Thirst / Jules Lewis

R’s voice has a way of getting under my skin, like an electric fluid flowing through my veins, and it was still inside of me when I got home to my apartment, swerving between my limbs and organs, darting in and out of my brain. I poured myself a scotch and sat down on my front porch, watching cars intermittently barrel up and down Lansdowne Avenue, unable to shake the sense that I was still deep in conversation with R, although I had no idea what we were talking about; in fact, as I sat on my porch, I could not remember one thing we had said to each other all evening, and I thought about calling to tell her about this odd sense of amnesia, but instead I lit a cigarette, knowing very well that after a certain point in the night I had become preoccupied with our moment of departure, the moment when I would once again be alone, and that this anticipation of aloneless filled me with hunger and fear, pushing me away from the noise of the Dundas Street bar and R’s giant underwater eyes, the way they swallowed my speech into their depths, as if she wasn’t listening to my words, but literally seeingthem, like one would see a sculpture or a painting. With my lit cigarette tucked into the side of my lips, I began to roll a joint, knowing very well that even before the night had begun, I had already planned to make something of my aloneness. In fact, I thought, as I crumbled weed onto the rolling paper cradled between my fingers, I had treated the night out with R only as a prelude to my aloneness; but now that I was alone again, I did not feel fully alone, R’s voice like another voice behind the voice in my head, speaking in wide streaks of sound.

Staring out at Lansdowne Avenue, each side of the road bordered with parked cars, I placed the freshly rolled joint in the breast pocket of my grandfather’s Christian Dior shirt, one of the few material items I had inherited from the inscrutable man born into the tail end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. I walked down my porch steps onto the street, once again feeling a giddy sense of anticipation, like the aloneness that I had been searching for all evening was right around the corner, and that soon I would find myself in a pure state of being, without any other interior intruding upon my interior. At the corner of Lansdowne and Bloor Street, I stood for a moment, staring up at the yellow sign of The Hasty Market, wondering whether or not to go inside to buy a bottle of water, as I expected there to be a point in the night when thirst would consume me, and that the reasonable thing for me to do would be to buy a bottle of water in preparation for this moment, but just then the idea of holding a bottle of water in my hand felt repulsive, it would make me feel cluttered and unnatural, completely ruin the night, and I continued west along Bloor Street, relieved to be free to move my hands and arms around as I pleased, unencumbered by any form of technology.

As I approached the underpass at Sterling Avenue, I stopped for a moment to light my joint, struggling with my lighter a few times before I could get it to work. I took a long drag, holding the smoke deep in my chest, then kept walking west, below the underpass. There was something about the way my voice sounded in my head that bothered me, filling me with the same cluttered longings for escape I had felt all evening with R. Disappointment sunk down into my chest, in my not-aloneness of finally being alone, in the distance between myself and the aloneness I was searching for — real aloneness — aloneness that actually wants to be alone — which has no need to be thought or spoken. Real aloneness lies still, I thought, as I emerged on the other side of the underpass, like a windless ocean, below speech and thought. Speech and thought are in a perpetual state of hurling themselves off a cliff. Speech and thought exist in midair, in need of a response to catch them, to save them from splattering against the rocks, whereas solitude is simply there, solitude does not needanything. I live in constant fear of splattering against the rocks, I thought. I am haunted by not-aloneness, and yet I never actually want to be alone; I am frozen in an anguished state between wanting and not wanting to be alone; a state of being that has seeded anxiety into Lucy’s body, which over the years has grown under the surface of her skin, becoming a living thing, a singular entity, as she has attempted to hold onto a love — my love — that contains within it a demand to get the fuck away from me; a love that has placed her into the involuntary role of prison guard, keeping close watch over a man who always has one eye on a long walk through the night, a man who never really iswhere he is, and yet always seems to be there;a man who feels trapped in the presence of others because he is trapped in himself, who every chance he gets fills his body with alcohol, weed and tobacco and wanders deep into the city at three or four in the morning.

Nearing the corner of Dundas West and Bloor, I passed the Crossways Health Clinic and those two crimson-bricked high rises, like the thick horns of a giant beast sleeping just under the surface of the city. I took the last few drags of my joint then flicked the roach away onto the sidewalk. My thoughts about Lucy had placed within me a familiar feeling of dread, as if I had committed a terrible crime and the reality of what I had done was just beginning to seep in, although it was not clear what I had done, just that I had done something to Lucy, something terrible, and the word neglect, like some elaborately shelled bug, scurried up into my head, and as I walked through the trafficless red light, continuing west on Bloor Street, I thought: I have neglected Lucy by not abandoning her; my twelve-years-long roving desire to abandon Lucy is a form of neglect, and neglect is far worse than abandonment. When you’re abandoned, I thought, you have an absence to peer into, a landing spot for your pain to be felt and possibly transformed; when you’re neglected, you are robbed of any such clarity, you remain stuck in a hollow thereness, groping for answers. An abandoned child can reinvent themselves, I thought, because they have no choice but to face their abandonment,whereas a neglected child is doomed to remain a neglected child throughout their entire life, for neglect is abandonment without end, neglect is interminable, there’s no way out.

I came up to the Seven Eleven at the corner of Indian Grove, feeling the dryness of my throat, like a rusty tunnel in the middle of a desert, and I once again thought about buying a bottle of water, knowing that from here on in I was only going to get thirstier and thirstier. Instead, I stopped to light another cigarette, then carried on, suddenly thinking about R again, longing to continue our conversation at the bar (even though I still could not remember one thing that we had said to each other), to resume our connection, the intimacy we had enjoyed all evening, even though that intimacy was tinged with the foresight of departure, with an image of myself walking through the city and smoking a cigarette, just as I was doing now, free from the grasp of R’s gigantic eyes, from the sense of her transforming each of my words into a tangible object. I had the urge to call her, to let her in on all of these thoughts, tell her that I could not remember a thing we had talked about, that I at once longed to be with and to depart from her, that she had a way of making me feel more like a painting than a person, that across from her at the bar on Dundas Avenue I felt paused into an object of beauty under the gaze of her magnificent eyes, and what does she think it means to feel that way, like a beautiful painting, a self that has been transformed into an object of beauty, a self that can only be stared at and devoured, a self that does not act but is only acted upon, a self that contains within it the desire of the looker, a self whose desire is the desire of the looker, how was it that R brought that out in me, whereas with Lucy, I am the doer, I thought,inhaling a thick swath of smoke down my dried-out throat and into my chest, in the sense that I feel I have done something terrible to Lucy, in the sense that every thought I have about Lucy gets sucked into the singular feeling that I have done something terrible to her, I have packaged her in a layer of my guilt, I can no longer see her straight, I have no idea who she is, I can only see the bubble-wrapping of guilt that I have bound so tightly around her body, I thought, dropping the butt of my cigarette onto the sidewalk then immediately stopping to light another one, unable to bear more than a few seconds without the feeling of something entering my mouth.

Up ahead, on the other side of the street, I could see the northwestern tip of High Park, and I felt myself speed up along the sidewalk, like I was trying to outpace my thoughts, one tattered blue sneaker in front of the other; although the faster I walked, the more engulfed I felt in the language of my mind, as if I were moving deeper into a narrow tunnel, the walls constructed out of my own thought, squeezing my body into the huddled-up idea that I have done something terrible to Lucy; and that this very idea, perhaps — that I had done something terrible to Lucy — was part of the terrible thing that I had done to Lucy; that my feeling that I had done something terrible to Lucy was a thing that I was currently doing to Lucy, which makes her feel terrible; my guilt is the thing, I thought, my guilt is the terrible thing that I am doing to Lucy; I feel guilty for the crimes that my guilt continues to commit, I thought, and this guiltiness towards my guilt towards Lucy only increases the power of my initial crime, the crime of my guilt, which is the terrible thing that I am doing to Lucy. But why, I thought, as I sped along the sidewalk, smoking the last of my cigarette, why have I spent twelve years attacking Lucy with my guilt; what has she done to me that has led me to make her feel so terrible by feeling that I have done something terrible to her; what terrible thing has Lucy done to me, I thought, that has brought me to punish her so brutally with the consuming power of my guilt; she must have done something terrible to me, she must still bedoing something terrible to me, she must be inside of me right now, doing something so terrible and violent, so deeply invasive and undetectable, that has left me with no other option than to defend myself against it with the total might of my guilt, I thought, feeling as if a lever had suddenly been pulled deep down inside of me, switching my organs on, buzzing them to life, and now they were beating and pumping and blinking under my skin, I’d hit the jackpot, coins were pouring out of my ears, my nostrils, my mouth. 

I was at Keele Street now, in front of the Petro Canada gas station. There was only one car at the pumps, a sleazy green sedan, low to the ground, and I couldn’t tell if the person filling it up with gas was a man or a woman, their body cloaked in a black hoodie that stretched down to their bare knees. I had an urge to know something more about this person, to get closer to their body, but when they looked over at me, I immediately turned away. Smoking, I crossed the street to where the edge of High Park began, stretching south down to the Queensway and west to Runnymede Avenue. Without hesitation, I walked between the two squat stone pillars and onto the dirt path leading diagonally, under a canopy of trees, towards the centre of High Park; the same path that in daylight is crowded with bike riders and dog-walkers and families and summer camp kids, but now, at three or four in the morning, had no signs of human life. I felt as if I had walked off the edge of the city into a dark and untamed wilderness, only able to see three or four feet ahead of me. A skeletal fear took hold of my body, and I wanted to turn around, re-enter the sheltering familiarity of the of the nighttime city, but I kept walking forward. I could feel my heart thumping aggressively under my grandfather’s Christian Dior shirt, as if the beats themselves were attempting to transmit thoughts into my head, and I wondered if words, in their most primitive form, are simply heartbeats, and if all language derives from the varying rhythms of the heart. I imagined myself turning around, walking back onto Bloor Street, as I continued deeper along the dark path, knowing very well that I had passed the point of no return, that it was just as incomprehensibly dark behind me now as it was up ahead.

As I trudged forward along the path, fear invaded every inch of my body. I had no idea where I was or which direction I was going. My eyes weren’t adjusting to the darkness. I felt as if I had walked into a trap; that I was being followed from every angle. I stopped in the darkness to light another cigarette, to give myself some company. My organs felt like alarm bells now, antsy sirens, under the grainy linen of my grandfather’s Christian Dior shirt, my twenty-two-year-old grandfather, heir of a Moravian textile empire, who got pulled off a train on the outskirts of Vienna in 1938 at three or four in the morning and the moment one of the pale boyish officers looked away he started running, without thought or speech, only a body, running deeper and deeper into the dark Austrian forest. I couldn’t tell if fear was speeding me up or slowing me down, but each step I took along the path felt more doomed than the one before, more out of my control, more inevitable. As my legs moved, I thought about my grandfather’s body, which I had never touched; his body that, like all bodies, had been formed, contorted, out of other bodies. I thought about the giddy rage that the young officer must have felt as he chased my grandfather into the forest, the rage that was separating himself from the dirty truth at the core of each one of our beings: that we are a species;that we are all born in and out of love, and that love is terrifying, love is being in somebody else’s body, love is an unmovable sameness, an incomprehensible equalizer. And just as that young officer, I thought, I have needed love to be born, I have needed love to survive, and I have hated my need for love, and I have needed my hate for love, so as to feel separate from my need for love; just as that young officer, in my ongoing search for aloneness, I have attempted to shatter myself back in time to a state of pure spirit, before being inside somebody else’s body, a state far removed from the shame of love, from the horror of sameness, where there is no such thing as need or closeness, no such thing as a body, no such thing as a species, no interiors intruding upon my interior, just heartless words, like streaks of light flickering far above the sky, like the power of a bullet in a stranger’s back.

Just then, I stepped on something, a root or a jagged rock. I stopped walking. I noticed I was still holding a lit cigarette and took a long drag, which made me aware of my thirst, the sharp pain scraping up and down my throat, my withering, dried-up insides. I was so thirsty. I needed fluid. I tossed the cigarette into the forest and stood there in the darkness. I needed something to drink. That’s all I could think about. I wanted to scream out for water. I wanted to scream and scream and scream until my thirst was relieved. I wanted to scream so loud that that person at the gas station would hear and come rushing towards me, pull a bottle out from under their hooded sweatshirt and tilt it over my mouth. I would place my lips around the edges of the bottle and drink, long and deep, sucking the liquid down into my belly. I would suck and suck out of the bottle until every last drop of moisture was inside my body, making me whole again, no longer on the brink of collapse and death. Words, where were my words, I thought, the words that I have wrapped around my body, like a sequenced gown, without which I would stop moving, I would fall to the ground, where were my words, my words that from the very beginning had propelled me forward, deeper into the interiors of High Park. Now there was only thirst and fear and my need to scream and I thought about rain how three or four days ago rain had drenched the city, for hours and hours, all that precious water, washing away down the sewers, soaking into the earth. How quickly the earth soaks up water, becomes dry again. I got down on my knees and felt the dry earth with my hands, the roots and pebbles and little patches of grass. I began to crawl forward in the darkness, looking for a moist patch of earth, a puddle, somewhere to place my lips, I was so thirsty, so very thirsty, and I kept crawling and crawling and I saw a dim light up ahead, an opening, where the forest path breaks onto the road, and across the road stands the wooden bleachers and a baseball diamond, the same field where I played ball for the High Park Braves as a kid, hovering at short stop in my white and maroon uniform, my moment of grace, I was so thirsty, so very thirsty, as I kept crawling towards these dim memories, so very thirsty, pushing, pushing forward through this dark and narrow tunnel, on the brink of my struggle between aloneness and not-aloneness, the struggle of a lifetime, the beginning of my lifetime starts now, I can see it, taste it, I can see the first things, the first thing, I can see out of the dark tunnel now and into the spiraling familiarity of the future, like the inside of a washing machine, churning in the dim light up ahead. 

Jules Lewis is the author of the novel Waiting for Ricky Tantrum and the play Tomasso’s Party. His most recent stories, Speech and Disappearing Object, appeared in 3:AM Magazine. He lives in Toronto. 


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