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Fiction Lesbian

Sodom Road Exit

by (author) Amber Dawn

Arsenal Pulp Press
Initial publish date
May 2018
Lesbian, Contemporary Women, General, Occult & Supernatural, Literary
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    Mar 2018
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    Jul 2018
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    May 2018
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It's the summer of 1990 and Crystal Beach has lost its beloved, long-running amusement park, leaving the lakeside village a virtual ghost town. It is back to this fallen community that Starla Mia Martin must return to live with her overbearing mother after dropping out of university and racking up significant debt. But an economic downturn, mother-daughter drama, and Generation X disillusionment soon prove to be to be the least of Starla's troubles. A mysterious and salacious force begins to dog her; inexplicable sounds in the night and indescribable sights spotted in the periphery. Soon enough, Starla must confront the unresolved traumas that haunt Crystal Beach.

Sodom Road Exit might read like a conventional paranormal thriller, except that Starla is far from a conventional protagonist. Where others might feel fear, Starla feels lust and queer desire. When others might run, Starla draws the horror nearer. And in turn, she draws a host of capricious characters toward her--all of them challenged to seek answers beyond their own temporal realities.

Sodom Road Exit, the second novel by Lambda Literary Award winner Amber Dawn, is a book that's alive with both desire and dread.

About the author

Amber Dawn is a writer, filmmaker and performance artist based in Vancouver. She is the author of the novel Sub Rosa (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2010), editor of the Lambda Award-nominated Fist of the Spider Woman (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2008) and co-editor of With a Rough Tongue: Femmes Write Porn (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2005). Her award-winning, genderfuck docu-porn, "Girl on Girl," has been screened in eight countries and added to the gender studies curriculum at Concordia University. She has toured three times with the infamous Sex Workers` Art Show in the US. She was voted Xtra! West`s Hero of the Year in 2008. She has an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia. Currently, she is the director of programming for the Vancouver Queer Film Festival.

Amber Dawn's profile page

Excerpt: Sodom Road Exit (by (author) Amber Dawn)

Prologue: Spring 1990

The first photograph of the Angel of Crystal Beach was taken by our very own local newspaperman, Howie Foster. After stealthily drinking four lukewarm Labatt Blues in the backseat of his car, while his brother laboured for hours in the May sun, Howie mounted his pricey Canon camera atop his tripod and began snapping shots.

Was the erection of the Ricky Esposito Memorial Gazebo newsworthy enough to earn us the cover” Not likely, especially not during a holiday weekend, and especially considering the gazebo technically stands on a private property. We guessed the rather enormous 18 x 18 foot hexagon structure would be used for the occasional small wedding, or maybe, if we felt ambitious, we—d offer it to a book club for summer meetings, or the local seniors choir if they wanted to sing in an outdoor bandstand. To be honest, we weren—t really thinking about how the Gazebo would be used, only that it needed to be built.

The reason Howie ran the Gazebo story—the reason he was there on Canada Day rather than fraternizing with other red-nosed men in a beer tent somewhere—was because he wanted to do right by his brother, Joe Foster, who was celebrating his tenth year sober. The cover photo and accompanying news article were Howie's ways of being an enthusiastic, albeit condoling, witness to his brother.

The fact is everyone who showed up that day showed up in service of someone else. Tamara was there because she was worried for my well-being, and she's the type of tough love beauty who is attracted to a problem (the problem being me). My mother was also worried—she was worried she—d be excluded from a notable event in our small community. Dr. Rahn Johnson was there for my mother. Hal and Bobby, Rose and I, well, we believed we had a higher calling. We were summoned by divine purpose. Or divine purpose is one way of looking at it. I might also say I had no choice.

The photo in the Fort Erie Times: front row, left to right; Rose Esposito, Barbara and Bailey Martin, Tamara Matveev, Roberta Varin: and back row; Wendel Swartz, Howard and Joey Foster, Rahn Johnson, Harvey Varin and little Lucky (just “little Lucky?) perched on top of Hal's shoulders. We were a wide-smile group; new buddies, recently consummated lovers, both blood and unconventional family. Each of us allowing a day's worth of honest work yoked us together. And in this way, the photo does not lie.

The article made no mention of angels. No ghosts. No miracles. No lady of blessed whatnot. No harbingers of transformation. Nothing supernatural at all. Those of us who had seen her, were doing our best to keep her a secret. We were in awe of what we had seen, and also mortified. Somehow saying it aloud would have made it more real, too real and too soon. Therefore, the Monday July 2, 1990 the front-page headline read, “Memorial Gazebo Built with Salvaged Wood from Crystal Beach Amusement Park.?

Days after the local paper ran our story, we studied the newsprint grain, the pixels. “Do you see her?” Her hourglass shape like an elegant smudge.

Since the Fort Erie Times article, there have been other photos, better-quality photos in more reputable newspapers. But this clipping is the one stuck to Barbara's fridge, another is taped to Rose's hall mirror, and a third is proudly framed and hangs from a beam of our revered Ricky Esposito Memorial Gazebo. Some claim to see her right away, others denounce her as a trick of light and shadow. Either way, it's unmistakably Etta standing beside me in the photo. Our Angel of Crystal Beach, Ontario. Her filmy arm stretched forward, as if someone has just asked her to dance.

One: Running a Balance

The anonymous woman in bed beside me adamantly shakes my shoulder. She had a name last night. She must have, as part of my hook-and-line I complimented her “pretty name” and said, “it suits you.” Unless a woman's name is Mavis, I normally compliment her on her pretty name.

?Your phone keeps ringing. Four times in a row. Maybe it's an emergency?” Not-Mavis is still naked. I, evidently, pulled a nightshirt on backward before completely passing out.

I don—t have to look at my call display to know it's a 1-800 number. Debt collection agencies call early in the morning, and repeatedly. They—re not supposed to call before 9 a.m., or at least that's what other flunkies and bums tell me, but so far I—ve failed to convince the telephone goon squad to stop.

?I can—t believe you slept right through it,” she says.

?I took a sleeping pill.?

?You took a sleeping pill” Are you crazy” We drank two bottles of wine last night.”

Who said you could sleep over” What's wrong with your own bed” That's how I want to respond. But it's a bad idea to aggravate a naked woman. There are only two reasons for a woman to sleep naked next to someone she just met. One—she is extremely comfortable with herself. Two—she has hastily decided that she is comfortable with you. Either way, she is not a woman I want to fight with at the crack-of-my-ass in the morning.

?May as well seize the day,” I say, slowly sitting up. I have an eyeball socket headache. “Coffee” I know a cute place on Dupont.?

In the elevator I get the feeling her name could be Tabatha or Tammy or Tiffany. Tatiana” I don—t dare address her by any of these, as I—m likely wrong. Not-Mavis is wearing the perfect day-to-night dress. Was she anticipating doing the walk of shame this morning” It's leopard print, but, like, business leopard, with a mid-thigh hem with three-quarter sleeves. Her leather oxford shoes have been recently polished. I figure she's got five years on me. Or more. Might be pushing thirty. Knees are how I tell age. She's got beginner kninkles—knee wrinkles—frowning under each knee. I picture a cartoon eyes and a nose on her kneecaps. Sad-faced clowns.

We reach my lobby and both put on sunglasses. Ha! She was prepared to spend the night. Who carries sunglasses in an evening bag”

I take her to Gigi's Bakery because counter service will make this whole thanks-and-goodbye bit go more quickly. “Their Nutella croissants are divine. Let me buy you one,” I offer.

We sit outside on wobbly bistro chairs sipping espresso. Not-Mavis breaks off a piece of her croissant and tosses it to a nearby pigeon. “I won—t bother leaving my number,” she says.

?Enjoyed yourself that much, eh?” Bitch, buy your own croissant from now on.

?No, no. I had a lot of fun.” Not-Mavis squeezes my arm. I pull away, pretending to take a last sip from my already empty cup. “Josie and Zed already warned me not to try to get a second date out of you.”

?Josie and Zed??

?You know. Your friends who set us up.”

?I know who Josie and Zed are,” I say, quietly, hoping that if I speak quietly she—ll lower her volume too. “I—m just — surprised they said that.?

?I was looking for a discreet thing. Remember, I—m married.”

This is exactly why I don—t go to breakfast diners with one-night stands. If I had to wait for a waitress to take care of the bill right now, I—d die. The extra five minutes would kill me. I—d clunk Not-Mavis over the head with her tiny espresso cup, and kill her too. And where do Josie and Zed get off” What am I, the dregs of casual sex, bottom feeder of blind dates” I swear I—m never having another threesome with those two again.

I refuse to watch Not-Mavis walk away in her business leopard dress, and that's one of my favourite parts. The walking away part. Women's hips are spellbinding after they—ve been fucked. Men too, actually. Except there's often less and hip more shoulder sway with a guy's goodbye march. Weak moment, I turn to see Not-Mavis hail a cab as she reaches Spadina.

I follow in her wake. How long has it been since I—ve taken a taxi”

Loitering at the intersection, I count the yellow-checkered cabs drive by. The best thing to do would be to go home and sleep for a few more hours. Unplug the phone. Pull the blinds. My right arm rises. A familiar thump thump thump pulses under my jaw as a cab pulls up to the curb. “Lawrence and Bridle Path.”

The cabbie harumphs. He switches on the metre.

We pass jocks in University of Toronto's Varsity Blues hoodies walking towards campus in a small huddle. The football team hasn—t won a Vanier Cup since 1965. They—ve been losing longer than I—ve been alive. Put that slogan on a hoodie: “Varsity Blues: losing since before I was born.” Campus fables claim the team is cursed. I think about curses a lot. How we need something titillating to blame for all our failures. How blame itself is titillating.

Blame, Latin, blasphēmāre, “to blaspheme.” Titillate, verb, Latin tītillāre, “to tickle.” Curse, noun, Latin cursus, “course,” as in the direction taken. Quod est super. I no longer study Latin.

The Varsity Blues are no longer my team.

The cab is hot and smells sickeningly sweet like Vanilla Armor All. Why didn—t I drink any water at the bakery” My hangover presses on my dry tongue. I crack my window.

Outside of Davisville station we pass a busker with dyed green hair playing “Sweet Jane” on acoustic guitar. Not the Velvet Underground version, the Cowboy Junkies version. MuchMusic still plays that video like three times a day. My Pay-TV hasn—t got cut off, yet.

Men in grey shorts jog along the shoulder of Sunnybrook Park. Further towards the hazy horizon line, a pair of horses and riders stand stationary in a field.

Today is my third trip to The Bridle Path—aka Millionaires Row'since I moved to Toronto. I have a chosen a favourite house from one of the few that isn—t hidden behind hedges and high iron gates. Twenty or more of my apartment could fit inside this house. Ten of my apartment towers could sit on the property. The fa—ade is flanked by Corinthian columns. Not those budget Tuscan columns, oh no, Corinthian columns. Gilded street lamps flags the driveway, like they are saying “welcome to a world of happiness and supremacy.” Inside, I imagine a grand staircase centred around a chandelier, marble floors and Persian carpets, a two-story library and an Olympic-sized swimming pool. And maybe a taxidermy African elephant head mounted above a fireplace, or something equally ostentatious and devastating.

?You know which house you—re supposed to go to, right?” asks the cabbie. He thinks I—m a what” A strip-o-gram” A call girl?

?No, sorry. We can head back. Midtown is good.” My words come out gurgled. Wine phlegm gags the back of my throat.

The cabbie pulls over. “You pay for the ride here first. Then I—ll drive you back.” His metre reads $39.50. I swallow back spit as I pass him my Visa. Silently, I will him to simply ink my card through the imprinter and have me sign. He picks up his car phone for authorization. Run, I think. Run, as he punches in my card number. Run, as he waits on hold.

I tell him, “That's my good card. That one's good.”

?Declined. You wanna talk to them?” I reach for the receiver. “The cord doesn—t go as far as the back seat. Come up.”

Again, I picture myself running. My imaginary superhero body bolts through a row of hedges and leaps over a wrought iron fence. In each of these yards there is likely a Doberman or a pet tiger or something I—d have to wrestle. And I can—t actually wrestle. Delicate ankles. My superhero fantasy has real corporeal limits. I—m not much of a dreamer. And I already have a juvenile record for shoplifting. I open the passenger side door and slump defeated beside the cabbie. The Visa representative on the phone politely chides me, “If you were a customer who pays your minimum on time, I could make an exception. But you—re running a balance month after month.” The cabbie shifts his gear stick from neutral to drive. I make a head gesture that I—m sure appears to him like a nod, but really it's only my neck giving up the burden of carrying my stupid head.

He parks in the loading zone behind Crestwood private high school. I am relieved as he undoes his pants in the front seat. Front seat equals blowjob. Back seat equals more. Or at least that's what the boys in my hometown taught me.

My ears fill with vacuum noise as if the world has just been punctured and everything is being sucked through a small hole. I am spared from hearing the sounds he makes. I expect him to be a rough ride. Isn—t that what happens when you cheat a cabbie” A head pushing and hip pumping rough ride” He only rubs his hands up and down my arms, dips his fingers under the back of my dress.

Afterwards, I sit forehead to knees on the curb in front of the private school in the richest zip code in the country. When the recess bell rings and teens in navy blue cardigans and grey slacks swarm the lawn, I quickly move along.

I head down York Mills Road, past the auto body shops and Mr. Subs and self-storage lots. Past Sleep Country Mattress and the Rogers Cable headquarters. Past the biggest liquor store in the entire province. Hardly anyone walks York Mills Road. It's a thoroughfare. A driving route. I am an obvious outcast legging it along as station wagon after station wagon whips by me.

I reach the York Mills Station, which is where I should catch the TTC, but I—m not ready to share a small space, like a subway car, with other humans. I turn down Yonge. The Guinness Book of World Records says that Yonge Street is the longest street in the world, at 1,896 km. The Guinness Book of World Records is mistaken. The longest is the Pan-American Highway. I can fact check better then those Guinness dimwits. Though Yonge may as well be the longest since now I—ve doomed myself to walk it.

I make myself stop at the Bedford Park Community Centre to use the women's washroom beside the pool. My body slips out of autopilot and back into present time and place. The tile floor is slippery. Mirrors are fogged from the perpetually running showers. Old women bathe and speak a language that sounds a lot like Italian, except I don—t understand a word. I edge my head into a metal sink and slurp back cold water from the tap. The cold metal faucet lets me grip it tightly—it doesn—t care about what I—ve done.

Further down Yonge, I welcome pedestrian density and transit hubs. I am delightfully nobody in the crowd. The shopping centre at Eglinton lets me know I—ve almost reached Midtown. For several blocks the buildings turn to glass and steel and become disproportionately taller. This too is comforting—how small I am in comparison. Then, a few blocks later, I—m shouldered up to Mount Pleasant Cemetery. Cherry blossoms and magnolias are at the end of their bloom. Pink petals snow down on the headstones. Spring has been warm, too warm. I feel an eyeball headache coming on again.

It isn—t until I pass Summerhill that I feel the surroundings are “mine” again. The corner grocery store that is just called FOOD is mine. Rows of red brick houses with rock-and-roll flags hung in their windows instead of curtains are mine. And finally, finally!, my building on St. Georges, always with a Vacancy, Bach, 1 Bed, 2 Bed sign posted out front.

I slip my shoes off in the elevator. Swollen feet. Almost five hours have elapsed since Not-Mavis and I left my apartment. From the hallway, I can hear my phone ringing. It rings again as I hang my up my keys. A third time as I crumple into my bed. You just paid for a cab ride with a blowjob, I remind myself. What have I got left to lose” I pick up the phone.

?Bay” Bay, I got this message on my machine.” I can hear my mother's utter dismay from 150 km away. “It said you owed a lot of money.” Yes, this also is what other flunkies warned me about—creditors will track down family members, grow their phone tree of harassment.

Again, there is this ubiquitous suction. A velocity so much bigger than me. Its master force pulls confessions from my cerebral cortex or whatever part of the mammal brain that holds secrets. I dropped out of school. My student loans defaulted. I owe a fuck ton of money. And I hate myself.

Two: Sodomite

?Sodom Road exit?”

Lampoonistic question. I almost answer, yes sir, before the driver comically clears his throat. His hired Lincoln's front grill is so bug blemished from countless trips between Toronto and the boondocks that clearly he knows exactly which route to take. Exiting on to Bowen or Bertie would add fifteen-odd minutes to the trip. The driver's question is for amusement's sake. Sodom Road is the joke of the Niagara Peninsula. Travel south on Queen Elizabeth Way and you can—t miss the radiating letters under bald sun, or at night, the reflective aluminum letters that rush to meet your headlights. They read “Sodom Rd. Crystal Beach,” with an arrow pointing to the expansive stretch of overgrown brush. The road's name nods to the late 1880s when Crystal Beach was a religious colony and chautauqua assembly. True story. The village was settled by Jesuits or maybe Methodists who soon found more profitable ventures than Bible Camp. The Holy Trinity was replaced by a dance hall, a vaudeville theatre and a carousel. Hailed the Coney Island of the North. Pity Sodom Road was never renamed. I might enjoy returning home via Vaudeville Road. Painted Pony Parkway. Or something nostalgia-worthy like that.

Will the driver also think it clever when Sodom Road becomes Gorham Road” Gorham (like Gomorrah) Road has never earned the same heckling. It's unfair—both Sodom and Gomorrah were cities of grievous sinners, both destroyed by fire and brimstone, and so shouldn—t both share equal rights to innuendo” Lewd animal butt lust sodomy is what stuck around our pitiful noosphere. Sodom. So be it. Welcome home.

I make no attempt at eye contact in the rear view mirror. I can—t be bothered with his grin. And I don—t want to invite any other jokes he may have about the backwards track of my childhood.

Over the past week, friends and acquaintances spawned our gross jokes. My return to the village considered foolish funny, not ha ha funny. As if I would immediately be gifted a straw hat and oversized hammer as soon as I arrive. Torontonians believe that anywhere outside of Toronto is pantomime stage—a place where mute actors perform a dumb show.

My farewell party was an LSD dropping and viewing marathon of The Prisoner. I hemmed my bachelor apartment in with back alley mattresses and borrowed blankets. Acid was supposed to be tongue-in-cheek—as in psychedelics are the type of drugs only found in 1960s television or in small-town Ontario—but droves of students around The Annex actually showed up ready to trip. A clique of Ontario Collage of Arts and Design students brought several giant white latex balloons. “Contact imminent,” they parroted. “Turn back before it's too late.” One fawn-like girl I—ve never seen before walked in circles wearing only a white bikini with the number 6 painted on both breasts and butt cheeks. Where did they come from” “Bailey fucking Martin,” they greeted me by name, “don—t leave us.”

As the night wore on I recognize fewer and fewer of their faces. This panicked me at first. I itched my skin. I pulled at my hair, follicle by follicle. Fawn-girl appointed herself the bad-trip nurse and calmed me by instructing me in breathing. “In. In. In,” she cooed, then “Out. Out. Out.” Hours later I was said to be shouting, “I—m not a number, I—m a free man.?

A few wrote their phone numbers and some intoxicated propositions on my bathroom wall. “Bailey fucking Martin, you can—t leave this city before sucking my cock,” one example, written in lipstick. Not one of them helped me pack and haul my stuff to the curb. In Toronto, it's every asshole for themself. No farewell kisses. Maybe adieu is only bid when you—re going somewhere big.

Crystal Beach's population is 3,000 year-round residents, give or take.

Once upon a time the village was famous. Or between the twenty-fourth of May and Labour Day we were famous. Known throughout Erie and Niagara Counties in New York State, as well as around Ontario's Golden Horseshoe. We were famous for the largest dance floor in North America. The most terrifying roller coaster, allegedly, in the world. Sun bathing on white sand beaches. Picnics on perfect lawns. Crystal Beach was where workers from the Lackawanna Steel Plant or Welland Wabasso Cotton Mill would take their staff retreats. People who didn—t have to live here loved this place. I could be a tour guide, except we haven—t hosted any tours for a long, long time.

The grass is parched, not gaily kept like the Crystal Beach of yesterday's postcards. Crab grass and dandelion claim each yard. Oaks are topped with billowing caterpillar nests. Vinyl-sided bungalows hunker low to the flat earth.

The first billboard off the highway shows a collage of fraternal group emblems: the Kinsmen, the Lions, Knights of Columbus, Order of Eagles, Odd Fellows, Masonic Hall Palmers Lodge 372, and their matriarchal counterparts: the Kinnettes, the Rebekahs, and on. Just a quick glimpse of the perfectly symmetrical maple leaf wreath logo of the Kinsman conjures the taste of hot dogs. Today, I cannot name a single fellow from the kin of beer lodge good-doers, who hosted potato sack races and Easter egg hunts. These brothers are a single oversimplified archetype in my mind. Only moustaches. Polo shirts. Fishing caps.

I do remember posing for photos at their Christmas food hamper giveaway. Snap. Adorable welfare brat accepts hand out.

The second billboard displays a similarly crowded arrangement of religious banners. Saint George's—where I was baptized Roman Catholic and prayed for God only knows how many Sundays—displayed on the top left of the sign. I always thought the exterior of our church looked like a flying saucer: short and round, a low conical roof topped with an otherworldly spherical crown of polished steel. It was an ongoing disappointment to enter and see the queue of wooden pews, like any other church.

The stained glass was something. Or at least it was something significant to my child's sense of wonder. As a girl, I insisted on sitting next to the stained-glass window that portrayed the sixth station of the cross: Veronica wipes Jesus's face with her veil. I imagined myself as Veronica. She was there at the right moment. From out of the crowd of bystanders Veronica was chosen to receive the Holy Face, the miraculous swatch of cloth said to quench thirst, cure blindness, possibly raise the dead. One opportune moment and Veronica became legend.

I—ve since learned from an Early Christianity Studies course that Veronica was not a historical figure. Why are most of the women in the bible mostly myth” Were they always fiction or did time fictionalize once living, breathing women”

Years before university wrecked everything, Veronica's rose-coloured lips were truly holy. On the right kind of Sunday morning, the sunshine would send a slice of pink light through the glass window and down to the marble floor. If I reached my hand out, pink light would make my fingers glow.

St. George's congregation, like the Kinsmen, has also become lump sum of Sunday-best-dressed. Besides my own mother, I can—t remember a one. Even the priest's name is consigned to oblivion.

These lapses in memory mean I am returning to the village a stranger. I am returning as a failed Torontonian and a university dropout. For four years, seven months and twenty-eight days I managed to live as far away from here as I could. Only a two-hour drive, really, but another fucking world.

Now I am the only passenger in the back seat of the Niagara Car Service with all my belongings audibly bouncing around in the trunk behind me. My thighs are smeared grey by the unread pages of the Globe and Mail that I—ve allowed to wilt on my lap. The early appearance of cottonwood seeds dot the humid air and make me sneeze. I am returning on the hottest day of, not only the year, but, according to 91.1 HTZ FM, the hottest spring day in the last sixty-two years. April 28, 1990.

?Air con is on the blink,” the driver says. “Boss wasn—t planning on fixing it until June, but this sure feels like June to me. Like July.” What appears to be a gnat has drowned in the sweat on the back of his neck. I stare at the pin-sized smudge, then scold myself for looking so closely at him. For looking at any of it.

This is temporary, I tell myself. A blip. I will write a novel. I—ll find a sugar daddy—not a dock foreman or a plumber, but an art dealer or entertainment lawyer. I—ll become a one-hit-wonder pop star. I will set myself on fire and film it. I—ll do something. I—ll be someone. I will.

A third billboard once welcomed countless tourists. “You Can—t Beat the Beach! Crystal Beach Amusement Park, since 1889.” Now there is something I remember: a sign that's no longer standing. A small mound of overturned dirt—like the grave of a beloved pet—marks where it was torn from the ground.

Three: Painted Lady

Nine Loomis Crescent is coated in at least six layers of Lunar Eclipse—a purple paint shade my mother chose for its name. The romantic name and, more so, to set her home apart from the neighbouring cottages. The colour absolutely realized its full potential. Too brazen for the white panorama, the neighbours view the house as a painted lady. A tramp clowning around the block. The house may have well taught itself to say, “Hey, sailor.” Purple wasn—t entirely to blame.

My mother—Barbara Enrica Martin—has always been too much for Crystal Beach. Way too much woman for the local hard-bitten bachelors. Luckily for her, the beach once brought in a steady flow of single American men each summer. Barbara adopted a strict cross-border dating policy long ago. On-and-off, her personal ad ran in the Buffalo News from the early “70s to the mid-?80s. She always alerted me as to when strange men might start calling again. Her instructions on message taking were precise. Repeat the man's name twice, spell it once. And do not sound like a nervous kid at a spelling bee. Speak clearly, like a grownup. Once and only once did juvenile curiosity get me, and I searched the paper for her ad.

Pleasantly Plump and Entirely Experienced. SWF 5–8?” brunette. Independent, liberated, educated and sexy (double D!) Not looking for a husband, just good company. Reply if you are a kind, adventurous man under 50. Unmarried only, please.

Oh, the teenage humiliation of discovering that your mother has made public her bra size. I will never un-see it. Show me anything written in Century Condensed serif and it's burned into my mind.

Her suitors were often men with names that Barbara had to practice to pronounce. While she sifted through her sale-rack frippery for the perfect dress to wear, Barbara would recite the newest man's name, painstakingly, as if she could learn a new velar, an alveopalatal, a new way for her tongue to curl. “Ar-na-ud,” Barbara would say again and again to her sequined minidress. Watching this routine, I assumed that my mother was giving her dresses male nicknames. Barbara's closet soon housed a crowd of slinky polyester Ishmaels, long gauzy Jos” Luiss and black lace R—mis.

In turn, these men were all inclined to exclaim all three syllables of Barbara's name. “Bar! Bar! Ra!” Some called her from the front yard. Some hollered as they pulled up in their cars. And on hot summer nights “Bar! Bar! Ra!” burst from the open windows of her room. Gentleman callers rarely lasted more than a few months. A well-practiced and picturesque weeper, I swear my mother trained her tears to weave down her cheek like the ric rac trim on her polyester lingerie. Each man earned a day's worth, maybe two, of grief, then she was on to the next.

I never considered that by dating umpteen men from a different cities, another country, and even various other cultures and religions, she had spared me the of tired enactment of nuclear families or conventional small-town courtship. I was not dragged to dinner with the sad-faced divorc” down the street. At no time did I catch her flirting with my male teachers at PTA meetings. I didn—t witness her having a poorly concealed affair with the father of one of my classmates. I wasn—t asked to accept new brothers or sisters into our home. I never had to share holidays or birthdays. This is what she always told me anyway, “You—ll never have to share a birthday. You are my one and only baby.”

I also never considered each brief love affair was a way to get lost. Passed from mess to morass of passionate hands, Barbara was constantly spun in unknown directions, a dizzy course that pointed away from her gaudy beach bungalow at Nine Loomis Crescent. No, children do not recognize their parent's need to escape.

Instead I grew up believing what the locals believed, that we lived in a whorehouse.

Coincidentally, the apartment number of my recently relinquished Toronto address was also nine. Apartment number 99. Double nine. Although few people knew I occupied number 99 because I had pried the peel-and-stick numbers from my door. And when the tenants across the hall moved out, I pried the number 98 from the vacant apartment door. When 96 and 92 moved, I did the same.

To further confuse visitors, I singed the elevator buttons for floors eight through twelve with a lit cigarette. The stink of burning plastic failed to set off the fire alarm. Dumpy building.

One embittered one-night-stand—who returned unannounced in the middle of the night—incited these precautions. I woke at 2:30 a.m., just after last call at the bars. It wasn—t knocking I heard, but pawing. Feeble pawing that continued for more than fifteen minutes; I watched the time pass on my digital clock. A wounded animal was on the other side of my apartment door. I refused to let it in, but after a while I crept out of bed and crouched down on my bamboo doormatt to listen to the delicate and asinine pleadings of this drunken fuck. “I don—t understand why you—re avoiding me,” and, “You can—t tell me there wasn—t a connection,” and, “Am I nothing to you then?” The volume rose with each question, until one question was repeatedly shouted: “Am I nothing?” I sat perfectly still on the other side of the door. It was like overhearing a domestic dispute in the adjoining apartment. Listening in, vigilant, trying to assess at what point to call the cops. Except this wasn—t the next apartment over, it was mine.

The question “Am I nothing?” tormented me for weeks afterward. Why should I have to endorse someone else's existence” Most days, I barely know what's holding me to this earth. Do I go around demanding others to validate my worth” No. I do not.

I removed the numbers so that my steady rotation of no-strings lovers couldn—t find their way back to me. There was no longer a tangible place for them to lodge their complaints. I figured if they got past the patchy security door at my building's entrance, they would never find my un-numbered apartment.

Sometimes I still imagine them—raging punk girls from The Dance Cave, melodramatic theatre geeks from school, married men who would leave their business cards on my bedside table, all of them—wandering around the hallways of my massive apartment complex. All wanting to ask me the same troubling question.

Standing on my mother's porch, I am demoted back to single nine. Barbara's brass number isn—t the cheap peel-and-stick type I had pried from my old apartment, at least. Barbara's nine is oversized and art-deco-like, and fixed above the door with real brass screws. The deadbolt is brass, too, and there is only one, and it's not even locked. No one outside of Toronto double bolts their doors. Songbird, a Yorkshire terrier, barks as I haul my largest suitcase inside

“Songbird. Sit. Quiet,” I command. Songbird isn—t the terrier I grew up with. This is Songbird II. I don—t allow this Songbird to lick my face as I bend down to pet her. The terrier dances in figure eights around my hands, nervously eyeing me as if I—m going to smack her. Then as soon as I stand upright again, she rolls over to show her belly. “You missed your chance for a belly rub, buddy.” I step over her, kicking my flip-flops across the floor. The ceiling fan that whirls above me is new.

I get earfuls about Barbara's latest home renovations in each of our telephone conversations. Now I stand agog seeing the change with my own eyes. This is not my mother's kitchen. This is the kitchen of a sane person with sane tastes. Where is the avocado-coloured oven” Where is the smiling sun-faced clock” The refrigerator magnet...