Claudio ran his finger beneath the wristband of his Rolex watch, which he usually never removed from his wrist, even when he showered. “I think I have everything I need in life.”
“I feel like a failure in life.”
“You are not failure. You are success.”
“I do have a beautiful wife.”
Standing in the doorway in her satin housecoat, covered in black from her neck to her ankles, Estrela frowned and grimaced. Estrela reminded him daily through her appearance she once modeled clothes, swimsuits, and intimate apparel for a regional department store chain. “Why are you talking this way? You are making me afraid. You never talk this way.” As the television glowed with financial reports from Europe on the cable news network, Estrela stepped inside his study. “Why are you awake at three in the morning?”
Claudio realized he looked grim and tried to lighten the scowl on his face. “I’m not certain why you are up.”
“You are my husband, and you are not in bed.”
Portuguese was his wife’s first language. Sometimes she spoke English like a classical music broadcaster, her enunciation and pronunciation sounding precise and formal. Claudio gripped the remote control from her loose hand and switched off the television, which he hadn’t been watching anyway, and urged her to head to bed. But she continued to stand in the doorway. They owned a Tudor-style house built on a property that resembled a ranch in a rural municipality above Toronto. He owned three cars, a convertible, a sedan, and an all-terrain vehicle. He ran a prosperous investment advisory service. Most importantly, he was the proud father of three children, who no longer contacted their father, except when they needed assistance and money. Then the requests were abrupt, curt, and rude. Their demands for financial assistance gave him pause. The urgency of their need for money caused him to wonder if the decision to have children was wise, although it was calculated. His offspring justified their need for money as part of a college and university education, which included beer binges, ski trips to Colorado, and beach vacations to Daytona. As he perused his financial files in spreadsheets on his desktop computer, trying to find consolation and solace, or to ascertain the source of his misery, he realized he had a net worth of approximately four million dollars.
“There’s something intangible definitely missing from my life.”
“There is nothing intangilo missing from life,” Estrela said.
“In-tan-gi-ble as in intangible assets,” Claudio said.
“No.” Estrela shook her head and her arms crossed over her flat stomach beneath the rise of her chest.
“There’s a gaping hole,” he said. “Something isn’t there.”
“You are making me afraid. You never talk strange man like this. I am going to bed. I will take one of your sleeping pills.”
“Sorry. I didn’t mean to make you afraid. Just take half a pill. Use the steak knife to cut a tablet in half.” In the past, Claudio tried aerial adventure, skydiving and hang gliding. His severe fear of heights made these pastimes sensation seeking in the extreme. He tried a few other thrilling recreational activities, like mountain climbing, and thoroughly enjoyed these experiences, with their blood rushes and surges of adrenaline. After he built up his business as a financial advisor, he rediscovered his love of the outdoors, hunting moose, black bear, and whitetail deer in northwestern Ontario, and built up a collection of modern firearms and crossbows. He had a stuffed moose head as well as moose and whitetail deer antlers hanging on the wall of his study. He fly-fished in salmon rivers and trout streams in Alaska and British Columbia. Mounted on his study walls were trophy-sized walleye, northern pike, and lake trout, which he personally caught. He leafed through his photo albums, glancing at pictures of hunting, fishing, and with his family on holidays. Now his wife, who was born and raised in the Azores, was standing in the doorway again. “Don’t worry. There’s nothing to worry about. It’s just me and my chronic worrying. I get paid to worry.”
“Why you worried?” She pulled back her long dark hair.
“I’m just thinking about how best to dispose of a utility I bought. The stock is trading at about half of book value. The company was a takeover candidate, I thought, but the directors slashed its dividend, and the stock tanked, losing thirty per cent of its value. I was about to take my profits on that stock and buy a cheap US financial, but then the troubled utility plummeted in value.”
She expressed her worries again in Portuguese. “One minute you worried about one thing, the next different. I no understand.”
“You don’t need to worry.”
Claudio told her investing and risk and return worried him. He usually only fretted about the stock and bond market, so it was definitely something that shouldn’t concern her. He told her to take another half a sleeping pill, and, saying OK in Portuguese, she returned to her electric blanket in their double bedroom. He continued browsing through his photo albums, and the photos and images suddenly seemed all he had left. After Claudio closed the photo album, he sat brooding for about an hour, deeply preoccupied with dark thoughts. Then he quietly stepped downstairs to the gun collection located in the cabinet and checked out his various weapons. He ensured that they were empty of ammunition, that their safety catches were on, and that they were safely locked. On a whim, he took the handgun, a gift from a Viet Nam veteran, whose investments he still managed, whom he dissuaded from playing Russian roulette when he was intoxicated on tequila at a Mexican resort, and loaded the weapon with a single hollow point bullet. He spun the cylinder, mounted on the snob-nosed gun barrel, pressed the trigger, and the firing mechanism clicked quietly. He stored away the handgun in a sturdy case and then went into his workshop. He fumbled through a drawer of several knives and meat and bone cutting tools from a chest he used for his chef’s implements, which he decided to store after he decided that fine dining and pretending he could be a chef was no longer a diversion and distraction, but a pain, and took the Yanagiba knife. The tool kit was stored along tool chests and kits of woodworking tools, which he used when he was building furniture to combat a sense of malaise and meaninglessness that preoccupied him after accumulating more money than he could possibly spend, and he realized he had to scale back the number of hours he worked. He hid the Yanagiba knife in his leather briefcase. He told his wife, sitting in bed, reading a book promising to improve relationships, that he was going to visit a fitness club, open twenty-four hours, in downtown Toronto to work off some aggravation. This stress, however, he realized was different. As he got into his imported car and drove out of the circular parkway, he told himself to calm down, not to become agitated. He drove along the country highway until he hit the freeway with several junctions, feeder lanes, and turnpikes. At the intersection, he went to the coffee shop he frequented each morning for the past five years and looked over the financial newspaper. His mind was blank. He wasn't thinking correctly; there was that emptiness again; he was cogitating nothingness. Still, he needed strength, manhood, but he realized this state of mind was something different from his usual temporary funk, and he believed he needed professional help. No, he didn't need assistance. Denial, he thought. Or was it denial? No. It was a symptom of oncoming dementia, was it? No, he didn’t think so. He needed someone to whom he could address his concerns. Once a year he saw a physician for his life insurance policy. While he examined him, he really talked about nothing. After his last medical examination, the general practitioner informed Claudio he was in excellent physical condition. He had the physique and mental acuity of a twenty year old, although he was fifty-one.
Claudio drove kilometers in the night to a teaching hospital in the inner city downtown, a familiar neighborhood, known for its treatment of mental illness and substance abuse as well as its altruistic treatment of the impoverished, homeless, and drug addicted, where he believed he would have the greatest anonymity. He parked his black sedan with its reliable engine in a vacant lot beyond the cluster of medical buildings. He walked past the decaying brick buildings, crumbling offices, historic theaters, and acid rain washed office buildings and into a foyer of sliding glass doors into the emergency room. He told the admissions clerk he needed to see a doctor, and the security guard motioned to him to have a seat in a roomful of waiting patients, accompanied by apprehensive-looking relatives and friends. He stepped down the corridor to the washroom, pulled out the pocketknife he usually used to open envelopes, slashed his wiry wrists, and walked down the corridor to the admissions clerk. An emergency department physician examining lighted X-rays of a hip fracture saw his bleeding wrists.
Within an hour, a psychiatric intern consulted with him in a quiet room with muted light. The psychiatrist interviewed him for an hour. Although he realized he had given him his life story, it was the same kind of information he would have included on his resume or divulged to a television host on a talk show on a weekday night.
After Claudio swallowed a handful of pills and capsules in front of a nervous psychiatric nurse, he walked down what seemed like a mile long maze of hospital corridors. A pharmacist kept glancing from him to her pills and tablets as she filled his prescription of antidepressants and antipsychotics behind the thick pane glass that fringed the cubicle hospital pharmacy. By the time Claudio emerged from the pharmacy, he had walked into the start of a new workweek and a brilliantly sunny morning. In the chill morning air, he walked back to where his car should have been parked and found that it had been towed, or more probably, stolen. The fate of his car no longer mattered to him. He took a cab to franchise hotel on Church Street that overlooked a park and an arboretum, conveniently located for budget conscious tourists a few blocks from the theaters, concert halls, restaurants, art galleries, museums, and streetcars downtown, but in the heart of the red light district. He paid the driver with a fifty-dollar bill, got out of the cab with his shopping bags of clothes and makeup, and rented a suite.
“I see nothing has changed around here,” Claudio commented, as he signed the register for the hotel clerk at the lobby desk.
“I was a student at Ryerson Polytechnic Institute in the eighties, and all I remember about the place is prostitutes lining the streets around the college campus.”
The clerk glanced at the bank of video terminals for the closed-circuit cameras. “I understand, sir.”
“You see, when I was a journalism student at Ryerson I lived in the student co-operative just down Gerard Street.”
“A journalism student?”
“Yes. We pretended our work was crucial to society, but really we wrote drivel about who got to cut the ribbon at renovations to the lobby at city hall. Anyhow, I passed the sex trade workers every evening, as I returned from the library and campus newspaper offices at Ryerson. There was a pretty red-haired girl in a revealing outfit I couldn’t avoid looking at. Finally, she asked me why I didn’t stop and say hello and talk with her. I told her the truth. I didn’t want to get either of us in trouble, with the law or her friends, especially since I wasn’t a john and didn’t see the purpose in paying money to have sex. After our conversation on the curb, the intersection at Church and Gerard streets, near my apartment, she always stopped me. She said hello and tried to have conversations with me. She asked me to take her out for dates and once I was foolish and naïve enough to take her for coffee at the neighborhood café. The next night her pimp, who was also her boyfriend, followed me back home to my apartment in the student co-op. He knocked on my apartment door, and, when I answered it, I was looking at somebody I thought I recognized. He forced himself into my apartment, warned me to leave his girl alone, and beat me up. I noticed the tattoo on the back of his hand—thick lips and a protruding tongue—the Rolling Stones logo—before his balled fists battered my head and face. I didn’t know how he got inside, since he needed to pass security, but later the hooker told me, after she insisted I explain my black eye, he worked as a security guard inside the student apartment building, when he wasn’t a bouncer at the strip club. He was also a law and security student at George Brown College, so that he could become a police officer. I believe he is a member of the Toronto Police force now.”
“So you’re a journalist then?” the clerk asked.
“No, no, no. I graduated with my applied degree in journalism, but I soon discovered that the ordinary graduate couldn’t earn a living in journalism.”
“But many journalism grads from Ryerson do.”
“Yes, you’re right about Ryerson. But I’d say many of their journalism students succeed because they’re well-connected. I’m from Northwestern Ontario. I don’t have the background of those journalism students. I don’t have an uncle who works for the CBC or a cousin who works for The Toronto Star.”
“My father was a Cree Indian, who worked as a watchman at the federal government hospital for the people from the reserve, and my mother was a Portuguese immigrant.”
“It didn’t take me long to learn money really makes the world go round, a lesson I first learned when I was working after school as a car washer for the police, and as a clerk in the supermarket, and now I work as a financial planner and advisor.”
“Yes, I think you’re right, sir.”
“But getting back to that fellow. I am not hundred per cent certain, but I believe the same fellow is now a sergeant with the police force, and he lives close to my house in the burbs, and I manage his money. I know this because I recognize the Rolling Stones logo tattoo, the thick lips and tongue, fading on the back of his hand.”
The hotel clerk handed the keys to Claudio, who clenched them absently, as he strolled down worn carpet corridors to his hotel room. Having switched on the television, he napped on the plain neat bed and listened to financial reports in the background on the international cable news network. After he lay awake for a few hours, he strode down Carlton Street, boarded a commuter train southbound on the Yonge Street subway line to the mall in the downtown core, and went shopping in the department store in The Eaton’s Centre. He bought women's razors, depilatories, a dress, a wig, pumps, high heel shoes, acetaminophen, and a package of filtered cigarettes. From different fashion boutiques in the shopping mall of the Eaton’s Centre complex, he bought some additional intimate items of apparel. Then he took his armful of purchases outside and hailed a taxicab. In his hotel room, he settled down, allowed the water to run in the bathtub, and shaved his arms, legs, and chest, and then his pubic hairs. He took a slow release acetaminophen capsule for the pain he anticipated and allowed his Yanagiba knife to sit in a pot of boiling water for close to an hour.
Later, Claudio, gasping, swallowed an acetaminophen capsule and sealed the wound from his Yanagiba knife with gauze bandages, and lay in bed. Although he had not taken any painkiller in years, he took another time-release acetaminophen capsule and the prescription drugs the hospital pharmacy dispensed to him. Then he laid back and, after wincing, grimacing, and clenching in pain, slept. When he woke up, he took an acetaminophen capsule and emptied the coagulated blood and partially dried flesh from the wastebasket, lined with a plastic bag, into a plastic bag left from his shopping trip. Then he slipped into the dress and high heel shoes and walked out of the hotel, with a light feminine step, looking for the most part like a modern woman.
He dumped the plastic bag, whose twisted handles he knotted and sealed tight, containing the waste into the nearest garbage bin on Church Street. Then he strolled unsteadily on the high heels along Church Street, averted the eyes of curious students and the odd drug dealers and gang members, and turned onto Gerard Street, and merged with the foot traffic on Jarvis Street. He stepped onto a vacant curbside in the red light district, a gritty neighborhood several blocks over from the main thoroughfare downtown, and stood outside a gourmet cafe beneath a bright lamppost. Then he took out a package of cigarettes and removed the cellophane, and did something he hadn’t done in twenty years and smoked a cigarette. He prominently stuck out his bare, shaved leg, pale, smooth.
A young man passed by and pointed a large digital camera and a long telephoto lens in his direction.
“What are you doing?” Claudio demanded.
“I’m a photography student from Ryerson University.”
Claudio raised his brow. “I’m a financial advisor.”
Miles stifled a laugh.
“So, you’re a photography student at Ryerson. Are you expecting a scholarship or a bursary, or am I supposed to prostate myself?”
Miles shot a hateful expression over the viewfinder of his camera.
“Why are you pointing a camera at me?”
“I’m capturing images for a street photography project.”
“Excellent, except I don’t want to be a part of your street photography project.”
“Who said you’ve the privilege of being a part of my visual oeuvre. Besides, we’re on a Toronto city street, a public place.” Miles clicked his shutter, and an image of Claudio flashed onto the view screen of his digital camera. “It’s part of an assignment for my photography class.”
The photography student, six feet tall, lean, muscular, decided to put some distance between Claudio and his telephoto lens and paced further along Jarvis Street backwards, as he pressed the shutter and the camera clicked. Images of Claudio in a skintight black dress and high heels flashed across his view screen.
“Are you a prostitute?”
Claudio felt a warmth and glow rise into his cheeks. “No.”
“Are you transgender?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“You don’t know?”
Claudio reached inside his handbag and hurtled his Rolex watch, which struck Miles on the chin, which he had only recently started to shave. Miles reached down and grasped the watch, and, seeing in amazement it was a Rolex, assumed it was stolen, and pocketed the timepiece in his waterproof camera bag.
“Listen, kid, I have a net worth of close to four million dollars. I have a wife and kids, and I finished paying a million dollar mortgage on my house a decade ago. My home has rooms I never see most of the year, and I pay too much taxes. I donated a thousand dollars to Rob Ford’s election campaign and another thousand dollars to the election campaign of John Tory, and I don’t like either of them. If you don’t stop harassing me, I’m going to call the police.”
Miles incessantly took more pictures, capturing bursts of Claudio’s awkward visage through the whirring motor drive. Claudio lunged towards the student photographer and after him. He punched Miles on the shaved sides of his head, which had a Mohawk haircut, and grabbed his camera. Claudio’s neck was knotted with veins and tendons, as he uttered into the Mile’s ear. “I never fight, physically. The last time I fought anybody was during a schoolyard dispute, but you’re really ticking me off.”
“Keep your hands off me and don’t touch my camera.”
“I asked you to stop.”
“Don’t touch me. Leave my camera alone.”
Claudio hurtled the camera to the cement. He pummeled Miles, whose muscular physique was huddled beneath him, until his nose bled. The student decided he should refrain from physical retaliation to avoid trouble with the police and arrest. Reasoning he didn’t need to worry about the equipment, having borrowed the digital single-lens-reflex camera from the computing and communications services department of Ryerson University, he fled on foot. Claudio cursed and the tip of his high heel shoes landed against the long telephoto lens, and then he kicked the camera body again, but he tripped on his broken high heel shoes and crashed to the cement sidewalk. When he struggled to stand, reaching for a newspaper vending machine on the asphalt boulevard, he twisted his ankle. When he finally managed to stand on the concrete, on the broken high heel, he realized the bone inside his ankle was fractured. He took off the high heel shoes, tossed them into the gutter, and walked barefoot along the sidewalk. He hobbled unsteadily along Jarvis Street, the pain in his swelling, blackening, bruised ankle causing him to wince and gasp.
About the author:
Born and raised in Sioux Lookout, in northwestern Ontario, John Tavares graduated from General Arts and Science at Humber College, with concentration in behaviourial sciences, and journalism studies at Centennial College. His writing credits include Blood & Aphorisms, Plowman Press, Green’s Magazine, Filling Station, Whetstone (Canada), Broken Pencil and many others. His journalism was published in East York Observer, East York Times, Beaches Town Crier, The East Toronto Advocate, as well as other community and trade publications. He recently wrote a novel and is an avid photographer.