One of the last times I see Cass we are on the 34th floor of the Westin at Harbourfront shoving elbows at the Beaver magazine party. Cass isn’t on the guest list but they let him in anyway; they always do. He brings a couple of ponytailed posties and a Cree social worker with him. They all smell of Molson, clean linoleum and street smoke. Cass sits on the couch, clean and thin, skin glowing. Fresh from rehab, his shirt slim-fit, his teeth freshly bleached, his polished cuff links flash fine points of light into the mouths of dark-haired editors.
“I have to go now,” I tell him.
“Stay, please.” His familiar yet fleeting touch folds into my arm. I shake my head and, on the street and on a whim, he jumps into the taxi with me, leaving his entourage behind.
On the ride home, he sings Elliott Smith into my ear, hitting each note of suicide sweetness just right, the way I taught him to sing in his real voice so long ago, when we were nineteen or so.
The cab stops below his sprawling loft on the corner of Spadina and College. It is perched on the edge of Kensington, a tattered raft of brick, glass, bottles and trash, positioned like Cass’s unconscious—in the heart of the market is the booze-can Jungian underground where he claims to lose thousands in short four-hour squirts; beneath the sidewalk are cocaine lairs. There, the sunken doorways and sudden cold garbage corners he staggers onto, like Gatsby, his pockets pooled with neat packs of powder and money he dispenses under his own green light, according to his company and exhaustion.
“Come on up,” he says, nodding, handing the driver some cash.
I sigh and propel myself out of the car, having never perfected the ability to refuse him.
We climb four flights up the steel-plated stairs up to Cass’s loft. Open yet cluttered with chipped Goodwill furniture, the loft is painted with mermaids, and a hundred-pound boxing heavy bag hangs from the ceiling like a corpse. Cass sets the tunes up good and loud and pours me some whiskey in a small mustard jar while I study the photos of Zion and Mary eating cake on his fridge.
Now we sit quietly; I drink, Cass rails. We listen to Goat’s Head Soup and Astral Weeks.
Since Cass split from his second wife, Mary, he gets Zion for two nights a week. A social worker specializing in addiction therapy, she met Cass at a group meeting and three years later Zion was born. On Cass’s days, he takes his son into the market streets; he lets Zion climb distorted drum-bicycle machines, his fat infant fingers coated with tumeric curry, piss and tzatiki. He lets Zion jam with Jamaicans and makes sure the Chinese produce trucks don’t run over his head.
I grew up in the suburbs and so I used to love Kensington Market, with its smell of rotting vegetables and mouldy cheese peeling off the sidewalk in cartoon waves, where safety-pinned punks, their ages indeterminable, sat smoking and drinking out of brown bags. But now I find it shabby: it reminds me of the time I ran away from home to live with my friend Jesse and, high on glue, we’d pushed grocery carts down Augusta Avenue, our Guatemalan fanny packs stuffed with change from busking, our ripped jeans reeking of incense and curry.
I stand at the window, sipping my drink, looking straight out at the sad, half-lit neon El Mocambo palm tree. Half a block north is the CAMH. Handy for Cass, I guess, a short walk home after his month-and-a-half stint.
It’s been three months since I’ve seen Cass. The last time I saw him, before Mary convinced him to go to rehab, we had fought about old indiscretions and my supposedly bad taste in art and men. Even when we were together our relationship was fraught, as we tried to breach the tenuous span between mutual passion and casual friendliness, temptation and disgust. Now we sit quietly; I drink, Cass rails. We listen to Goat’s Head Soup and Astral Weeks. I walk around Cass’s apartment, lining up his baseball trophies, using my finger as a dusting rag to clean his Hermann Hesse collection.
Cass pulls me toward him. We slow dance for a bit to Madame George and I am reminded of how he smells like nothing, even during those long summers in the mountains when I reeked of straw and coconut sunscreen and he smelled like a whisper.
I pull my arms around him, gentle-like, “You look good. How was it?”
He releases me, looking beyond my shoulder, past the smoke and the bottles on the windowsill. I notice it’s been two and a half hours since we left the party. I collect my coat and Cass buttons it up carefully though it is warm outside.
“Why are you so sad, babe?” I have resigned myself to ask him this only once every couple of years now.
“If only I knew.”
My name is Cass. I’m a fuck-up with no excuses, not one. I was granted a great life, no, a wonderful life. I was born healthy and happy, to the greatest parents in the world. We lived in the nicest part of the city, minutes away from the ocean, with streets lined with trees. My dad went jogging in the forest near our house; I raced ahead of him on my bike. My mother read me stories at night: Pooh Bear, Roald Dahl’s Chocolate Factories, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. My parents gave my bothers and me names they would have like for themselves: powerful names that demanded commentary or at least spell-check. They trusted us to make of our names whatever we wanted.
My name is Cass. Half of my name is ass. I’m a fuck-up with no excuses, not one.
Cass is a prisoner of every city he inhabits; I am Finnish and I can only be what my Nordic heritage dictates: saunas, herring, sad strings of suppressed serial killers, an obscure Uralic language stuck in the throat like oatmeal. My cold looks, pale features, my incredibly tall stature for a woman, my grim disposition, all decry such heat, such chameleon nonsense.
In Mexico, where we got married, Cass is caballero, espous, maestro, whatever the situation requires. Unashamed, the women at the market who sell fly-infested meat, pinas and cilantro all slap his face, tell him he looks like a monkey and Cass hisses ugly words at them under his breath. Here facial hair is only for the homeless, the insane, no hipster-beard rock love at all. At the school where we teach ESL, Cass balks at the low pay, the bitchy, self-hating Mexican director. The malaria pills take away his everything, his dick, his drive, his energy. They keep him up all night pacing our tiny apartment and making even the gecko I have named Frederico nervous. The malaria pills only increase the paucity of his sad vaudevillian expression, his muscle mass, his sex drive, and increase his depression, his immutable desire to be in other places, with other women. In our fluorescent kitchen I make ham quesadillas and he reads Sho Gun in the dark moth light. Our paths cross only when I drop-kick cockroaches on the bedspread and spit back at the Mexicans who clamour for my Aryan frame. I keep the ants away from his feet and he keeps the caballeros away from my ankles and ass. Solicitous and angry, we grow into each other, espousa, like true husband and wife; we grow apart in the heat of Tuxla, where they murdered the namesake of their own city. So Mexican, we shudder, as Cass translates the inscriptions on the statues. We spend the nights listening to the clatter of cockroaches, our hysterical landlady, Patti, yelling at her retarded son.
Upon our escape from Oaxaca and the Swedes, who wanted to have a four-way with us, upon our return to the Vancouver, we take good photographs together and are oddly sedate from the quinine and the experience of long humid tropical rains and the cold winding roads of our private despairs. We tell no one that we have married and dissolve the union in the span of six months.
I’m not afraid
I saw your man on the corner,
mouth covered with sores,
saying, “I am not frightened
of being left behind.”
Her face goes blank when he appears with Caroline and Saskia on each arm.
Hailey reads her poetry at the private bohemian salon below College in her new silver tights from Winners. Cass texts me all night before the salon, texts me all of twenty fucking times before my phone dies. At the party after he is all up and on top of my business without any content, the way that old lovers do. He tells the room about my short yet emphatic addiction to animal comics and tranquillizers, downplaying his own role in the affair. He tells them I look like a sexy Vietnam war vet: I show him my blue teeth and cannot wait to exit, gratified by the arrival of a boy wearing the same pinstriped fedora as me. At the end of the night, after the party, Cass doesn’t wait for me, won’t wait for me, not for 30 seconds while I go back in to gather Hailey and her woolly white scarf and cupcake Tupperware. Hailey and I emerge from the party, stranded, angry, pumped up on Jersey Shore reruns and bad Hungarian wine. Hailey’s guilt runs heavy in her prairie veins, tells the cabbie to drop us at Cass’s at the corner of Spadina and College. The cabbie turns on the light to check us both out: blue-lipped, sparkling, our fake eyelashes drooping with tears. It’s unclear to me how the cabbie can drive and ask penetrating questions simultaneously.
“That piece of shit was inside both of us,” Hailey tells me, stuffing her sparkly tights in her purse and swapping them for sensible tights.
On Cass’s corner, released from the taxi like thick elastic bands, Hailey and I rewind over the streetcar tracks to the southwest side to confront Cass. Her face goes blank when he appears with Caroline and Saskia on each arm. Hailey is still in the honeymoon phase, when the sight of a piece of his curled hair weaving over his lineless forehead is sufficient to undo whatever damage he’s caused. Well, it is not enough, because when I see him I think Pow!
Then my mind goes empty at Hailey’s powdery face, and I break the rules of not being emotional, of not being involved or judgemental, of not caring that he’s been up for four nights, drunk a bottle of whiskey and three glasses of our champagne, sniffed Zion’s university funds up his nose and fucked three of my colleagues (two of whom have fiancés). In slow stop-motion I whip my cell phone at his head—he ducks but it grazes his left temple. Unfazed, he picks up my phone and hands it to me, chuckling, adjusts his watch, which he only started wearing when Zion was born: his only concession to grown-uppery besides his devotion to the boy. The night is over. In the cab up to St. Clair I cry, using Hailey’s brown and blond hair as Kleenex. She doesn’t appear to mind.
I pick apart these pieces of Cass at random. But why? So I can put them together again?
Once, at a fancy government-sponsored literary event Cass slashed open a gigantic brie wheel with a Swiss Army knife as if looking for something organic and livid inside—a thudding, corrosive heart, a half-functioning kidney. I was standing with an editor, one whose books had been nominated for many awards, a man who’d attended many such events. He was an older man, tall and delicate featured; his face looked as if it had been crafted by elves, which I tell Cass later in the darkness of our room. I thought the editor’s writers mediocre at best, but he was a very gentle person and I could tell him so without fear of recriminations or fallout. We often saw each other at these things and passed many hours joking about improper semi-colon usage and the shocking yet troll-like appearance of the grand dame of Canadian letters. He took my elbow, pulling me aside, laughing nervously as bits of creamy cheese and white rind fell on our clothing.
“That Cass is a train wreck,” the editor muttered into my ear, pulling me closer, stitch by stitch.
Unable to continue pretending that I was unconnected to Cass, I skidded over on my heels, my dress tight against my hips. I wrenched his elbow away from the cheeseboard
“Stop it,” I hissed.
Cass looked at me for a moment, shocked, without recognition. I realized he was high and threaded my thumb under the tenderest part of his upper arm, the muscle I knew he’d spent his whole life tearing apart and building back up from weights and throwing baseballs at home plate.
“But it’s better that way: everything is better when it is desecrated.”
I said nothing.
So now maybe it’s like that wheel of cheese, like I am trying to keep it whole, keep it nice and contained while all Cass wants is to hack it apart and render it, ruin it.
There is an honesty to this impulse, which is what made me fall in love with Cass at the start, makes him one of the best writers I know. But at the same time other people have to clean up Cass’s messes and sentences and, for a long time, that person was me.
Maybe I believe that by putting together the pieces of Cass I can show him that entropy is failure: death is inevitable but a failure. But Cass has always liked it best this way, rushing toward it. The music so loud you can’t hear the words; the velvet cake I spent three hours making from scratch smeared like feces on his palms and fingers as he shoves handfuls of it into his mouth; teeth sore and clanging against the bottom of an empty glass; sex slow and deliberate, and especially best in the morning, best when you wake and don’t know who you are yet.
Maybe Cass is right: entropy, dying, is truth, after all, the only certain one; without the broken fragments there is no unity.
Still. Do you like it this way, babe? I want to ask him. Do you like it this way, Cass? Do you like the lyrics blurred, the cake corrupted? But I can’t ask him because Cass has crossed every line with me, busted every boundary. Cass has cut me open and bled into my wounds too many times to count.
My last year of grad school and his last year of undergrad, Cass and I see Art Bergmann perform at a seedy midtown student pub in Montreal. There are seven people in the audience, including a shy Asian couple whose date is interrupted by a potbellied Bergmann limping onstage and yelling, “Gentlemen, start your livers!” Cass watches him with undisguised, unkempt fascination and—could it be?—admiration. Onstage Bergman licks his chapped lips, his chest moving up and down, as if in sync with some collective carnal beat, as if there is a crowd of seven hundred instead of five (the couple moved to the bar to speak Mandarin and share a beer). It is March 16th and outside the trees are covered in glassy ice. Bergmann doesn’t sound anything like the punked-out Elvis Costello I was expecting from the tapes Cass played me all week long in preparation for the evening’s concert. The band is good, though Bergmann’s voice sounds shredded, haggard, but beautifully ruined, like a love letter torn to pieces in rage and then taped together again in a fit of tearful regret.
Halfway through the set, Cass leans over to tell me that Bergmann has been on a two-hundred dollar allowance courtesy of his music manager since the late ’70s, his voice respectful.
The show, which is depressing, frankly, is good but I have to work on a paper on Carver that I have been rewriting since autumn and I have an early composition marking session so I leave Cass at the bar, joking with Bergmann, himself. I pat Bergmann on the back, telling him to take care of my boy. I kiss my Cass on the forehead and walk out into the March cold, back to our apartment, which Cass has decorated with Gauguin and Picasso prints and giant mouldy wine barrels we use for a cutting table and CD storage.
Cass turns up two days later, green and shattered. Silent and trembling, the pockets of his leather coat mysteriously ripped away. He breaks the top of the toilet, somehow, during one of his Herculean vomiting sessions. I bring him Pepto, glasses of water, Advil. I go to the university, turn in his paper on Chaucer I wrote for him in exchange for the first-year poetry class he casually devised one morning in the mountains out West while eating granola and drinking pots of cowboy-coffee. Cass is a natural teacher, while it has taken me twice the amount of time to assert the same kind of biting authority in my own classes.
It is March 19th: I mark essays on abortion and Faulkner’s A Rose for Emily. Angry, I return home to find Cass still in bed, retching into my mother’s stew pot, beached upon the bed like the bones of a tragic and broken-hearted narwhal.
Angry, I slam pots—a habit I’ve also inherited from my mother—make him broth, which he pukes back into the bowl like a day-old infant. Angry, I call the landlord and ask him to look at the top of the toilet cover in a loud voice so Cass can hear and feel even shittier. Angry, I call my best friend and vent. Angry, I look at the clock and realize it is nearly midnight and that Cass has been sick for over twelve hours and that he may have alcohol poisoning and require medical attention.
We take a cab to the General and a Québécois doctor knocks Cass on the head with his small doctor hammer while he mocks Cass’s Irish surname.
“Too much St. Patrick’s day, hein?”
Under the cracked fluorescent lights of the hospital and the moans of old people on stretchers, Cass sobers up suddenly and cuts a grin at the doctor. I know that warning grin; it means he’s going to punch something, most likely the doctor, in the face. I hustle him out of there and on the way home we stop at the grocery store and buy a two-litre bottle of Coke for him to sip.
“This was a good idea.” He is all logic and light now, agreeable. “They were just going to give me a glucose drip anyway,” he says, matter-of-fact. We walk up the Main as the sweet wet acid cola slides down his throat and Cass tucks his thumb into the cave of my collarbone.
Thus in a course of drunken gaiety and gross sensuality, with intervals of study, perhaps yet more criminal, with an avowed contempt of all decency and order, a total disregard to every moral and a resolute denial of every religious obligation, he lived worthless and useless and blazed out his health and his youth in lavish voluptuousness.
I tell my current husband, Ruddy, the photographer, some of these pieces about Cass, but I can never arrange them properly to either of our narrative satisfaction.
“So, then, in your books and your stories, you write down the stuff that happened?” he asks, his eyes leaky and sad. He is classically Roman in both nose and communication, direct in all matters. Ruddy has no patience for Cass, is appropriately disgusted and dismissive, like all the men I have been with since Cass.
“Yeah, I guess.”
What nobody tells you about addicts is that it is hard to love them and impossible not to. How can you refuse their paradoxical existence? To be with someone who holds all your expectations in the fine grasp of his hands and—at once—to have no expectations whatsoever.
It’s unclear to me when my love for Cass began. If I had to choose a time it was in first-year poetry class when I made up a story about how I had a dream that David Bowie shot me in the back because we were both dressed in tuxedos at a fancy party. Cass listened, all the while knowing it was a lie to attract his attention. He nodded intently and, when our prof started talking about syllables, he shoved a haiku written in blue ballpoint on cigarette foil in the pocket of my shirt:
Ailukka, your name—
Your wolf eyes like rivers reach,
Sullen, wounded, in my chest.
The last time I see Cass he is drunk and swaying underneath the flashing Silver Dollar sign. The last time I see Cass I notice his white button-down doesn’t quite cover the haphazard black Raggedy Ann doll stitching on his wrists. Sloppy, I think.
The last time I see Cass I turn on my heel, pull my scarf over my mouth and step into the street where there’s rain, where the clatter of the streetcar pushes between us like a giant mechanical worm.