A short story by Doretta Lau
Every One of My Answers Was a Disappointment
One cold day in June a few years ago—before I learned that ghosts are real without a doubt and that there are so many different kinds of grief—I flew from Vancouver to Toronto. My husband, Will, and I had just separated. We had no children and, because I was closing in on forty, it seemed unlikely that I would ever become pregnant or give birth or raise a child. I’d had no abortions or miscarriages. Every pregnancy scare had been a product of my neuroses rather than of nature. I’d done all sorts of drugs, slept with men I barely knew (and probably wouldn’t have liked much if I had known them any better), reached numerous heteronormative life milestones, and visited places in the world I couldn’t find on a map even now, but I was never going to experience motherhood. I began to think that this meant I was somehow unfinished as a woman.
Whenever my midlife existential crisis became overwhelming, I calmed myself by chanting names of childless women like a mantra: Virginia Woolf, President Park Geun-hye, Gloria Steinem, Hypatia of Alexandria, Oprah Winfrey. Did Joan of Arc count? Or did her untimely death prevent her from joining our sisterhood? I let these thoughts eclipse the fact that just months before, three of my paintings were included in the Whitney Biennial, which led to all of the work at my most recent solo exhibition in New York selling out. It was clear I was never going to have to worry about money again, except perhaps dividing my earnings in half in the event of divorce, but now I had unearthed a new set of problems.
I imagined that a new city would somehow transform me. As I was trying to figure out where I wanted to be and what I wished to do, my younger brother’s childhood best friend, Sab, asked me if I knew anyone who would want to sublet his roommate’s room. He didn’t know about the separation; he just wanted to avoid living with a stranger from Craigslist. My state of mind was such that I said I’d take the sublet without asking to see pictures of the apartment or considering what it would be like living with Sab, who in my head would always be mischievous and nine years old. I wasn’t religious, but to me this offer seemed like divine intervention.
I arrived at night. Vancouver had been sunny and dry as I departed, but Toronto was dark and suffering thundershowers as I got in a taxi at the airport.
The driver liked to talk.
“Did you come to Toronto to party?” he asked. He made it sound like he wanted to party with me, but soon started talking about being twenty-eight and having a wife and a kid. The way he said twenty-eight, with a kind of proud weariness, indicated that he believed he was older than me, knew much more about life than I did, and wanted to impart some wisdom. He watched me from the rearview mirror, waiting to see how I would respond. Every one of my answers was a disappointment to him; fifteen minutes into the ride he lost interest.
We drove by a convenience store before turning onto a one-way street that I would come to think of as mine.
“Please stop here,” I said when I spotted the address.
The rain had not abated. I was soaked the moment I stepped out of the taxi. The driver helped me with my suitcase and scrambled back into the car. I opened my umbrella, even though I was already drenched, and rolled my heavy suitcase through a parking lot. Before I got on my flight, Sab had texted to say that he was on a date and that he was probably going to sleep elsewhere that night. He wrote that he had left the keys in an envelope hidden in the barbecue on the back deck. I found the grill and threw the lid back. The keys were in an envelope so wet that the paper began to disintegrate in my hands. For a moment I thought I was going to drop the keys in between the slats of wood on the deck and be stranded all night in the wet and cold, but I recovered.
I circled back to the front of the building. The main door popped open—it hadn’t been latched properly. When I got to the suite, the key did not turn easily in the lock. It took a few tries to jiggle it to the exact spot that would make it work. I threw the door open. There was a cat sitting on one of the couches. I sneezed.
The prospect of going outside to get food was too much to bear after travelling, so I called for a pizza. Sab sent another text to say that his date had a boyfriend and he was coming home.
“So why did you think it was a date?” I asked him when he came through the door.
He shrugged. “She should have mentioned her boyfriend earlier.”
We watched a documentary about Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan, then Sab went to his room.
The pizza arrived at one a.m., two hours after I had placed the order. I ate alone and thought about how young Tonya and Nancy were when the entire world was watching them, waiting for one of them to fuck up.
The next night Sab and I went to a launch for an online magazine at a bookstore. “Come out with me and my friends. You’re too attractive to have a Fat Girl Friday,” he said when he found me sitting on the couch watching a documentary about a basketball star in Boston with a drug problem.
“Do you use that vile line on Tinder?” I asked, but I went to change shirts and slap on some lipstick anyway.
We were drinking cheap wine out of plastic cups and talking about porn when a party photographer asked me to move out of the shot she wanted to get of a twenty-three-year-old DJ and Sab, who had been on a beloved Canadian TV show when he was a teenager. I went to get more wine.
I turned to see Katie, a friend from university. It had been at least four years since we had last met.
“Are you living in Toronto now? Why didn’t you tell me?” she asked.
“I’m just visiting for two months. I just got here last night,” I said.
To my relief, she didn’t ask about Will or children or any of my other failures. Instead, she asked about my paintings and whether I was still in touch with various mutual friends.
As we made plans to meet the following night, Sab walked over and kissed Katie on the cheek. He told her he liked the profile of Sarah Polley she had written for the online magazine.
After Katie left, Sab asked, “How do you know her?”
“I want to possess her,” he said.
“I thought you liked them young.”
“I like them female. Young’s just a bonus.”
“Spoken like a rapist,” I said. “I’m meeting her for dinner tomorrow night. We might have drinks, too.”
“I have a date tomorrow.”
“You’ll have to possess her another time then.”
Sab’s eyes drifted back to the crowd. He pointed to a young woman with long brown hair who was having her picture taken by the party photographer. “I see that girl in Parkdale all the time,” he said.
“Go talk to her,” I said.
He walked over to her in a steady and unhurried fashion. I checked my phone. No indication of rain, no new emails of interest. A few minutes later he came back and said, “You should go now.”
“I’m going to try to go to her place,” he said.
“Sure, I won’t wait up,” I said.
I began the thirty-minute walk back to the apartment, not quite sure if I had taken the correct route. A police car drove past. There was a couple ahead of me for most of the way, so I relaxed a little. I wasn’t going to be raped or murdered on this particular evening.
A block from my building, I spotted a familiar figure walking in front of me.
“Sab?” I said.
He stopped and turned. “Where have you been?” he asked.
“I was walking. Why are you back already?”
“I took a cab.”
“What about the girl?”
“She was on a date.”
Katie and I met at a restaurant on Queen West that was usually busy, but since we were meeting early on a weekday, we were seated immediately. We ordered cocktails and tacos.
“You’re staying with Sab Sahi,” she said.
“His roommate is shooting a film in Vancouver, so I sublet his room,” I said.
“I don’t know about you, but I’m too old to have a roommate.”
“Same. So how do you know Sab?”
“We went on a date.”
“He’s looking for a fuck buddy and I’m looking for a husband. I just didn’t feel like blowing him that night. My TMJ has been really bad lately.”
“He’s slept with so many women his dick probably tastes like pussy.”
Three drinks later, I couldn’t help myself. I started talking about divorce and motherhood and Joan of Arc. That I wished I hated Will because then I might feel something other than sadness. I told her about the fly I’d found in the kitchen that morning. Rather than kill it, I’d placed a pint glass over it on the counter. Every crazy thought I’d been having slipped into our conversation. I told her that maybe we were already dead—that she and I and five of our other friends had died long ago on a drive up the Pacific Northwest when I’d come to a complete stop on the freeway instead of pulling over—and this was the afterlife. Katie listened with far more patience than I deserved.
“I had my eggs frozen five years ago,” she said, when I finally stopped my monologue.
“Really? It never occurred to me to do that. I’m not even sure I want kids,” I said. “I’m not sure I’m capable of that kind of love.”
When I returned to the apartment, Sab wasn’t home. I checked my phone and saw a text from him telling me not to expect him back that night. After three days it was clear that his schedule was built around auditions, women, and the occasional drink with friends. It had been a while since he last booked a part in a film, but he had the luxury of living off television residuals.
I got into bed and began reading “The Pink House” by Rebecca Curtis on my iPad, but my vision was blurry from the cocktails. There was an option to listen to Curtis read the story, so I pressed play and closed my eyes. As her voice filled the room, I began to feel afraid. Though the title was innocuous, it was a ghost story. My feeling that the apartment I was in was haunted in some way compounded the eeriness of the narrative. Right before the father said, “I invite the ghost to have his way with whoever he finds in the house!” I shut the audio off. I had no wish to awaken any spirits lurking in that Parkdale dwelling. When I was thirteen, I was at a video store with friends when a male clerk flagged us down to recommend a movie. This eliminated the agony of having to make a choice, so we rented it for our sleepover. To our horror, we discovered it was about entity rape. At the end of the film the words based on a true story flashed across the screen and we all screamed.
Just after I turned off the audio, something moved past my bedroom door.
I shrieked like I was thirteen.
“Amelia? Are you okay?”
I walked up to the door and slowly opened it. “Sab?”
He was standing in the hallway, holding a comic book. Next to him was a woman I’d never seen before.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I was listening to a ghost story and didn’t realize you were home.”
“This is Dani,” he said.
“Hi,” I said.
“Hey, I’m sorry we scared you,” she said to me. To him: “I’m going to get a glass of water.”
Sab handed me the comic book, which looked like it was from the 1950s. “Read the first story, I think you’ll like it.”
I held it like it was a mint-condition Gretzky card.
“Don’t worry, it’s not worth anything,” he said.
“Are you giving me this so I’ll be occupied while you entertain your lady friend?” I asked.
Sab grinned and walked off.
I returned to my room, put on the latest album by The-Dream, turned the volume up as high as my laptop would allow, and finished reading “The Pink House.” Then I read the comic, which was about committing the perfect crime. When I went to get some water I noticed that Dani had taken the glass that had been atop the fly.
My brother, Tom, came to Toronto on a work trip and decided to stay a few extra days. Sab wanted to meet for drinks, but he was on a date and trying to get the woman to go home with him. He asked us to meet them at Pharmacy, a bar that was only a block away from the apartment.
Tom and I arrived first.
“The house we grew up in is about to be torn down,” he said.
“I’m surprised it wasn’t demolished twenty years ago,” I said.
“Aren’t you sad about it?”
“Not really. Are you?”
“I broke in to look around.”
“It wasn’t hard to get in. I went through the window of my old room and the alarm code was the same. They left behind a box of stuff. There was a gratitude journal—the guy only filled out four entries before giving up. There were also nude photos of a woman that were taken in the kitchen.”
“The kitchen? That seems like an awkward place to pose naked.”
“The light was great in the kitchen though, remember?”
I thought about it. “You’re right, that perfect north light. You know, I once saw their kid standing on the front lawn completely naked. He looked like he was seven years old at that time. Maybe they were nudists.”
“I went back to the house a couple of times. Took the kitchen table from the nook and the stained-glass windows and stowed them in Mom and Dad’s backyard.”
“Why did you do that?”
“The last time I went, some people came into the house and I had to hide in the linen closet.”
“That’s kind of insane,” I said.
“Whatever, I can talk my way out of anything.”
“How do you explain hiding in a linen closet to a homeowner?”
“There’s a dildo tucked behind that buffalo’s ear, like a cigarette,” Tom said, pointing up to a taxidermy trophy on the wall.
“Apparently a patron put it there,” I said.
“Who brings a dildo to a bar?”
“Who brings a dildo to a bar, then leaves it there?”
At that moment, Sab appeared with a young woman in tow. “Why are you pervs talking about dildos? Is this some weird incest fetish thing?” he asked. “Don’t answer that. I don’t want to know. Bridget, these first-rate pervs are Tom and Amelia.”
“You probably can’t tell, but I’m her brother,” Tom said. This clarification indicated to me that he thought Bridget was hot.
After one drink, Bridget left because she had to wake up at six a.m.
“Coffee’s for closers, Sab,” I said.
After Tom left, I began to live like an undergraduate student. Pizza, falafel, tacos, and roti became my staple foods. Once in a while I ate an apple to ward off scurvy. For the first time in years I drank so much I threw up. Still, I made subpar paintings on the deck for an exhibition in Berlin before going out at night to meet with friends I’d known since I was eighteen. Some of them were still artists, but others had moved on to steady paychecks and homes in the suburbs. Most suggested I move to New York or LA. Not that they were advising me to run away—they thought it would be better for my career. I kept going out, determined to ward off my dark thoughts. Meanwhile, Sab had slept with six different women and gotten two callbacks.
I was making one of the bad paintings when Sab came out to the deck, holding up a brown cardigan. “This ended up in my room.”
“That’s not mine,” I said.
He examined the item as if he was seeing it for the first time. “Oh, I think it belongs to Dani.”
“Are you sure? Maybe it belongs to Ashley or Mia.”
“I hope you don’t think I’m betraying any of these women, because I’m not.”
A week later it was Sab’s birthday. At the last minute, that very morning, he decided to host a party. None of the women he was sleeping with were invited.
By nine p.m. the deck was filled with people I had never met before. There was a couple with a baby who expressed interest in buying one of my paintings.
I began talking to a documentary filmmaker named Evelyn Young.
“I always thought you were a white woman,” I said. The words came out of my mouth just like that, but he wasn’t offended.
“I get that a lot,” he said.
“I have to rethink your films now,” I said.
“Are they better or worse when you know I’m an Asian-Canadian man?”
“It complicates the gaze,” I said, noticing that he smelled exceptionally good, like cedar and mint. But he had an air of melancholy about him.
A very drunk guest crashed into him. “Hi! I’m Cam. If you could invite anyone to a dinner party, who would you invite?” she asked, jabbing him in the ribs.
“Dead or alive?” I asked.
“Dead,” Cam said. “More fun that way.”
“So would they be zombies?” I asked.
“Dead but alive. You know what I mean,” Cam replied, but she was looking at Evelyn.
“Who would you invite?” he asked her.
“Kurt Cobain, Marilyn Monroe, and Jesus.”
“Why does everyone always want to meet Jesus?” I wondered aloud.
“He’s the son of God!” she said.
“Wouldn’t it be better just to invite God?” I asked.
“You remind me of that meme Sad Keanu,” Cam said to Evelyn, putting her hand on his chest.
“Uh, thank you?” he said. Then to me, he asked, “What about you? Who would you invite?”
“Theodore Wan,” I said.
“Who’s that?” Cam asked.
“An artist,” I said. “He died in 1987. When I look at his work I’m sure he must have had a sense of humor, so I imagine he would be fun at a party.”
“Who else?’’ demanded Cam.
“Bette Davis and Oscar Wilde. For laughs. The two of them can vie for attention while the rest of us drink and smirk and save up stories to tell at future parties.”
I asked Evelyn who his guests would be, but he seemed not to hear me. He left the party soon after.
Two drinks later, Sab was giving me life advice.
“I saw you talking to Evelyn. You can strike while he is sad,” Sab said. “His dad died last year. But the real mindfuck is that his sister was killed in a car accident while they were in high school and Evelyn was driving.”
“That is some fuckery,” I said. “Did you read a pick-up artist primer on how to snare vulnerable prey?”
“I’m just looking out for you,” he said.
A woman with long glossy brown hair walked up to us, then took her shirt off and stood in her bra. She took a swig of beer from a bottle. She had the kind of flat, toned stomach that I’d never had, not even when I weighed eighty pounds in elementary school.
“What the fuck,” I said to Sab.
“This is Mary. I told her ex-girlfriend she was only allowed at the party if she took her shirt off, but I was joking.”
I went inside. Was this what I could expect from life now that I was divorced and childless? I’d been tossed from the emotional stability of one’s thirties back to the tumultuous void of one’s twenties. I downed a shot of Jameson and began talking to Jeff, a writer I had met once before. Mary, now fully dressed again, wandered into the kitchen holding up her phone.
“Is this girl on Tinder into meeting or not?” she asked me.
“I think you need to be more direct,” I said. “Write something like ‘Thursday drinks?’ Then she can counter with another day or another activity.”
Mary did not take my advice. Instead, she sent an ambiguous message, which I knew would beget another ambiguous message in return. This would fuel insecurity and drama and in the end the two of them would probably never meet.
The party began to wind down. I was sitting in the living room talking to Sab, Jeff, and a guy who was a drummer in a band I’d never heard of when Mary walked in and offered to show us her tits. “But only if Sab touches them first,” she said. Sab stood up, and without looking at her, touched her left breast in a clinical and detached way, as if he had no interest in seeing it bare. He sat down and Mary began taking off the layers she was wearing: plaid shirt, t-shirt, tank top, and then her bra.
“I’m sorry they’re not that great,” she said as she stood in front of the four of us, naked from the waist up. She had large, pert breasts, the kind beautiful actresses possessed. They looked real. There were no stretch marks or visible surgery scars. The men in the room said nothing.
“No, no, they’re lovely,” I said, because she was standing there, vulnerable and needing some sort of response. The strange thing was I got the impression she had done this for male attention and none of the men were responding. She got dressed and left. The moment she was out the door, Sab said, “Those were great. They’re wasted on a lesbian.”
“You still got to touch them,” I said.
“Too bad about her personality,” he said.
About this time a pizza arrived—Sab had ordered it at some point—and since I had no interest in baring my tits I grabbed a slice and went to my room to eat it. As a rule, I never ate in bed, but it was the cleanest and only cat-free space in the apartment. How was this my life right now? I got on Facebook and saw that Evelyn had sent me a friend request.
“You missed a hot lesbian showing us her tits in the living room. Is this what happens at parties with millennials?” I wrote to Evelyn.
“I think it’s what happens at parties with Sab,” he wrote back.
Evelyn and I went to see Boyhood. After, as we walked back to Parkdale, we discussed the Up documentary series, which had followed a group of British men and women from the time they were seven. In the most recent film they were fifty-six years old.
“I can’t imagine letting the entire world see my heartbreaks and failures and tragedies every seven years,” I said. “I know there’s joy and triumph, too, but everyone’s hungry for the dirt.”
“If I’d been one of the subjects, I’d withdraw the way Charles did,” Evelyn said, referring to the man who had stopped participating after 21 Up.
“Doesn’t Charles also make documentaries?”
“When one of them dies, it’ll feel like a neighbor died, like someone we know tangentially is gone,” I said.
As we got closer to the apartment, I filled Evelyn in on Sab’s dating adventures, changing the subject to cat videos as we walked up the steps of the building.
We entered the living room. Sab was sitting on the couch.
“I’m about to have sexual intercourse in about an hour,” he said. “You don’t have to leave, though.”
At this moment, it started to rain heavily. Evelyn and I decided to stay, and joined Sab while he waited for his date to arrive.
“Want a beer?” Sab asked.
“Sure,” said Evelyn.
I shook my head.
Sab came back with a bottle of Budweiser. “Leftovers from the party. Jeff brought a two-four,” he said. “What are you working on right now?” he asked Evelyn.
“Doing preproduction work on the next documentary.”
There was a knock at the door. Sab went to answer it and let in a woman who looked remarkably dry considering the weather.
“This is Amy. She’s a lawyer,” Sab said, walking out of the living room.
“I hate my job,” Amy said.
“That’s too bad,” I said.
“I’m back here,” Sab called out.
Amy followed his voice.
“I think it’s too creepy for us to fuck while they’re at it,” I said to Evelyn. “He’s like a little brother to me.”
Evelyn understood. We started watching a documentary about the day OJ Simpson was arrested.
“My Biology 12 teacher, Mr. Taylor, said that the OJ verdict is our generation’s Kennedy assassination. He said we’d always remember where we were when we heard about it,” I said.
“So do you remember?”
“I was in Mr. Taylor’s class. He turned on the radio and everyone listened together.”
Thirty minutes later, Sab came through the living room to usher Amy out the door.
“Coffee’s for closers, Sab,” I said.
“What are you talking about? I closed.”
I continued to see Evelyn. We moved slowly, sadness heavy upon both of us, and so we were in step with each other. One night, he asked me if I wanted to go to his house for a dinner party with some friends. I said yes. Then I sent a picture of him, his address, his Wikipedia page, and his cell-phone number to Katie to say that I was going to his place, and if I turned up dead, she should contact the police with this information.
When I arrived, Theodore Wan answered the door.
“Am I dead?” I asked, wondering if my fear of being hit by a car while crossing the street had come to pass.
“No, Evelyn has some shady underworld connection,” said Theodore.
“I thought that meant he had an uncle who’s the head of a triad family in Hong Kong,” I said. “A dude who controls casinos and real estate.”
“Wait, his connect isn’t God, is it?”
“Your boyfriend is not that connected,” Theodore said.
“I wouldn’t call him my boyfriend, exactly.” I said. “I mean, I don’t even know where he grew up or where he went to university or if he went to university. I haven’t even seen him naked yet.”
Oscar Wilde walked by, holding two glasses of wine.
“I always thought he would be a beer drinker,” I said.
Bruce Lee was standing near a window talking to Bette Davis, who looked the way she did in All About Eve and not, thankfully, the way she looked in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?
“Of course Bruce Lee is here,” I said to Theodore. “Every Asian-Canadian bro adores Bruce Lee.”
“I guess we do,” said Theodore.
“Who’s that?” I said, gesturing to an older man who was making a martini.
It took a lot of restraint not to run over and shout “I love Grey Gardens!” or ask, “What do you think about the TV show Hoarders?”
The other Maysles brother, Theodore informed me, had not been invited because he was still alive (which was the case at that time—he has since died).
Bette Davis moved to the middle of the room. Could it be that someone had once gone to a train station to fetch her and overlooked her because she didn’t look like a movie star in everyday life? It was hard to believe now because we were all gazing at her, except for Evelyn, who was looking at me, likely wondering why I hadn’t asked how this was all possible. But I didn’t need to know how it came to be—I was in the moment, taking in the knowledge that death was not an ending. What a relief it was to learn that our spirits lived on beyond our fragile broken bodies.
Next to Evelyn stood a teenage girl who had pink hair pinned back with plastic barrettes. She was wearing a mint-green babydoll dress, black fishnet tights, and cherry-red Docs. Her nails were short and painted dark blue.
“This is my sister, Jackie,” he said.
“Hello,” I said. “I used to have the same pair of boots. I got them at an army surplus store.”
“I was wearing these when I was buried,” Jackie said.
I had so many questions about the afterlife, but it didn’t seem right at that moment to ask what it was like, if it was a place or a feeling or an expansiveness beyond time. Though I was curious as to whether death made everything knowable in an instant, whether it transmuted love into the forever with which we were acquainted only through slick advertisements about diamonds, I let Jackie tell me what she needed me to know, who she was now, and what she might mean to me in years to come if Evelyn and I continued on together. The thoughts I’d had about being incomplete as a woman dispersed; I no longer felt a need to compare myself to other people or their values. That night, the eight of us talked and talked and later we would never remember what we said but it didn’t matter because we had come to the understanding that all of us in that room and beyond had been put on earth to know one another, to love.