“Excuse me, but can I help you over the snowbank?” I asked the elderly woman wearing a lavender parka.
“Oh thank you, this weather is impossible. How am I supposed to run my errands? Apparently it’s all because of global warming, but who knows. I mean how do you ever really know something for sure?”
“Here, let me hold your hand.”
“You’ve got a grip like a large man, did anyone ever tell you that? It’s a good thing, it’s a compliment.”
“Oh, well, thanks.”
“My name is Vivienne, but you can call me V. What’s your name?”
“Mary Ellen. It’s a pleasure meeting you V.”
“Likewise. It’s not every day that someone asks if I need help. Apparently global warming has erased everyone’s good manners too. The world’s gone to hell in a hand-basket, but what are you going to do? I mean you either kill yourself or you just get on with life, those are really the only two options.”
“That’s one way to put it,” I said, arching an eyebrow.
Well this lady is a character
“Today I need to buy a few groceries. Then I’ll bake cookies – I always bake cookies on Thursdays. I have to call Deloris and Maude, they’re my last remaining friends. We check in on each other every day to make sure no one bit the dust overnight. Thursdays I also clean my bathroom. I have a maid who comes in once a month to give the house a good scrub, but I also like to clean. I never want to be one of those sad old ladies who lives in filth.”
“You have a busy day ahead of you. What kind of cookies are you baking?”
“Jam Thumbprints. Have you ever had them? They are incredibly tasty. Very nice with a cup of tea. I eat 24-36 cookies a week, depending on the recipe. Last week I made pecan sandies and the week before that it was gingersnaps.”
“I don’t see how you’re going to get on the streetcar safely with all this snow, why don’t I stay here with you until it arrives,” I suggested.
“That would be wonderful, I love to chat. It gets lonely living by myself. My kids drop by once a week, but I don’t care for them much. That’s a horrible thing to say, I know. But at my age there’s no point in mincing words. My son Lenny is an absolute failure and he’s chubby too. Three marriages, three divorces. But thank god no kids because he would have been a dreadful father. He’s one of those men who a certain kind of woman always likes to take care of? Do you know that type?”
“Actually I do. My friend Melissa is always dating those kind of men. Maybe she’ll marry Lenny.”
“HA!” chuckled V.
“And my daughter is the corporate head of something at Loyola Bank. I honestly don’t think she has a soul. All she cares about is making money. More more more. I think she’s after my house. This neighborhood is considered trendy now – that’s what I read in the weekend paper. Hipsters are moving here, whatever they are—”
“That guy next to the mailbox is a hipster,” I whispered to V.
“The one with facial hair and jeans that are skinny like tights?”
“His pants are ridiculous, how does he even get them on? Anyways, the point is that I think my daughter wants to tear down my house – HER childhood home – and build a McMansion as soulless as she is. But she’s in for a big surprise: when I die the house is being donated to The Women’s College Hospital. I’ve already got all the legal documents drawn up, my neighbours are both lawyers.”
“Wow. That’s a surprise all right. I think it’s wonderful that you’re donating your house to the hospital, they do excellent work. You haven’t mentioned your husband, did he already pass on?”
“He didn’t pass on, he died. He died fifteen years ago that bastard. He promised me he would always be by my side. Every night I spray his pillowcase with Old Spice, it was his favorite. And I talk to him before going to sleep. I mean obviously he doens’t talk back, but it calms me. I probably sound like a whack-job right now, but it’s the truth. What about you Mary Ellen? Do you have a husband or what is it a…a partner? Or maybe a wife? I shouldn’t leave anything out. I try to keep up with the times you know, I have a subscription to People Magazine.”
“I have a partner, his name is Jared. He’s a hospital administrator.”
“What does that mean exactly?”
“Honestly V I have no idea.”
V laughed loudly.
“What do you do for a job?”
“I decorate people’s homes.”
“Oh you’re one of those creative types.”
“Yes, I am. Look – your streetcar is almost here, I’ll help you on.”
“Stop by sometime for a cup of tea and cookies. I’m just up the street at 15 Greenwood. You’ve probably noticed my house before: in the summer my tiny lawn blooms with hundreds of cosmos, they stretch out over the sidewalk.”
“Oh your flowers are amazing! The cosmos look like tall skinny colorful people who are having a wild party! Give me your hand V, let’s get you on this streetcar.”
“Thank you. Don’t forget to come visit me. I’ll give you cookies to take home to your partner too.”
“I will V. Safe shopping today.”
“Look, the hipster is getting on the streetcar too. I’m going to sit next to him and ask him about his pants.”
I watched as V sat down next to the skinny jeans guy and he turned and smiled at her. She was hard to resist.
Photo: Artist Louise Bourgeois photographed by Herlinde Koelbl. NY Times
Mae dropped off her boss’s lunch in the usual place: in her office, on the lucite coffee table, in front of the greige velvet sofa. It was one of those frightfully uncomfortable modern sofas, like you were literally paying $10,000 to get back pain. Her boss’s lunch was always the same: Nicoise Salad, plain iced coffee & half a vanilla cupcake. The restaurant, “Lola’s,” knew Mae and they knew her boss and they always cut the cupcake in half before putting it in its plastic, planet-killing container. Then they gave Mae the other half which she would eat on her way back to work.
Mae ate her own lunch three floors down in a tiny, empty office that had one of those really good office chairs and a small desk. Mae had stumbled upon this perfect, private oasis when she accidentally took the elevator to the wrong level. The entire floor was inexplicably vacant, though occasionally a tall janitor would walk by and they would wave to each other. Mae loved the quiet. In fact this secret lunchroom was Mae’s favorite thing about her job.
As she munched her peanut butter and jelly sandwich, (layered with plain Lay’s chips – the only way to eat a PB & J), she pondered her future. She was 25 years old and she had no real life plan. She didn’t even have a Pinterest board for inspiration. No “If You Can Dream It, You Can Do It” quotes, no “Bucket List Travel Destinations,” no “Dream Weddings.”
As Mae fixated on her lack of a life plan, she started perspiring, one of those cold sweats. Her heart starting beating quickly and a wave of dizziness swooshed over her. She lay down on the carpet and placed her cold Diet Coke can on her forehead.
“OMG I’m going to die here in my secret lunch spot and my body will be found by the tall janitor. And all anyone will say, is, ‘she was that 25 year old girl with no life plan.’”
She moved the cold can to her wrists and then to her neck. She started feeling better, but decided to stay lying down for a few more minutes. As she rested with her Diet Coke can on her left temple, she realized that in fact she was not a complete loser. Being 25 and not having a life plan was not that bad. Being 35 and not having a life plan would be bad, really bad. Like you’d basically be a failure. But Mae still had time to get her shit together. Her first step would be to start a Pinterest “Life Inspiration” board this weekend.
“R we still on for tonight?” she texted her friends Becky and Nicole.
Mae got up and tidied her lunch area. She always made sure to keep it spotless and take her trash with her. Back at her cubicle, which was stationed right outside her boss’s office, she started answering emails and checking phone messages.
“Coming,” Mae called out, as she grabbed her iPad.
“I have a dinner right after work. Totally forgot about it. Fucking Carolyn Rosenhip. Can’t stand her, but she’s the wife of a good client, so I have to go. I usually keep an extra outfit here, but it’s at the cleaners. You need to pick it up – corner of Queen and John. And I need a gift. I want a box of those chocolates from that local shop that was written up in the New York Times; their chocolates look like colorful little balls. Get me their most beautiful box. Also, my bronzer has vanished. The only one I like is by MAC. Buy me two – it’s called, ‘Finely Spun Golden.’ You know what, get yourself a bronzer too, you look a little pale.”
“Oh that’s so generous of you, but it’s okay, pale is kind of my look.”
“I’m not saying you have to Kardashian yourself, but a little bronzer, just a touch would do you some good. I can’t have my assistant looking 90’s heroin-chic. I’ll text you if I think of anything else.”
“Okay, I’ll be back soon.”
Getting to do errands for her boss was Mae’s second favorite thing about her job. While other assistants grumbled about errand-running being “beneath them,” Mae thought of it as a perk. She loved getting out of the office and going shopping. Then Mae had a horrible thought: what if the fact that she thought of errand-running as a perk, was actually an indicator that Mae had no ambition? A person with no ambition would also be someone with no Life Plan. Fuck. Mae would have to discuss the issue with her girls tonight.
After picking up the swanky dress and knee-length jacket with embellishment from the cleaners, she headed to MAC. There she met the most beautiful makeup artist named Sammi.
“So, we’ve got the two bronzers for your boss, what else can I help you with. Do you want to try one of our new lip stains? I think Raspberry Smash would look really good on you,” he said.
“Actually ya, that would be great, I need a new lip color, but put that on a separate bill. Also…my boss wants to buy me a bronzer, in fact she insisted on it. She said she didn’t want an assistant who looked 90’s heroin-chic.”
“She did NOT say that. First of all, that whole early 90’s vibe was a dope look. Plus, what kind of boss forces you to wear bronzer? Pretty sure that’s not even legal.”
“I know, right? But I have to get one and I have to be wearing it when I get back to work.”
“I can’t even…but let’s keep it positive. I’m trying to change my energy vibration because I’m becoming a Light-Worker. It’s important that I always stay in the light and not put negative energy or words out into the universe.” Mae had absolutely no idea what a Light-Worker was, but she nodded knowingly.
“We’ll do a highlighter for you instead of a bronzer, your boss won’t know the difference and I think you’ll dig the look. You’ll need a brush too, which your boss will buy. I’ll get you sorted, don’t worry” assured Sammi.
Mae left MAC feeling amazing. She felt happier and prettier and kind of bouncier – like a fairy or good witch had sprinkled joy-dust all over her. In Mae’s eyes Sammi was already a Light-Worker and she felt lucky to have met him.
Her Uber driver was not very chatty, so she spent the ride over to Persephone’s Chocolates people watching on Queen Street West. There were so many colorful characters, including a gorgeous Goth Girl wearing a long black lace dress and black Granny boots. Mae wondered if Goth Girl was only allowed to date other Goths. What were the Goth rules? What if she fell madly in love with an Adidas sweatsuit-wearing person? Would the other Goths shun her? Would she be kicked out of their scene? So many questions she would never know the answers to.
The chocolate shop was heaven. Each chocolate ball looked like an expressionistic painting, as if Monet had breezed in and quietly spray-painted them all. This is why Mae liked doing errands for her boss: she got to peak inside a high-end world, often filled with great beauty, like the chocolates.
The store manager was excited about Mae’s boss buying a gift. Whitley Communications was highly regarded both in Toronto and across North America, famous for re-branding dying companies.
Using his own communications savvy, the store manager put two small boxes of chocolates into an elegant bag, one for Mae’s boss and one for Mae, sliding his business card beneath the ribbon on each box:
“Anytime your boss needs a special gift, or if you have a large corporate event, I look forward to assisting you. Please send my best and thank you to Mrs. Blackwell.”
“I will. Thank you so much.”
On her ride back to the office Mae was suddenly tired. She opened the window, leaned her head against its edge, closed her eyes and let the wind scatter her L’Oreal Rose-Gold highlights. The rest of the afternoon was chaotic, so Mae’s tiredness had nowhere to go but away.
“I told you a little bronzer would look good, huge improvement. Huge. Now I have a very chic-looking assistant.”
By the time Mrs. Blackwell swished out of the office to her dinner, Mae barely had time to freshen up and catch the streetcar. Thursday nights the girls always met up at their favorite Mexican hangout, “Rosalita’s.” The vibe was flea market-chic meets old school Mexican grandmother’s house, with all eighties music.
Nicole and Becky were already seated with their margaritas, chips and salsa and a drink for Mae.
The three of them had been friends since junior high and knew each other inside out. Occasionally they fought like sisters, but mostly they were just there for each other. They were there for the un-important stuff like, “what should I wear on this date,” and they were there for the important stuff like, “can you sit with me while I pee on this stick? I think I might be pregnant.”
Becky was complaining about her new girlfriend, Violet, whom she’d only been dating a month.
“You have an epically long list of grievances against your girlfriend and it’s only been one month. I say move on or lighten up,” said Nicole in her usual super direct way.
“I agree with Nicole. And to be honest, I’m not a huge fan of Violet – she’s too agro with her veganism. Last week she ripped me to shreds for ordering a pepperoni pizza on movie night. And we were at my apartment! Who does that?”
“You girls are a total delight tonight,” said Becky, glaring at them.
“Listen, I need to ask you something,” said Mae as The Smith’s ‘Girlfriend in a Coma’ played in the background.
“Que paso?” Nicole asked
“Do I need more of a Life Plan? I know we’re only 25, but like should I be doing more for my future? Am I just floating along too casually?”
“Yes, you are. You’re acting like my mom did when she was our age and she’s a Generation X-er.” said Nicole flatly
“You do need to get more on it girl, 25 is the new 30,’ said Becky.
“OMG. I can’t believe you two have been thinking of me as a slacker character from Singles. When were you going to tell me?”
Their second round of margaritas arrived with their usual dinner, The Taco Platter, which they always shared.
“Listen, calm down,” said Becky. “We just thought that you were figuring things out.”
“But I thought that’s what our twenties were for – figuring things out,” said Mae trying to keep her voice calm.
“Once a week Becky volunteers at her local shelter. She’s also taking an on-line class in Social Work at U of T. And she sells a curated selection of early 90’s fashion on Depop. That’s all in addition to her regular job. She’s making things happen for herself, moving things forward,” said Nicole before devouring her fish taco.
Mae took a long sip of her margarita, this conversation was not going as anticipated.
“Nicole is prepping for grad school, researching schools, starting to fill out applications. Plus she has her weekly internship and ‘Wellness With Nicole’ is blowing up on IG – she’s got 10,000 followers!” said Becky approvingly as she scooped up guacamole with a chip.
“But what are you doing other than work?” asked Nicole looking her straight in the eyes.
Mae stalled for a moment by taking a long sip of her margarita.
“Well, I’ve been keeping this a bit of a secret because I feared being judged, but the truth is…I’m training to become a Light-Worker.”
Other than the sounds of crunching tacos, the slurping of margaritas and The Smiths playing in the background, there was complete silence for about ten seconds. Then, Nicole said firmly:
“Ok then, well you’ve already got a Life Plan, you’re totally fine. You’re becoming a Light-Worker. You’re working towards your future, that’s great news.”
“I feel like the beef tacos are a little too spicy tonight,” said Becky.”
The city of Toronto is run by raccoons. We have north, south, east and west-side gangster raccoons. They are afraid of no one and do as they please. One summer we could barely use our deck due to an east-side family having taken up residence there.
The raccoons are the reason I currently have two metal pins sticking out of my ring finger. Two weeks ago I took our dog Lexie out for a midnight pee. A massive pandemic-fat raccoon named Fred was perched on our backyard fence. All 34 pounds of Lexie went ballistic. But Fred didn’t move an inch, he just stared at us with a look that said, “you are inferior to me, go away.” Lexie wanted to battle Fred over her turf, but instead I dragged her down the alley and around to our front door.
Turns out that during the drama Lexie had, on her adrenaline high, pulled me quite hard. My ring finger was swelling quickly and turning black and blue.
“I’ll just ice it with some peas, it’ll be fine,” I told my partner as I grabbed the frozen bag. He eyed my finger, then eyed me like I was completely nuts.
“Your finger is twisted, you probably fractured it.”
“It’s fine. It doesn’t even hurt, these peas are already working.”
The next day, after emailing finger photos to my doctor, (by then even I had to admit it looked a bit crooked), she immediately sent me to get x-rayed. After x-raying me the technician said:
“Ya, it’s totally fractured, go to the hospital right now.”
Yay, it was only fractured, I thought, not realizing that fractured was the same thing as broken, (I have zero excuse for not knowing what fractured meant.) A couple of days later I was operated on by a lovely plastic surgeon, awaking from surgery to find two metal pins sticking out of my finger. I also had a large cast that because of the anaesthetic felt like a 100 pound salami.
Throughout the week as I became accustomed to the cast, (I’ve never broken a bone before), I started doing more things. I decided that my lockdown-hair, (Ontario has been in lockdown for a thousand years), needed to be twisted up in a bun. I almost had the bun complete, though to be fair it wasn’t the chic-est of buns, when I realized that my hair was caught on the two pins sticking out of my finger.
“What did you do now?” my partner asked.
I walked over to him with my arm stuck to the top of my head.
“What the hell were you thinking?”
“I just wanted to put my hair up in a bun, I…”
He carefully extricated my hair from the pins without having to cut my hair (though to be honest a little haircut wouldn’t have been the worst thing in the world). He sighed deeply.
“Can you please just take it easy, this thing needs to heal, it’s serious.”
“I know it’s serious. It’s just that, what am I supposed to do with my hair? I look like Crystal Gayle from the seventies. Remember how long her hair was?”
“For the love of God. I’m going to Costco. Don’t touch your hair while I’m out.”
Stanley awoke from a long luxurious sleep, stretched and then set out walking. He turned down the alleyway behind Greenwood Avenue and headed to the grey duplex with the blue trim, number 105. The back gate was open, so he strolled in. He was hungry and was looking forward to having lunch with Mrs. Blackwell. He sat on her deck for about five minutes, enjoying the mid-day sun while waiting for her to appear. Then he decided to take a stroll through her backyard since she was obviously running late.
Mrs. Blackwell had recently added new planters which were filled with pink flowers that smelled like delicious candies. He also noticed a new herb garden, each herb had its own little sign: “basil,” “oregano,” “mint.” He took a little taste of the mint, it was lovely and made his mouth tingle. In the back corner of the yard Mrs. Blackwell had moved her porch swing, which had received an update with bright new yellow cushions. Stanley decided to wait there since it was out of the sun and under the shade of a big leafy tree. He settled in for a mini-nap while Mrs. Blackwell finished up with whatever was making her late for their lunch date. He dozed happily, enjoying the swaying of the tree’s leaves above him – it was as if he had his own “garçon” fanning him. The sweet garden smells made his stomach gurgle, he could hardly wait to eat.
“Stanley!” called out Mrs. Blackwell. Her voice was soft, with a hint of a Southern twang. Mrs Blackwell had grown up in Texas and though she had lived in Toronto for twenty-five years she still considered herself a die-hard Texan, she even had a “Don’t Mess with Texas” plaque on her front porch. Stanley headed over to the deck and joined Mrs. Blackwell at the patio table under a huge umbrella which she had opened to shield them from the sun. She had set out two plates of food, iced tea (she was Texan after all) and water. She smiled at Stanley, thankful for his company. Ever since her husband Earl had passed away last year she had been terribly lonely. Having a daily lunch companion who lived right in her neighborhood had lifted her spirits and put a little spark back in her step.
She sprinkled salt on her fresh avocado and tomato sandwich and took a small dainty bite. “A little slice of heaven!” she said. Stanley was focused on opening the shell of his giant peanut and extricating the nut. He tried his best to eat as little of the shell as possible. He chirped away happily as he finished his peanut and moved on to his walnut. Mrs. Blackwell loved to watch Stanley eat. It was like watching an artist at work, he ate so speedily, yet with such grace. She told Stanley about her busy morning. She had baked a cake for a friend’s birthday, cleared out her husband’s bedroom closet – which she had been procrastinating about – and called her doctor about the arthritis in her left knee which seemed to be getting worse. Stanley chirped and swung his tail around in sympathy.
As per usual, Stanley took the last few nuts and stuffed them in his mouth. Mrs. Blackwell knew his habits well. Now he would be off to hide the nuts for later and hopefully, if his memory served him, he would remember where he had hidden them. “Good-bye Stanley! See you tomorrow!” called out Mrs. Blackwell. Stanley chirped and scurried away quickly. It was crucial that he bury his nuts before other squirrels noticed that his mouth was full. Otherwise he ran the risk of having them secretly follow him and then steal his delicious, organic, Trader Joe’s nuts. It was a tough world out there, but at least he had his good friend Mrs. Blackwell, she was a gem.