err on the side of caution and call an ambulance. Make sure that they’re breathing. Stay with them. If they’re coherent enough, offer to contact their friends or family. Above all, don’t let the Bystander Effect take over. It’s so easy to do nothing and assume that someone else will step in, but it’s almost as easy to dial three little numbers on your phone. Do something because that’s what a good, moral person should do, or else do something because next time it might be you lying there. It could so easily have been you.

And if you have a friend or loved one who’s survived an assault, here’s a short list of things you should and shouldn’t do to help out. Because if I’ve learned anything over the past few days, it’s that watching someone you care for go through something like this can make you feel unbelievably helpless. But, in spite of that feeling, there are things that you can do to help.

DO ask what, specifically, the victim needs from you right now – they might need a hug, or a meal, or some time to themselves, or any number of things. It’s better to ask than to try to guess and then wind up guessing wrong.

DO offer to take care of practical things – like going grocery shopping, cooking, cleaning, laundry, or helping navigate how to replace stolen items.

DO listen to what they’re saying and validate what they’re feeling. If they’re angry, let them be angry. If they need to cry, let them cry. If they feel hopeless, let them talk about how hopeless they feel without jumping in to tell them that they’re wrong. Whatever they’re feeling is valid, and you don’t get to decide how they should or shouldn’t express their emotions. End of story.

DO just sit there and be there for them. You might have to sit for hours in what feels like awkward silence, but if they don’t want to talk, you shouldn’t try to force them. Let them decide how your time together will be spent.

DO respect their space. If they don’t want to be hugged, don’t hug them. If they don’t want to be touched, don’t touch them. If they want to be alone, let them be alone. Try as hard as possible not to violate their boundaries, because now more than ever is the time when they need to feel that their boundaries are being respected.

DON’T say, “I can’t believe this happened to you!” Don’t say, “But you’re so tall/big/strong/whatever, I can’t believe anyone would think of attacking you.” The truth is that it did happen, and making remarks about the victim’s size or strength will only lead them to feel like the assault was their fault. Because, just for the record, it wasn’t their fault.

DON’T ask if they’d been drinking. Don’t make remarks about what a bad neighbourhood it happened in. Don’t ask what they were wearing, or if they had headphones on. Chances are that they are already well aware of how these things might have increased their risk of being assaulted. You may think that you are asking innocent questions, but chances are that you are just making them feel worse.

DON’T make this all about how you feel. Yes, the fact that they were assaulted was also scary for you. Yes you are allowed to have feelings and it’s fine to want to talk about that and ask for support for yourself, but the person who it happened to is not the person to do that for you. Right now, they need to space to process their own emotions, and your job is to make that as easy for them as possible.

DON’T offer advice on how they should go about healing from this. Instead, recommend that they see a counsellor or a therapist. Seriously, leave that type of stuff up to the professionals.

I’m sure that I’m missing some stuff here, and I would love if you could leave any further tips or advice in the comments. In the meantime, I’m just going to go back to thanking whatever power is out there that kept Nathan safe that night.

Because seriously, I am just so overwhelmingly grateful that this guy is still in my life.

Gerrard & Jarvis

The intersection at Gerrard & Jarvis – used in lieu of a picture of Nathan because he hates all pictures of himself


Woman Files Sexual Harassment Complaint, Is Suspended From Work For Five Days

10 Mar

Trigger warning for talk of sexual assault

If a woman is sexually harassed or assaulted in the workplace, then she must have done something to cause it.

At least, that’s the message being put forth by the Toronto’s parks and recreation department, where late last month a woman was suspended from work for five days after accusing a male co-worker of unzipping his pants and rubbing his penis against her in the lunchroom.

Susan Rose was responding to a comment made by her colleague John Maynard with, “I will punch you in the dick.” Maynard then became, in her words, “aggressive,” saying, “Do you want to punch me in the dick?” while unzipping his pants and walking towards her. Rose turned away from him and grabbed onto another colleague’s arm, but felt Maynard pressing his body up against hers. She then heard a third colleague tell Maynard to wash his hands, which he did, finishing by wiping his hands dry on Rose’s back.

Rose filed a report on the incident, and an internal investigation found that there was “some merit” to Rose’s claims (the main contention seems to be over whether or not the accused actually pulled out his penis – since Rose was turned away from him, she cannot reliably say whether or not that part occurred). In a February 28th decision letter sent to Rose, parks general supervisor Jim McKay said that the claims of workplace harassment against Maynard had “been addressed,” though he didn’t mention whether any disciplinary action had been taken. In the same letter, Rose was told that her own comment – “I will punch you in the dick,” which she says was a joke typical of their workplace environment – was “inappropriate” and “in violation of the City of Toronto’s Human Rights and Anti-Harassment Policy.”

The letter then went on to say, “The city aims to create a climate of understanding and mutual respect. All employees are responsible for respecting the dignity and rights of their co-workers.”

The letter also says, ““By your own account, you regularly participated in banter and inappropriate workplace behaviour with Mr. Maynard.”

Rose was suspended for five days beginning on February 28th and will be required to take a course in human rights, anti-harrassment and discrimination.

I’m not going to argue that what Rose said was appropriate – obviously it wasn’t, a fact that she admitted in an interview with the Toronto Star. However can we just talk for a hot second about the fact that she was suspended for harassment and violation of human rights while Maynard seems to have gotten off scot-free? Can we take a moment to think about how absolutely fucked up that is?

Let’s review the facts here: a woman is made visibly uncomfortable by the sexual actions of a co-worker, she files a report about the incident, and she is basically told that she is at fault for having said, in jest, that she was going to punch him in the dick. Like saying “dick” is some kind of magic spell that charms penises right out of the pants that contain them. Like Maynard can’t be faulted at all for whipping his junk out, because she made a joke about his dick. Like making a joke inappropriate for the workplace is somehow on equal footing with physical act of pressing your genitals up against someone.

Suspending Rose and forcing her to take an anti-harassment course are the equivalent of saying, “she was asking for it.”

Telling Rose that she regularly engaged in “inappropriate” banter with Maynard is the equivalent of saying, “his actions are the predictable end result of all the sexual jokes both of you have engaged in.”

The decision not to suspend Maynard is the equivalent of saying, “boys will be boys and, honestly, what did you expect?”

How do we even live in a world where a woman reports an incident of sexual harassment and is then punished because her workplace decided that it was all her fault? Jesus Christ.

If you’ve ever needed proof of rape culture, if you’ve ever needed proof that we live in a society that downplays sexual vioelence while regularly shaming and blaming victims of sex crimes, well, here it is.

Still not convinced? The comments on The Star’s coverage of the story are even more enlightening:

‘She got what she deserved. She wants to be one of the boys when it suits her. Her comments caused this who situation to occur and now she cries foul.’

‘She wants him to be punished for things she did also.’

‘ … it was she who started it by threatening to assault his private parts.’

‘sounds like she was a willing participant in antics that got out of hand’

‘Sorry, but I don’t quite believe her side of the story. She lost me when she got into the standard dialogue of being traumatized, degraded, him being violent, etc. Assault? Please. She won’t be bullied? Give me a break. Why do I get the idea that she’s a problem employee?’

‘Why is everybody getting so uptight about anything remotely connected to sex? How long before society can shed its phony Victorian attitude.’

These are the kinds of things that victims of sexual harassment and sexual assault are used to hearing: you must have done something to deserve this, you started it, you wanted it, you liked it. I don’t believe you. It doesn’t sound that bad. It sounds like you’re the one with the problem. This is what you get for daring to be a girl who wants to be “just one of the boys.” This is what you get. This is what you get. This is what you get.

No. This isn’t what anyone “gets.” Sexual harassment is not the natural consequence of telling an off-colour joke. Sexual assault is not just a regrettable thing that happens when a woman spends too much time in the company of men. No one else has the right to tell a victim how they should or shouldn’t feel about being assaulted.

And people wonder why more victims of sexual assault don’t come forward.

Susan Rose

Susan Rose

The Incarceration of Avery Edison

11 Feb

Here in Canada, we tend to think of ourselves as claiming a sort of moral high ground when it comes to social justice issues. We think of ourselves as liberated, fair, and anti-oppression; we look down on other countries for their medieval legislature, patting ourselves on the back for being so good, so forward-thinking, so tolerant. And then, every once in a while, an event occurs that proves just how awful and backwards we really are.

On Monday morning, 25 year old British comedian Avery Edison tried to enter Canada through Toronto’s Pearson International Airport, hoping to visit her partner and pick up a few of the possessions she had left behind after moving home to England. Knowing that she had previously overstayed her student visa, she travelled on a non-refundable return ticket and brought with her a copy of her London lease – unfortunately, this was not good enough. She was denied entry and detained by Canadian immigration officials, a fact which she admitted was her own fault:

It was while she was being interviewed by an Immigrations Canada officer that things started to go from being unfortunately inconvenient to nightmarish. Edison, who is trans* and whose passport lists her gender as female, noticed that the officer kept switching between masculine and feminine pronouns when discussing her over the phone. She then overheard him say that he had “one male for pickup” [emphasis my own]. She was told that she would be placed in a solitary cell due to her status as a pre-operative male-to-female, a fact that didn’t exactly thrill her but which she found unsurprising.

She asked if she could go home to England, but was told that was not a possibility.

She then had to submit to an examination by a nurse to determine where she would be sent. It was decided that because of her male genitalia, she would have to go to Maplehurst Correctional Complex, an all-male facility. This, in spite of the fact that her passport lists her as female. This, in spite of the fact that there is a trans* unit at the nearby Vanier Centre for Women. This, in spite of the fact of the high rate of violence against trans* folks in the general population, let alone the prison population.


And this is where I lose it. I mean, really lose it. I lose everything – my mind, my temper, my faith in humanity. What the fuck kind of government do we have in this country? How can a so-called progressive population stand the fact that we still have people in charge who think that you can tell someone’s gender based on a physical examination? How can anyone, anyone think that it’s all right to put a person in such a potentially harmful, violent situation? How is this happening in Canada, in this day and age, with all of our so-called tolerant and liberal values?

Before you start to roll your eyes at all of this, before you make any proclamations that start out with, “well, of course I’m sympathetic, but -,” imagine how humiliating it would be to be constantly questioned about your professed gender, even though you have official government documentation to back you up. Imagine how horrific it would be to be asked to submit to a physical exam to have your gender, which you have already disclosed and which is written on your passport, determined. Imagine how frightening it would be to be sent to a facility where you stand a high chance of suffering physical, emotional, verbal and, of course, sexual abuse.

Now imagine if that fear was something that you lived with, on one level or another, every day of your life. You would have to live your life always walking on a knife’s edge, never sure just how much information you can relay to any given person – information that cisgender people would give out without thinking twice. You would spend your days hoping that people can view you as who you are, but are never surprised when they call you by the wrong name or the wrong pronoun. You would have to answer all of the same questions, personal, prying, awful questions, over and over and over, because people just don’t want to get it. All of this because you committed the great and horrible crime of having a gender that does not align with the genitalia you were given.

Edison is currently being held at Maplehurst, and will be there until at least Monday. Her partner, Romy Sugden, has been able to visit her, and reports that the guards have continued to misgender her. According to Sugden, one staff member, after being corrected repeatedly on Edison’s gender, said, “I don’t care, she’s a man to me.” A friend of Edison’s took a picture of this staff member in order to file a report, but was forced to delete the picture.

You would think that all of this would be illegal here in progressive Canada, but it’s not. According to the Ontario Human Rights Commission,

Transgendered people may be placed with those of the sex with which they do not identify.

Take a moment to re-read that, and really let it sink it. Transgender [not transgendered – the law doesn’t even bother to get the term right] people may be placed with those of the sex with which they do not identify. This is government-speak for we do not give a shit about your professed gender, our only interest is in punishing you whatever way possible. This is very, very fucked up.

This has to change. Action has to be taken, not just for Avery Edison’s sake, but for the sake of all trans* prisoners and detainees. The personal indignity is too high and the threat of violence is too great for us to be able to look the other way. This is something that has to happen now.

If you are in Toronto, there will be a rally held here on Saturday, February 15th. You can find the details here.

Other things you can do:

– You can call Goran Vragovic, the Canadian Border Services Agency Director General, at 905 803 5590 and request Avery Edison’s release

– You can send support to NDP members, including NDP MPs Randall Garrison and Peggy Nash, who are working to help Edison in particular and to change the discriminatory laws in general.

– You can check out the #freeavery hashtag on twitter

– You can share this post, or any other post about Avery Edison, and let everyone know what’s happening

– You can do anything within your power to make this a more visible issue

Because this issue is really, really important.

You can find all of Edison’s and her partner’s tweets here about everything that has happened so far.


UPDATE: Edison’s partner just announced that she will be transferred to a women’s prison, either tonight or tomorrow:

However, the hearing is set for tomorrow and Edison is still in need of a lawyer:

Sources are now confirming that Edison was moved to the Vanier Centre for Women.

I will keep you updated on the situation, and let you know how and where donations can be made.


Avery is going home!

Maybe You Dance

3 Jun

I spend a lot of time thinking about intolerance and the various things that I do to combat it. I mean, that’s what a lot of this blog is supposed to be, right? I’m trying, in my own small way, to fight against sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, and all the other isms and phobias that people, even nice people, even good people, throw at each other. And I think that I do an okay job for the most part, but it’s easy to fight this battle online, isn’t it? I mean, comparatively. Sure, the relative anonymity of the internet tends to bring out the absolute worst in people, and I’ve been told all kinds of awful things, some of which have hurt pretty badly. I’ve been told that I’m a waste of oxygen, that I should kill myself, and there have been a whole litany of comments, tweets and even entire blog posts by other people dedicated to what a terrible mother I am, and yeah, that sucks, but still.

Being a loudmouth who speaks out against hate on the internet very rarely results in physical violence.

Being a loudmouth who speaks out against hate in the real world is much more likely to result in broken bones, a smashed up face or even worse.

And I’m not saying that online threats or mean comments aren’t scary, because they definitely are, but also when it all gets to be too overwhelming I can just shut off my computer and walk away. But raising my voice publicly, in the middle of, say, a crowded bar full of drunken bigots, doesn’t afford me that same luxury.

There was, in fact, a crowded bar full of drunken bigots last night. And maybe this is a fairly normal occurrence – what do I know, I’m in bed by ten most nights, and when I do go out it’s to one of the genteel pubs in my genteel neighbourhood. And probably these guys are really super nice guys in real life, not the kind of guys to yell “faggots!” at a bunch of guys just because their band isn’t playing whatever kind of music it is they want to hear. I mean, unless they’re out late at night and it’s someone’s birthday and they’re all drunk, belligerent and three seconds away from a brawl with any given person that they encounter on the cramped dance floor.

So what do you do? What exactly do you do if you’re in this bar, and you hear people yelling the word faggot, and you’re sure that saying something, anything will result in getting punched in the face? What do you do if that’s your friend, or at the very least the friend of your friend, on stage, playing his bespectacled, skinny jean-clad heart out? Seriously, what the fuck do you do?

If you’re me, apparently you sit there grimacing and whispering to the girl next to you, demanding to know where the fuck all these terrible drunk dudes came from. If you’re me, you hunker down in your seat, and hope they don’t come anywhere near you. If you’re me, you hope that if they do make their way over to you, they somehow manage to keep their hands to themselves.

If you’re me, you die a little inside when you think about how you’re totally not standing up for what you believe in, and you hate yourself for being a coward.

And if you’re my friend Nathan, you get up and dance.

You get up, you stand dead centre in front of the stage, and you fucking dance to the spastic beat of the music.

For reasons that I can’t fully articulate, what happened last night was one of the nicest things I’ve ever seen. There was just something really lovely about seeing my friend standing there, trying to figure out how to move to the pseudo-eighties synthesizer amazingness coming from the stage. And as weird as this sounds, there was something both aggressive and earnestly affectionate about his body language as he danced – aggressive towards all the assholes behind him who were now demanding that the band play Wonderwall, and affectionate towards his friends onstage, who were trying their best to ignore what was going on. And Nathan just stood there, as steady and unmovable as a rock. And it was really, really nice.

And I got up and joined him, and so did a few other people, and the drunk assholes slowly backed off.

Afterwards, Nathan said to me, “I just didn’t want Drew to have to look out and have to see all those douchebags. I wanted there to be at least one friendly face out there.”

I’m glad he had the instinct to get up and dance, because I definitely didn’t. Maybe I only know how to fight with words, and when I feel like I can’t do that, I’m at a total loss. Or maybe I should be more willing to risk my personal safety for the stuff that I believe in. Regardless, I’m glad that he got up, because I think that it was the best thing that anyone could have done in that situation.

And, in the future, I really want to be able to remember that there are other ways of fighting intolerance besides my usual bag of tricks. Sometimes you can do it by standing there alone and, with great purpose and love, just fucking dancing like there’s no tomorrow.


The Extra Bicycle

28 May

There are three bicycles on my balcony right now.

Normally there are only two – my shiny blue bike, with its giant seat and extra-wide wheels, and Matt’s sturdy green mountain bike. But for the last week or so there’s been another bicycle out there, one with a funky wire basket and a badly-warped frame frame.

This third bike belongs to a mystery woman who was involved in a cycling accident at the foot of the hill that I live on. I don’t know exactly what happened, but I do know that she landed face-first on the pavement, and I know that by the time the paramedics arrived her breathing was shallow and her heart rate uneven.

Her bicycle ended up on my balcony because Matt and Theo happened to be walking by the scene of the accident shortly it happened. Theo is fascinated by and and all emergency vehicles, so the sight of the firetrucks and ambulances was an instant hit with him. Ever since that day, he keeps saying:

“The firefighters took the woman away. The firefighters took the woman to the doctor to make her better.”

For Matt, the scene was a reminder of my own bike accident, which happened almost five years ago. Seeing that woman being strapped onto a stretcher and loaded into the waiting ambulance triggered all kinds of memories for him of my ill-fated tangle with a set of streetcar tracks down at Church and Adelaide. That was why he brought the bike home and left his name and number with the paramedics – because he remembered the kind stranger who had dragged my bike out of the road and locked it up, then given me his business card in case I couldn’t find it when I went to get it back.

I think about that accident fairly often. It’s hard not to, to be honest; the stiffness and occasional ache in my left knee are a constant reminder of the fact that my leg is packed with hardware. And anyway, that crash was a sort of turning point in my life; I’m not going to get all dramatic on you and say that it was a near-death experience or that it changed my view of humanity, but it definitely altered the course that I thought I was on. At the time, I was upset, even angry about that, but now I’m mostly thankful for it, because if I hadn’t fallen and banged up my knee, who knows where I would be now? If I’d kept on going in the direction I was headed in, I probably wouldn’t have Theo, for one thing. For another, who knows if I’d be writing, or teaching yoga? Who knows where I would be at all?

The reason that I happened to be at Church and Adelaide that morning was because I was starting my second week of George Brown’s Sign Language Interpreter program. I was running late, and I probably, almost certainly, wasn’t being as careful as I should have been. I’d always been wary of streetcar tracks, because I knew of other people who had had dangerous interactions with them, but I guess that I let my guard slip a bit that morning. I remember that I had to turn left onto Adelaide and I had to move into the left lane to do that, so I was simultaneously pedalling furiously to make it to the intersection before the light changed while signalling the lane change with my left hand and also looking back over my shoulder, watching out for cars. Just as I was getting ready to turn, I felt the traction change underneath my front tire – it went from rumbling over rough pavement to, for just a moment, skidding sickeningly, uncontrollably over smooth metal. Then with a jolt my front wheel slid neatly into the groove of the track, and I was stuck. At the same time my back wheel jerked forward, causing my bike to jackknife beneath me.

I knew that I was going to fall, but I thought, for some reason, that I could prevent it. I put my left foot down to try to steady myself, but my bike’s momentum was too much. I went down.

I don’t actually have any recollection of falling. I remember realizing that I was screwed, and then I remember lying sprawled on the hot pavement, my bike upended beside me and its wheels spinning pathetically in the air. I don’t think that I blacked out or anything – I’d somehow managed to avoid hitting my (unhelmeted) head – but I guess that whatever I was experiencing in that moment was too much for my brain to handle and it just shut down or somehow blocked it all out.

I remember thinking that I should stay sitting there in the middle of the road, even though cars were zooming around me, because it seemed like the safest place. A crowd had gathered around me soon after I’d crashed, and a few of them had to convince me that it was much smarter to get over to the side of the road. Two people helped me up, and that was when I realized that I couldn’t put any weight on my left leg. It didn’t hurt, exactly, it just didn’t work. So these two people had to half carry me over to the curb, while a third person went and rescued my poor bike (her name was Frida, by the way, as in Frida Kahlo, and she had an elegant if  heavy vintage solid metal frame with a beautiful, now-smashed, wicker basket on the front).

By the time I reached the side of the road I was crying, hard, and hyperventilating. Not because I was hurt or scared, but because it had suddenly hit me that I could maybe, possibly have died. A woman sat beside me and told me to breathe while someone else called an ambulance on their cell. A third person handed me their phone so that I could call Matt. Back then I didn’t have my own cell phone, so I told him that I didn’t know where they were taking me but would call him from the hospital once I got there.

Once I got to the hospital no one, myself included, thought that there was any rush to look at my leg. I was certain that my knee was just sprained or twisted – after all, it barely hurt at first, and I hadn’t even torn my jeans. But by the time Matt got there, my leg was aching something fierce, and he found me huddled up in a wheelchair in the waiting room, crying quietly, trying not to bother anyone with my sobbing.

Eventually, someone called my name, Matt wheeled me through the big metal door, had some x-rays done and then sat for another hour or two on a hospital bed. Finally, a doctor came in and said brusquely,

“Your left tibial plateau is fractured. An orthopaedic surgeon will be coming to discuss the details of your surgery with you. Okay bye!”

I mean, I’m sure it didn’t exactly play out like that, but that was the general feeling of it. The doctor’s routine view of what I’d managed to do to my left knee was miles and miles away from my experience as a person whose life had just been turned upside down by a few brief sentences. Everything suddenly started to sound like it was very grainy and far away, and my vision began to go dark. I had to lie down before I passed out.

The technical details of what happened were this: my left femur, that big, heavy, club-like thigh bone, had, in the course of my accident, slammed into my tibial plateau (the place where the tibia and fibula meet to form the bottom part of the knee joint) hard enough to dent it. Surgery was needed to build the surface of the plateau back up, or else I would almost certainly walk with a limp for the rest of my life. So they took a bone graft from their bone bank, and held it in place with a metal plate and a series of large metal pins.

Why yes, this does mean that I have a dead person’s bone in my body! I kind of hope that it comes from a murderer or a genius or a murderer-genius or some other interesting type of person, but of course you can’t be too picky in these types of situations.

After surgery, I didn’t walk for three months. I went from having a giant, heavy cast to a much lighter, foam-and-plastic brace. When the took the cast off, I’d lost so much muscle mass that my thigh was narrower than my knee joint. It was gross. Oh and speaking of gross, if you ever want to terrify your needle-and-generally-medical-phobic partner, please invite them into the room while your cast is removed and the twenty six enormous metal stitches in your knee are suddenly revealed.


Matt had to leave after that.

Once I was ready to start putting weight on my leg again, I discovered that I’d somehow forgotten how to walk. I went to physiotherapy twice a week and, slowly and painstakingly, re-learned something that I’d mastered at the age of fourteen months. I still walk funny, even now, five years later – my left arch collapses and my entire left leg rolls inward, so that if I’m not thinking about it, I walk with a tiny bit of a limp. A limp, mind you, that becomes much more exaggerated when I’m tired or the weather is bad.

It goes without saying that I had to drop out of school – for the first few weeks after surgery, I could barely get out of bed, let alone go to class. On top of that, I was totally, totally loopy from the drugs I was on. I was so loopy that I read Twilight and thought it was good. No joke.

So I left school and, once I was able to function like a person with two legs again, returned to my nearly-minimum-wage retail job. I started trying to put my life back together and figure out what I wanted to do with myself, but I was at loose ends. I’d written a book the year before, and had had it tentatively accepted by a publisher and an agent, but the summer after my accident both of them ended up rejecting my manuscript. I didn’t know what to do with it, or myself. My life felt totally directionless.

In the summer of 2009 I married Matt, as planned. Eight months later I was suddenly, unexpectedly pregnant. And now, nearly five years after my accident, I have a hilarious toddler and a fantastic partner, I manage a yoga studio, I teach yoga, and I’m sorta, kinda, maybe accepting the fact that I might be a writer.

If I hadn’t fallen, there’s a chance that I would still be in an equally good, equally happy place in my life. But I’m not willing to take that gamble – if given the choice, I would always, always pick the prize on display over whatever’s behind the closed door. A bird in the hand, etc. So I guess that in a weird way I’m kind of thankful that my wheel slid into that streetcar track. I’m thankful that I ended up sprawled out on the ground, and I’m thankful that I smashed my knee up badly enough to need major surgery. Because all of that, every single little aspect of it, lead me to be right where I am.

I also think that falling off my bike was a big part of what helped me learn to love Toronto. I’d only been living here for a little over a year, and so far the city had seemed strange and unfriendly to me. If you’d asked me before my accident what would happen if a Torontonian fell off their bike in the middle of traffic, I would have said that everyone on the street would have gone about their business while that poor unlucky soul got run over. The people at Church and Adelaide that day proved me wrong, though, and since then I’ve learned over and over again that this city can, when necessary, have a heart.

The mystery woman, the woman whose bike is currently taking up real estate on my balcony, called this past weekend. She’d spent three days in the ICU, she said. She’d bled out into her brain and nearly died, she said. She kept thanking Matt for saving her life, and he had to tell her, over and over, that he’d only saved her bike.

She’s home now from the hospital, and her nephew is coming over sometime soon to pick up her bike. I hope she ends up being okay. I hope that someone told her just how many people stopped to help her, how much love and care she got from total strangers. Most of all, though, I hope that however this accident changes her life (as it certainly will) it ends up somehow being for the better.

Me, on crutches, out for brunch with friends

Me, on crutches, out for brunch with friends

After (short story/fiction)

15 May

After the plague, everything went silent.

It didn’t happen all at once, of course, but over the span of weeks, even months. Television was the first thing to go, disintegrating from panicked news reports into non-stop Seinfeld reruns, followed by the soothing white noise of static, and then finally nothing. The internet was next; websites went dead one by one, until the frantic hours spent hunched over my laptop brought up nothing but error messages. Not long after that the phone lines were down, and then a few days later the lights flickered suddenly and went out, leaving those of us still alive in the dark.

It’s not as frightening as you’d think. Even now, more than a year after those bloody, terrifying days, the absence of shrieks and sirens and bright flashing lights is still a relief.

John died. He was one of the first, actually. He came home sick from work, and then two days later he was gone. The baby died the day after that. I knew she was going to; from the moment the telltale rash started creeping up her fat little legs, I knew it wouldn’t be long. After both of their bodies had been taken away, I waited impatiently for my turn. I just wanted to die, wanted to hurry up and get it over with already; I don’t think I’ve ever wanted anything so badly in my life. The rash was supposed to start on your feet, a network of fine red lines that traced their way up to the heart, and I must have taken my socks off a dozen times a day. I kept squinting and prodding at the space between my toes, looking for something, anything, but my skin stayed stubbornly clear.

About a week after the burial I had a fever and a cough and I thought, finally, but it turned out to be just a bad cold. A cold – can you believe it? The whole city is vomiting blood and pus around me, and I catch a cold.

John worked on Bay Street, which the media insisted on calling “Ground Zero”. The official story was that someone had come home sick from a business trip, then gone to work and infected everyone who walked by their cubicle. The disease spread quickly throughout the downtown core, jumping from building to building, pumping through the vents with the stale recycled air. For a while the news outlets were trying to figure out who this mystery businessman had been, as though having a scapegoat would solve the problem, but when everything really started going to shit they stopped caring.

It was lucky that John and the baby died so early, because in those days there were still government clean-up crews to take care of their bodies. The city had these big black vans, corpse-mobiles we called them, and they would cart off dozens of the dead at a time. My husband and daughter are numbers 37 and 38 respectively in Prep Fields East at Upper Canada College. The city bought the school’s grounds for an unheard of amount of money, and used its fields to dig a series of mass graves. You’d think that somebody would have complained, started some kind of campaign against it, but most of the people likely to do so had left Toronto by then. On the news they showed clips of the wealthy being flown out in chartered planes, their eyes darting and fearful, their mouths swaddled in those useless paper masks.

After John and the baby were buried, I didn’t see anyone for a long time. I stayed inside, eating, sleeping and reading. Hiding. Once everything edible was gone from my cupboards, even the barely digestible stuff like uncooked pasta and dried beans, I moved into the apartment next door, and then the next one. I drifted through my building, my body as light and intangible as smoke. John and the baby started to seem like something that had happened in another life. My sadness and emptiness began to change, mutating into a strange sense of calm.

I slipped inside the lives my neighours had shed, taking advantage of everything they’d left behind. I wore their clothes, ate their food, rifled through their personal belongings. I discovered that the man two doors down had had a passion for hunting and I spent an afternoon cleaning and oiling his rifle, lifting it to my shoulder and admiring my reflection in his mirror. I pulled on a pair of his threadbare jeans and lounged in his green tweed armchair, sipping stale beer and flipping through girlie magazines. I learned that the polite young man on the fourth floor had fancied himself an amateur artist, and I spent a few days painting still lifes of the toaster, the light fixture, the bowl of clementines mouldering on his table. After that was the apartment of the wealthy retiree on the floor below mine, where I lay for two dreamy weeks in a decadently wallpapered bedroom, wearing silk night-gowns and pearls, reading Jane Austen. I kept the heavy curtains drawn the entire time. Going outside seemed pointless, now that everyone else was dead.

That wasn’t true, of course. There were plenty of other survivors, and while I was squatting in my draughty old brick fortress, many of them were camping out at the university, in Trinity College, no less. Their little hive buzzed with activity as they organized committees and planned for the new society that would be born out of the ashes of the old one. Life would be better now, they told one another. We would finally be able to purge everything distasteful from our past and start completely fresh. The human spirit would triumph over adversity! The plague could be a blessing in disguise! They would go on like this, jollying themselves with proverbs and trite clichés, ad nauseam.

I have to admit that they were never short of ideas. One of their first was to have a group of people going door-to-door looking for other survivors, which is how they discovered me. They convinced me to come live in the “community” they were building, a word which I was to come to loathe. We slept in “community halls” and ate all of our “community meals” together, plus we had other “community activities”, such as the mandatory “building a bright future” lectures. The other people there were cheerful and outgoing, overwhelmingly so. They reminded me of camp counsellors that I’d known as a child, always wanting to engage you with a craft or a song. They would often stop me in the hallway or on the sidewalk and ask me how I was doing. How’s it going? they would ask bracingly, gripping my shoulder so tightly that it left an angry red mark.

I went to the community meetings and soon discovered that while they were good at coming up with ideas, they were less adept at acting on them. In fact, it seemed that canvassing for survivors was the only plan of theirs to actually get off the ground. The talk at the meetings was endless and detailed, rife with idealism. They were going to have elections, they said, start a new government, start a colony, grow gardens. They were going to found a university so that our new society could have doctors, lawyers, thinkers. They made sketches, wrote proposals, enthusiastically dreamed up ways to save themselves, but in the end they actually did very little.

I moved out just a few weeks after moving in. Being constantly surrounded by other people was really starting to grate on my nerves. On top of that, I’d been sleeping with Gabe, one of the community’s leaders, and then all of the sudden I wasn’t.

Gabe was among those giving talks in the evenings, and one night I was interested enough in what he was saying to go up to him afterwards and ask a question. He smiled sort of shyly for a moment, his eyes blinking thoughtfully behind his glasses, and then told me that he had a book in his room he believed might have an answer. As he led me out of the auditorium he accidentally brushed up against the back of my hand and I jerked back, as though a bolt of electricity had passed through me. I followed him down the dim, echoing hallways, shivering in spite of the oppressively humid summer night.

As soon as the door to his room closed, his mouth was on mine, and then on my neck, and then in the well between my breasts. My hands couldn’t decide where they needed to be first, so they went everywhere at once. The very act of touching him, feeling his warm resilient skin against mine, was like finding a tall glass of water and suddenly realizing how very, very thirsty you’ve been. Afterwards, I wanted to feel guilty, because of John, because it was so soon, but the only thing I felt was gratitude. Gratitude to Gabe, of course, but also, for the first time, gratitude in general for the fact that I wasn’t among the dead.

Gabe and I didn’t talk much. We met up every few days, spent an hour or two together, and then went our separate ways. We didn’t sit together during meals, and in fact barely acknowledged each other in public. Because of the talks he gave, I was able to watch him without being obvious. I memorized the way he tipped his head to one side and pursed his lips when someone asked him a particularly difficult question, and the nervous habit he had of taking off his glasses and cleaning them while speaking. I listened attentively and began to notice a trace of an accent, something different but undefinable. When, one night, he told me that he’d come to Canada from South Africa when he was young, I felt a funny rush of pride at having sensed that he wasn’t a native Torontonian. I played every minute of our time together over and over again in my head – the way he liked to run his fingers through my hair, the vulnerable, almost frightened look on his face when he came, the way his breathing altered as he slipped into sleep. I felt strangely, buoyantly happy.

And then, just as suddenly as it had begun, our relationship was over.

“The thing is,” Gabe said, obsessively polishing his glasses on his threadbare t-shirt, “the thing is that I don’t really feel as though I get through to you. I think you’ve put up a lot of walls around yourself, and you’re not really ready for this.”

“It’s okay,” he continued, cutting me off as I tried to say something, “I know it’s hard for you because you were married before and had a kid and all. I understand. And the thing is, I just think that I could help you a lot more if we weren’t, you know, so involved.”

This apparently heartfelt speech didn’t change the fact that he’d also been sleeping with a girl named Nadia, a yoga teacher who was convinced that she’d survived through the power of downward dog.

“People don’t know the healing power of yoga,” she would say, her face glowing with earnest zeal, “they don’t even know. If everyone practiced yoga, no one would ever have even gotten sick. I’m going to make sure that yoga has a really special place in our new community.”

Nadia was not very good at keeping secrets (or maybe she just thought it was bad karma to be discreet) and it wasn’t long before everyone knew out about her and Gabe. When I asked him about it, he looked embarrassed and then said stiffly that he and Nadia had a very deep connection. He said that she had done a lot of emotional work and meditation in order to be with him, and it was because of that kind of dedication that she was going to be an important part of the cultural rebuilding. That was the day I knew I had to get out.

It wasn’t long before they were gone, too. Another former member, Jessie, told me that the community had moved east after hearing a rumour that there were more survivors in Kingston, maybe, or Montreal. Gabe’s plan was to gather as many other people as they could and head north to Ottawa, where they would take over the parliament buildings and start a provisional government. The community left from Union Station, walking two by two along the railroad tracks, like Noah’s animals in search of the Ark. I ran into Jessie a few months later, and she said that no one had heard from them since.

Jessie and I weren’t the only ones who stayed in Toronto, but we were two of few. Those of us still here prefer to keep to ourselves, and I can go days now without seeing another person. This isn’t to say that the streets are empty – there are packs of dogs, formerly fat, contented pets gone feral. It’s not unusual to see them roaming around, or hear their howls as they suddenly catch the scent of their prey. There are cats, too, although I don’t see them as much. They prefer to skulk singly, their eyes luminous and huge in the dark. The rat population exploded after the plague, and the cats have all grown sleek and plump on their suddenly abundant food supply. The racoons and squirrels and chipmunks are more brazen than ever, and there’s an entire warren of rabbits populating the Eaton Centre. They’ve burrowed into piles of soft poly-cotton blends, shredding designer sweatshirts with their sharp little teeth, making nests for their young.

And then there are the horses. During the worst of the plague someone had the presence of mind to trek down to the CNE and throw open the gates of the Horse Palace, and they’ve been thriving ever since. They tend to stay around the parks and ravines, but I once had the surreal experience of seeing a herd of them out on the street. They were running at full tilt, weaving in and out of the abandoned, rusting cars, stamping, snorting, tossing their heads. The sun was low in the sky, and as they thundered past me one of them suddenly stopped short and reared up, lit from behind like some primeval god.

It’s clear that the city is taking its first few stumbling steps back to wilderness. Stately old stone buildings that once boasted a genteel tendril or two of ivy have been consumed with greenery. This past spring, there were flowers everywhere – not just on the ground, but growing out of the fare box of a marooned streetcar, spilling out of cracks in the sides of buildings. Since all its people have died, the city itself has become a living creature.

Gabe and his followers left in the autumn, and I spent the winter in one of the Rosedale mansions, huddled on a king-sized bed under a pile of hand-sewn quilts. I lived off of gourmet canned goods, crackers made from exotic grains and jars of locally-made preserves with labels declaring “Aunt Sarah’s Best Plum Jelly” in delicate, spider-like writing. I found jugs of filtered water in the basement, which I rationed until there was enough snow on the ground to melt for drinking. Burning antique furniture in the three enormous fireplaces kept the house warm until spring, and I found an unexpected satisfaction in taking an axe to the 19th century décor. When my substantial pantry began to look sparse, I started scavenging the neighbouring houses, stalking through the snow in a sumptuous fur coat. I liked its length and weight and also its smell, which was dark and warm and slightly musky. Sometimes I would spread it out across the bed and sleep on it, nestling into it the way a baby animal would curl up against its mother’s soft flank.

Now that it’s summer again I’m living in the Toronto Reference Library. The enormous windows let sunlight in long into the evening, and when I stand in front of the glass and look down Yonge Street, I feel like a sort of benevolent guardian spirit, sent to watch over this desolate city. I picture myself as a pensive old Notre Dame gargoyle, the one with the horns and the wings whose face is cupped in his hands. If I remember correctly, he’s sticking his tongue out. I imagine he feels much the way I do – thoughtful, foolish, not quite human.

I spend all of my free hours diving into the stacks, resurfacing for air only when necessary. At first I bounced from shelf to shelf, choosing books almost at random, gorging myself on the printed word. Lately I’ve been more selective. Last week I got on to this Chekhov kick and now I don’t want to read anything else. I’ve realized that The Cherry Orchard might be the most perfect play ever written, or at least the loveliest play about the inevitability of change and loss. I’ve read it three times already. Sometimes I feel guilty, as though I should be doing something productive, but other than making sure that I’m clothed and fed, I can’t think of anything else to be done.

I walked down to the shore yesterday, all the way to Queen’s Quay. I stood and looked at the boats left scattered in the harbour, rust slowly crackling and colouring their hulls. I looked out to the islands and thought how funny it was that even though they were so close, they were entirely unreachable. The air was grey and damp-tasting, and so still that I could hear myself breathing. Above me, the tall waterfront buildings creaked and groaned, settling themselves in for their long crumbling journey into decay.

I used to feel as though I was waiting for something to happen, as though I could be rescued at any moment. I pulled myself through my days, moving from activity to activity, determined to fill up my hours until normal life was miraculously restored. Now I carry on for the simple reason that I am used to carrying on, because I am better at living than I am at dying. If I can’t see the point of going on like this, then it’s equally difficult to see the point of ending it. I eat, sleep, read, write, watch and wait until the stars come out, until darkness impales itself on one of the needle-sharp skyscrapers and oozes through the streets and alleys, until every tiny bit of this city is consumed.


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