Body and Heart

by A.M. Lang

In addition to The Puritan, A.M. Lang's fiction has appeared in the Antigonish Review Hart House Review, and in University of Toronto Magazine, where it placed first in the 2015 University of Toronto Magazine Short Story Contest. A recent graduate of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, Lang teaches, lives, and writes in Toronto.

The amount of time that the water is in contact with the coffee grounds is another important flavor factor … if you’re not happy with the taste, it’s possible that you’re either over-extracting (the brew time is too long) or under-extracting (the brew time is too short)

National Coffee Association USA

 

CAFÉ AU LAIT

If a good night’s sleep is like fine dining, Michael is the one at the table with a plate of anemic green salad. It is true that he has never been a sophisticated sleeper, but here he knows that as soon as dawn creaks into the sky he must shrug on his black polo shirt and palm soap over his cheeks and cycle twelve city blocks to work. In this early lick of June his body warms quickly as he flashes by the athletic centre at the university, the shawarma place with its dining hours posted faintly on the window, the bold awning of a rival coffee shop. A sweat rises on his brow as he rides carefully over streetcar tracks. Somehow it is easier to forget about the night back home, though there the sheets were thinning and the windows leaked the scent of exhaust from the buses and during frosts the air was too dry for Bohdan so that his bottom lip cracked open and bled on the pillows. What is blood, but a private balm for our organs, Michael told him, just flip the pillowcase inside-out and it is fine.

An organ, they won’t even play that for me when I die, Bohdan said, unless we keep this quiet.

It’s quiet at night, everyone sleeps.

So what are you saying?

It isn’t illegal to dream, or to bleed.

It’s not illegal at all, you know. It’s just the way the people see it, worse than any time you could spend alone with officers and iron bars. Remember what happened to Taras at Maidan Nezalezhnosti.

Of course, what is blood without memory?

 

TELL THE FRENCH PRESS

Today’s featured brew is a dark roast from Indonesia, from the western-most island with its brackish heat and its gnarled mangrove swamps. When the coffee seeds are harvested by farmers wearing scarves at their necks to deflect the cruel arch of the sun, they are stripped of their outer skins and stored while damp, and the heavy night air turns the beans faintly but distinctly blue. This particular brew is known for its smooth and complex body, which is something that makes some of the baristas laugh, especially after Anya adds that this is what she is known for too. Lise is not normally vindictive even though she manages a coffee shop where most of the employees are too young to remember a life without cell phones, but after the group coffee tasting, she makes Anya take out the reeking garbage while the rest of the baristas pull milk from the refrigerator and flick on the coffee grinders in a row. It is strange that milk comes in bags here, but not that strange, because other liquids come in bags too, such as intravenous fluids and rich red platelets, though these would not be pleasant to steam for one’s medium hazelnut half-caf latte. Michael wonders where the Ukrainian coffee is and why nobody in the city worries about its absence. Kiev is a city that adores its coffee so much that there are trucks which take to the roads with the sole purpose of delivering flat whites and dark roasts to pedestrians at Maidan Nezalezhnosti.

Michael first met Bohdan while waiting in line at a coffee truck shaped like a monstrous pink snail, right at Independence Square.

Yeah, Independence Square, Michael had interpreted for Lise when he was seated for his interview, clad in a t-shirt and trousers and awful mangrove-green shoes, a place for, uh, a place for the people, uh, yeah, go for – how I say? Party and death.

What?

Coffee, Michael said, you order out of truck. Best for sure.

She’d laughed with her teeth flashing. Yes but have you tried our iced drinks yet, with the whipped cream?

Michael first met Bohdan while waiting in line at a coffee truck shaped like a monstrous pink snail, right at Independence Square. Bohdan was holding too many books and papers bound with binder clips and a shopping bag straining with potatoes, and he spilled his coffee down the front of his thin tie. Michael offered him his zippered hoody to wear.

I can’t wear a hoody to class. Bohdan said, grimly.

Sit in the back?

I teach the class. Environment and Law.

Well, your shirt makes a great lesson, then. What you need also with our coffee is a bruise or a bullet-wound, and then you’ve got us in Kiev covered.

I’m covered, and now you’re uncovered. Mr. …

Michael.

Bohdan. Hello and goodbye.

Michael misses the pink snails and the coffee cups on wheels; was genuinely surprised when he arrived here last summer that Toronto offers little in terms of whimsy when it comes to morning coffee, even though it seems like a city with more colour in its cheeks than the pallor of Kiev. He has tried addressing this with Anya, who has the sometimes-vowel in her name, but even though her name-tag is decorated with the slant of a y in slick blue shark fins, she has nothing to say about her Slavic roots. She is studying geometry at the University of Toronto and she likes fish and sun hats. She can etch these in the microfoam she nudges into wide-mouthed mugs, but she is only allowed to do this in late afternoon when the rush of people through the doors eases to a trickle.

In the mornings as the shop fills to its brim with people of all ages and colours waiting in their very first line of the day, the scent of the featured brew overwhelms that of the warm glaze of the pastries, the mocha syrup under his fingernails. This one is smoky, woodsy, he can feel the scent clinging to the bits of grey at his temples. He feels a curl of nausea at the base of his throat and for a moment he panics; not for the fear of heaving toast crusts into the dark roast, but for a type of fear that made headlines back home so that he and his friends were declared sinners. This kind of fear wraps feline around his ankles when they ache at night; claws at his rib-bones when he coughs when the weather changes. Even in testing they make you wait through so many turns of calendar pages, but it is precisely this waiting that feeds the mewling panic and so, to starve the beast, he works six days a week and spends the seventh wandering the sidewalks among the theatrically, vividly, soundly living.

Herein lies the core of our humanity: rush to wait.

Tea is better than coffee for a tumbling gut, but better still is intravenous medication, though Bohdan always fought the needle even when he seemed too weak to lift his head.

Lise, Michael calls above the din, Lise, I need to move from the coffee or I’ll be sick.

This is not uncommon, so early in the morning in such sleep-deprived workers, and Lise doesn’t know what Michael does about blood and memory. She elbows him toward the espresso machines. How funny it is, the delicacy of a drug shaped like a tiny kidney. For perfect lattes, you must not wait too long to add the shot of espresso or it will shrivel in the cup, but you must wait the right amount of time to take a drink without burning your tongue and herein lies the core of our humanity: rush to wait. What is time here, how is it weighted on our shoulders? You have to wait nine months for some things and six months for others and some schools make students wait four years for adulthood; but god help the barista who makes a patron wait two minutes for a warm drink the consistency of mangrove swamps.

Anya is shaking her head at a woman whose child could not wait to steal a sip.

He burned his tongue on the hot chocolate, see here? I’ll goddamned sue.

It’s okay. I decaf her quad espresso every day, Anya says when the woman leaves, toting her impatient child by the wrist.

Burned tongues heal quick, I know, Michael says. Mild burns last for one week or two week, nothing to treat by medicine.

Burn or not, she still gets decaf. Last thing that bitch needs is caffeine. Anya wipes whipped cream from her chin. Though, what am I, a doctor?

 

CONTINENTAL ROAST

Bohdan appeared twice more at the very same coffee carts for which Michael scooped change out of his pockets, once at the pink snail cart in the crowded morning air and once in the mall underground, but these times he had a backpack slung over his shoulders so both of his hands were free to clutch his cup. Michael followed him at a distance from the square to the university, which was one long building the colour of tightly closed tulips. He followed him through hallways and then he followed him into his classroom and stashed his body at the back of the room while Bohdan stood at the front where the whiteboard announced his surname followed by letters which stood for his doctorate of science, flipped his tie over his shoulder, and proceeded to share what seemed to be all there is to know about thermohaline circulation, which is an elaborate way of describing tides that ebb and flow according to heat and currents.

If we understand that blood courses through veins to give us life, we must understand that oceans travel to give the earth a life that is far more significant than ours could ever be.

Dr.? Isn’t change expected in time?

Yes, and change varies in this universe. Our atmosphere, for instance, is more volatile than the sea, and changes here are swift. They’re a perfect partnership, you see? The earth and the air, like the body and soul.

Here, Michael rose from his seat and moved closer to the front of the room. Closer and closer until class was dismissed and he was seated right in front of Bohdan, who adjusted his tie back against the centre of his chest.

Goodbye, hello, Michael said.

Hello, friend. I saw you travelling in circles around the room, like an ocean current. He laughed and zipped up his backpack. Let us go for a walk.

In the summer time in Kiev, it was easy to linger in the shade of the trees. The horse chestnuts were heavy with flowers, a coital jumble of white and pink. Michael and Bohdan watched the blooms and exchanged sundry details about who they thought they were and who they wanted to be.

That night, after the onslaught of vodka and cheap wine in the square with other revellers, Michael learned the ridges of Bohdan’s molars, his mouth chapped but frenetic and warm.

I am a bibliophile and a dental hygienist, Michael said.

I am a lover of good coffee and bad cigarettes, Bohdan said.

I want one day to learn how to do a very good magic trick.

I was an addict once and now I am an addict for something very different.

I can name all the teeth in your mouth.

What about parts of the tongue?

There’s not much to a tongue. It’s much of the same, papilla and dorsum. You want to make the kiddies in the dentist’s chair laugh, you stick out your tongue at them and they will do it right back at you. Horrifies their mothers but it’s the best way I can get a look at how clean their back molars are.

Bohdan laughed. You must meet my friends; come for drinks tonight.

Who are your friends, and do they know?

They know because they are, also. Meet at the square, okay?

So many people there partying in the summer evenings.

We’re careful. We’ve only been hassled once or twice and they were young stupid kids, they didn’t even know what they were saying, just parroting the things they heard their parents whisper. Taras scared them away by tossing a potted geranium.

That night, after the onslaught of vodka and cheap wine in the square with other revellers, Michael learned the ridges of Bohdan’s molars, his mouth chapped but frenetic and warm. There had been a jeweled kind of agony in waiting so long with others around them clinking glasses, but at last there was an inky anonymity in the brackets of the night sky and it was only two of them alone in Michael’s apartment with the whir of the ceiling fan. Heat rose and the thin sheets arced over their bare shoulders and then pooled at their ankles with the sweat and the shadows.

Bohdan’s second and safe addiction was no longer a mystery. Dozens of tattoos of churches spread on his shoulder blades and taut over his ribs; the first was St. Andrew’s Church, with its green central dome rounded on his hipbone; then the other churches he’d added year by year, city by city; Saint Basil’s Cathedral with its blue and white stripes on his left bicep; Sagrada Familia, still under construction with its pearl-coloured panels on his thigh. Each tattoo was a cathedral once visited in soft-soled shoes with sunlight tangled in his hair; in this one a child’s cries echoed off the steep windows, in that one he reached out to glance the holy walls with his sinning fingertips.

So the real question, Bohdan asked him, before swallowing him whole, is this here on your skin your body or your soul?

Do we still have souls? You know what they say.

If we have this sole life and then one love within it, then I think so, yes.

Michael fell into one of few instances of sophisticated sleep, pressed against St Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery, its lean Greek crosses rising on the swell of Bohdan’s collarbones, where the streetlights pooled in a feathery oblong of gold.

 

CAFFE CREMA

If a good night’s sleep is like postage stamps, Michael is the one whose words can travel only as far as his new nation’s capital, a playground of boxy white buildings with boxy white men scattered within. It’s not as if it matters, how short his reach is now, for who would he write to and what would he say? Goodbye, hello, I reek of coffee beans and glucose glaze but I can love whomever I desire, so long as they’re still up above the earth but that’s the problem.

Anya is bouncy, skipping from table to table with a lightly soaped cloth to scrub away the stains of the preceding evening. Michael uses the very same cloth to wipe down his beard on mornings when the light in the air is metallic and he can only remember spots and scars and pink snails scooting along the sidewalks. A dream where Bohdan’s calves are bleeding. Quickly, say a prayer to a god who is murdering you as you have murdered him with this, the ginger touching of complex bodies.

It was time to build a better Ukraine and pressure was the only way to earn a response.

Lise gathers them by the pastry case and re-introduces them to the coffee beans that, bubbling next to the featured brew, constitute the lifeblood of the shop’s morning sales: piping hot espresso. Theirs is made from Arabica beans, the most ancient of coffees, which begin their little lives as tight seeds nestled in a crib of fragrant white flowers that ease open to the hard lick of sun. Farmers in Brazil carry mats to catch the berry pods from the trees, ripe and unripe mingling at once, usually two seeds per pod, perhaps three if the farmer has been virtuous. The beans are ground into a very fine powder and then, one adds hot water under pressure to produce a coffee with body-notes of fruit and a sprawling acidity on the back of the tongue. Tasting the kiss of the beans warms Michael’s mouth, just in time for the first of many customers to march to the counter with wallet in hand.

The morning groans as sunlight scatters and the sky strengthens for rain, heavy and warm. In the shop the windows fog with the heat of bodies coursing with caffeine and genial glazes, and when Michael approaches the windows with a dry cloth, he bumps into a customer who promptly spills the featured brew down their front.

I’m sorry, so sorry, apologies.

The man shrugs Michael away. It’s okay, you guys are always so busy in the mornings, the coffee is great, now my shirt gets a taste.

Would you like my shirt to wear? It has also espresso and whipped cream to taste. I’ll get new coffee for you to have. I will not make you wait in line.

Bohdan had waited too long to visit the pebble-voiced physician, two years ago. When his palms were muddled with lesions, he had to be helped to button his shirt, to hold a knife and spoon. His lifeline crumbled beneath the sores, so Michael assured him that they could share his lifeline, which hitched oddly at the base of his thumb. Bohdan waited to see the doctor because there were other things to consider in their lives. The protests in the Square, the Heavenly Hundred laid flat under thin white sheets. Taras was adamant they lend their support to the rallies, to the Euromaidan, it was time to build a better Ukraine and pressure was the only way to earn a response. The horse chestnuts were leonine in their colour and clout, and Michael stuffed his pockets with the parchment of leaves. Then came the frosts, with Bohdan’s lips blooming red on the pillowcase.

There’s something not right.

It’s dry air.

It’s more than that; there’s so much blood.

It’s not so much, maybe I’ve caught a bug. We’ve been at the Square, so many people touching close. Look, my old scars have been swelling too, here on my arms from the first addiction. Maybe it’s a sign.

What sort of sign, like sickness?

No, like healing. Maybe things will be better in Kiev and my skin sings it.

None of the customers waiting in line notice it when Michael experiences random pangs of heartache against the dark brew and microfoam, nothing Anya can trace because heartache isn’t the shape of a hat or a fish. What is the shape of heartache? What is the shape of homesick? When Michael presses his ear to his wrist, he can hear the beat of the Black Sea, remembers the way it patted Bohdan’s skin clean so that there was no need to worry when night caressed the bodies matted in the surf. It is more like seasick, his dog-paddling pulse.

Taras looked good with blood in his eyes, matted in his thick brows; he looked villainous but also determined.

To Anya, he says do you ever feel homesick, even when you’re already home? Do you ever feel like you’ve missed your true love, they’ve walked right by you? All those lonely if-onlys?

Tongue twister. Lise says, passing them with a tray of oozing pain au chocolat resting on her forearms. So then Michael knows that if-onlys are truth.

 

DRIP BREW

To rush to wait; herein lies the bean of our humanity, distracted as we are by the frill of small things, berries and binder clips and skinny neckties. To starve the beast while it waits to pounce, perhaps in play or perhaps to maim, Michael spends the seventh day of each week wandering the sidewalks among people roving and begging and shopping and living. He gives his bicycle a rest but ties his runners tight, walks north to Bloor Street and then west, strolling past the teacher’s college with its concrete pillars, the Korean United Church with its red doors and the filigree around its windows. This is July in Toronto, like a wanton church bell, and if he just keeps moving through humidity and stained-glass groups of people, maybe he will sweat off his secrets like a layer of light. The waiting to know, to feel whole again; maybe the heat will grip him in its hold and ease him into the sophistication of sound sleep.

Michael pauses near Christie Pitts and buys a bottle of water from a brown man tucked inside the nook of a hot-dog stand. The water emerges from a cooler full of ice, and this is how memory operates like blood; sometimes it flows freely and sometimes it clots in place. The clot means there is healing surging in the skin, but scabs are wondrously worse to see.

Taras looked good with blood in his eyes, matted in his thick brows; he looked villainous but also determined, so that you knew he had decent shoulders and that he understood the depths of politics not only in his city but in others too, the places with nips of concrete shattering the twilight. His picture was in the Kyiv Post last May, just months after the revolution. Bohdan and Michael had been there at the Square too but slouched away from the frenetic throb of the fray, Michael untouched, Bohdan faintly bruised but also bright, struck wide awake by the volume of voices, the bodies mucked on the pavement for a bold attempt at Kiev Pride. Taras was chanting at them to try to rile them into a frenzy; they told us we’re the same as murderers, are we going to take this? I ask you, whose city is this? Whose rights are these? What is the shape of love?

Things are changing, the city is changing, Bohdan said. They listened before and they will again, even if the matters are more bodily.

Fuck, what was that? Taras’s palms flew to the crown of his head. Something was thrown, am I bleeding? Shit, Bohdan, they got you too.

At the hospital the air was cool like ice and the nurses swirled like snowflakes and saw the men without seeing them and took their blood without numbing them. Michael was spared but Bohdan and Taras pressed cotton balls to the crooks of their elbows and kept their hands immobile where the catheters nestled in the skin, fixed with a pale adhesive and attached to a drip.

I know this kind of sickness. It is rampant in this city because the children are taught to be good but they are not taught how to stay healthy.

When an intern led Taras away for stitches, an older doctor with auburn eyelashes drew a curtain so that he and Bohdan and Michael were sealed in a pod, where there were usually two but sometimes three if virtue was at risk.

The doctor looks at his knuckles. How do you feel, Bohdan?

A bit sun-burned, I suppose.

Have you been tired lately?

Well yes. But we’ve all been tired, you know? There are papers and protests and parties and patios.

We’ve found something in your blood, Bohdan. It is a sickness that comes from living dangerously. Have needles been used to keep the cold at bay? To soften the cement sky?

I quit that life so long ago, Doctor.

Not quite, unless this man here is your brother? This is a sickness. In your blood but some will also say, it is in your mind.

To Michael, the doctor said, I know this kind of sickness. It is rampant in this city because the children are taught to be good but they are not taught how to stay healthy. It is a kind that bides its time. It is a kind that shares its stories with other bodies. You must stop, and you must give him these pills, and you must pray. You must pray it isn’t in your blood too.

How will I know?

You wait.

 

FAIR TRADE

Late last August, ladled over the sumptuous supper of summer, there was a major heat-wave in Kiev. The clinking silverware of sunlight knifed the horse chestnuts and stirred even the earliest morning air into porridge. This was Michael and Bohdan’s last summer in the city, though they were leaving for very different reasons.

Bohdan had lost most of his body-weight somewhere, maybe it was at the Square where they first met, or maybe it was perched on the bowed branches of the chestnuts, but he hadn’t been able to find it. He had given up the search in favour of lying supine on the rug in the living room, with his bare bleeding calves folded up and over the seat of Michael’s couch.

Michael was making phone-calls. One after the next, ringing the same place because surely someone would break in resolve and speak with him. How could Bodhan build back his muscles if he couldn’t eat because of the sores on his tongue?

Forget it, Michael. Lavra is history.

How can a clinic just disappear? They know about this disease better than anyone, it’s all they work with. You know? The patients all have sharp elbows and collarbones just like you.

It’s a magic trick, you see? The Government can make anything disappear. Their heads are heavy with morality. It’s too close to Pechersk Lavra; we sinners would burst into flames.

Do you have this church on your body? The golden cupolas might look beautiful.

I wish to tattoo it on my ass.

You think … tattoos use needles …

I think, so did my first addiction.

Michael phoned the patient advocate group, the first of its kind, mere toddler years of age. Their suggestion was to maximize comfort. Maybe a strawberry ice cream at the Square? He still had to live, at least a little bit.

Taras visited often, smelling of neck-sweat and shirt-sleeves. He offered them vodka from a tumbler with ice and a straw and some words of advice.

Michael, when people you know, when they find out about Bohdan, you’re finished. It might be against the law to fire a worker because of the sickness, but nothing will stop them from finding fault in your every move – they’ll say you overdosed a kid with novocaine, or that you let your hand rest on a woman too long. The only thing that spreads faster than sickness is words.

I can’t leave.

Michael, you must. Look at me, I’m damn near disintegrating.

We’ll get help.

Michael, Taras said gently, go somewhere else. Don’t wait long. Go someplace that doesn’t monitor your dick. There are cities that like their love unbridled. How long did it take us to get this way, so filled with disgust? How long would it take to remove the churches brick by brick, or to tell the children in their schools the only thing that really hurts is living in lies?

Remove the churches, it’ll make my addiction meaningless.

Like all addictions, Taras said. You know what has been said about religion and drugs?

The masses need soothing, Michael said. I’ll wait until … then I’m gone.

Bohdan steals stole a swig of vodka, and his throat was so thin you could watch the slug go down. Ah, Michael. You won’t be waiting long.

It’s about balance of flavour. Espresso has three parts. Crema on the top like a crown, then the body and the heart.

Late last August, Michael alone joined the partiers in the Square for Independence Day. Someone handed him a flag, a banner of yellow and blue to wave in the hazy air. He waded through hundreds of people to watch the soldiers march in formation in their graveyard colours; then came the embroidery parade where young and old strode through the late afternoon sunlight in their billowy vyshivanki with the red berries and beguiling blooms, the ladies wearing ribbons in their hair. He saw the coffee cart with its monstrous pink snail and felt an acute growl of sorrow in his throat. A teenaged boy clasped his shoulder, believing his anguish was bound to his patriotism: Glory to Ukraine!

Glory to Ukraine, hello goodbye.

 

SPEAK NO AMERICANO

In Toronto the trees are dense in some places and sparse in others, but there are also cherry blossoms in a wide green park, and a tall strange tower with a bulb on top, and sand on the winding lakefront. The airport was a haze of words and numbers and hallways and buckets where his shoes and watch went through a scanner and only his shoes came out the other side.

Michael had visited with his neighbours across the hall for a few encouraging nips of vodka, slung a backpack loaded with books over his shoulders, and hitch-hiked alone to the airport in Kiev. Rain trickled from the lowest clouds; Toronto has these close clouds also, which is something Michael finds comforting. There is snow here, like back home, it looks like the dense foam of milk, and this is something Michael sees in snatches when he places newly created lattes on the counter, right before somebody’s palm crushes on a lid. Wait, what don’t you want to see? Wait, look at the snow, so clean, so unmarked.

Taras had given him an address: a grungy two-storey home near streets called Spadina and College. He was to knock at the door and tell whomever appeared on the other side that Taras had sent him with an envelope of cash in exchange for a house key because one of the dwellers there was Taras’s distant nephew studying starlight at the university, please and thank you, and you must say please because Torontonians love it if your speech is done up like a dolly.

Hello, hello, this is where you find you. Rain drizzling in his ears, Michael greeted the boys at the door, one with sloping shoulders, the other with blond bangs pinned back in a bun.

Shit, you’re old, sloping shoulders said. Like 40. Is that weird? Bro, is that weird?

You’re weird.

We’re both at UofT; I’m studying astronomy and he’s doing anatomy.

Dentistry, bro.

We split Internet and water. Six hundred a month.

Michael used what he knew was cheeky English. No worries.

You got a job?

No worries. Pleaseandthankyou dolly. You have cycle?

Michael rode helmet-less along College Street, skidding over streetcar tracks slick with afternoon rain. There were few opportunities for work until he improved the dexterity of his tongue over the awkward oblongs of English. The coffee shop with the bold awning was not hiring, but the next one he breezed past was, and Lise was immediately sympathetic of the way Michael’s wet t-shirt clung to his shoulder-blades as he shook rain from his hair and his Brazil-green shoes.

What is the shape of waiting? What does it feel like, this complex body of time?

Why not come now, come to the back office with me, we’ll have a chat and see what we can do for you? Anya, please make us a couple demitasses, will you?

Seated across from Michael, Lise instructed him to inhale the scent of the brew, then slurp it softly, letting the flavour trickle through his lips. What is the taste like?

Summer.

Lise was lenient with him, seemed to believe innocently that it was his rheumy bathhouse English that slipped him up. It could not be possible that he was making fun of this process, of swishing coffee through teeth to detect a molten sprig of flavour, it was not possible because he was new here in this city and he needed this job, needed it thoroughly.

Sure, like smoke. Like a barbeque. Where do you taste it on your tongue?

On the Ukrainian Carpathians, Michael answered. Lise’s lips fluttered.

It’s about balance of flavour. Espresso has three parts. Crema on the top like a crown, then the body and the heart.

Body and heart, Michael repeated. Royal on the top of head.

Lise smiled in her quick way. Go buy a black polo shirt. You can start on Monday.

 

WHAT YOU SEE IN MACCHIATO

What is the shape of waiting? What does it feel like, this complex body of time? How does it taste? How does it bleed to mark its place?

It was the spots on Bohdan’s skin that made it obvious, final, so that there was a true gulp of fear in Michael’s throat at all times of the day and especially at night where sleep slid away grinning. That weird purple plaque in Bohdan’s bicep that would not close, all the places where the sickness unfurled like parchment, like a decree. You are very bad and here is a taste of hell. This is what the decree said, Michael had heard even the littlest boys spit the words. The spots weren’t like a leper’s, or a leopard’s, but they might as well have been, the way the world scowled, and now Michael is here still breathing but marked too, by blood and by memory. Bohdan’s skin pooled like thin sheets and exhaust fumes; his tattoos warped so that the churches were molting, melting. Sharing one of their last laughs when Michael pointed out the inanity of it all; why do you fight these needles full of good when you clamoured for those needles of the first addiction?

I’m an enigma, Michael, I’m a fool. I’m as dizzy as the tides cycling through their paces, those ocean currents and their static cling to the horizon. But I love you, forever, and I’m sorry, forever, and that will have to be enough.

How long does he have here, with nothing but blood-beats and memory? Michael is so careful shaving over the sink to make sure there are no errant platelets, but what about the secrets mewling at his ankles, waiting to strike? How can anyone live if living is synonymous with waiting to die? You have to wait nine months for some things and six months for others and schools make students wait four years for adulthood and starlight and geometry and teeth; you wait with thousands of others for your country to shake itself like a wet dog and then to groom itself so that it glistens. God help the barista who makes a customer wait two minutes for a drink that will scald their tongue if they’re not patient.

It’s quiet at night, nearly everyone sleeps. It isn’t illegal to dream, or to bleed, or to have, or to hold, and if this is all we have, it could even be okay.

 

BODY AND HEART

If a good night’s sleep is like a love affair, Michael does not mind if he is made to stay awake all night without the sophistication of sleep. Love keeps its own patterns in the dark.

In the gentle autumn sunrise, his body cools as he cycles by the athletic centre at the university, the shawarma place with its dining hours painted fresh on the window, the bold awning of a lesser coffee shop than his.

Today’s featured brew is a medium roast from Venezuela, where the coffee seeds sleep in the verdant jewels of the lowlands until they’re collected in baskets by men and women and children sifting through the purling morning mist. This robust brew is known for its rich, full body, which would have made Anya laugh except that she has graduated from her program at the university, and does not work at the coffee shop any longer.

There is a new girl with a jaunty ponytail, shaking her head at a woman whose child could not wait to steal a sip of apple cider.

He burned his tongue – see this? I’m gonna sue you assholes.

Wait, Michael says, hang on, I can show you a magic trick to make your tongue all better. Okay, kid, come here to me and stick out your tongue.

The child laughs and obeys; Michael spoons a dollop of whipped cream into his mouth and eyes his back molars nestled like sand dollars in his gums. When the child leaves, Michael licks the sugar from his fingertips and spies two young people in line, with their wallets in hand and their bodies turned toward one another like revellers with cheap white wine; like the earth and the air, like the body and soul.

On a napkin, Michael writes, the tongue is a pagan beast, splayed with lingual buds that belie how rooted such a revolting muscle is in our day-to-day livelife. the only thing that changes our feelings of revolt is disease or love, and time. One must wait, not to burn the tip of the tongue the teeth the lips. Tongues in love: a prequel. The rest are people in line, waiting.

 


In addition to The Puritan, A.M. Lang's fiction has appeared in the Antigonish Review Hart House Review, and in University of Toronto Magazine, where it placed first in the 2015 University of Toronto Magazine Short Story Contest. A recent graduate of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, Lang teaches, lives, and writes in Toronto.

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