That First Morning
by Kegan Doyle
Fen awoke, fetally curled up in sweat-soaked sheets on the loft floor. For a moment, he thought he was back home in Victoria and that he could hear his mother with her thick Slovakian accent telling him he was late for work.
“Here, Westie, this will keep your guts quiet.” A bottle of Black Label beer hovered above him. Carson was holding it, squatting, shirtless and in a pair of grey boxers.
“No way!” Fen croaked. “I mean, no thanks.”
“What? No beer?”
“It’s Sunday morning.”
Carson guffawed, and in a John Wayne voice said, “There ain’t no Sundays out here in Toronto, Westie. Toronto ain’t the good no more.” Returning to his normal baritone, he added, “Besides it’s open. You gotta drink it now. ”
Fen reluctantly sat up and grabbed the beer. He felt subhuman. It was as if his entire central nervous system had united in revolt against him. His inner organs throbbed and writhed and the noise of Nunfucker, a punk “apocalypso” trio, rung in his ears. He had arrived in the city yesterday afternoon, and he couldn’t wait to get on the next bus home. He took a sip to mollify Carson.
“You think you’re hungover now, Westie. Once I woke up and took a dump that stunk so bad it set a fire alarm off.”
“I don’t think Fen needs to hear that story right now,” Saskia yelled from the cramped kitchen where she was hovering over the stove, wearing a man’s plaid housecoat. Her hair was tied up and she was humming “Over the Rainbow.”
“You know what they say, Westie,” Carson said and winked. “You are what you excrete.”
Fen was stunned at his sprightliness. Carson had drunk three times the amount of schnapps he had and swallowed twice as many mushrooms. Fen felt near death, and Carson appeared ready to lead a jazzercise class. Saskia too seemed as bubbly and bright as ever.
Just three weeks earlier, she had finally persuaded Fen to come east. They had met the previous year in a class at UVIC on Augustan poetry. As he did in all his courses, Fen sat hunched over in the back row scribbling down in tiny script everything the professor said. On the last day of regular classes, she approached him in a panic—she had missed half the classes, lost the course anthology and her notes, and had no idea who John Dryden even was– and pleaded with him to help her for the final. He was shocked, flabbergasted, not by her request but that somebody like her would even address a light-shy little introvert like him. She was both exotic (part Surinamese, he later discovered) and cool with about six o’s. In her West German army jacket, ragged black tee, disintegrating Levi’s and Doc Marten boots, she looked like she had just strutted off the back cover of a new wave album. Fen, on the other hand, looked both tubercular and incurably nerdish. He had stringy hair, a large glowing forehead, a curved nose, and sunken Slavic eyes.
Shortly after the exam (she got an A-), she moved back to Toronto and sent him a thank you letter. It was written mostly on wood shavings, and he had to piece it together for it to make sense. He wrote right back, and they kept up the correspondence for a whole year. Her life was relentlessly colourful, filled with shows, openings, readings, parties, gatherings, happenings, and spontaneous jaunts to Montreal and Buffalo. His, on the other hand, was one long exercise in monotony. With his father, mother, and younger brother, he ran Damned Spot, a cleaning company that specialized in institutional carpets, and he didn’t have time for much, other than work and study. He tried to liven up his letters by offering his opinions on books and foreign movies and by doodling tiny elaborate grotesques in all the empty spaces. Somehow he maintained her interest. One night in April she phoned at 3 a.m. and demanded that he come to Toronto—she said something about joining the revolution of 1988 and about how Toronto was a haven for creeps, freaks, and weirdos like her and Fen. Against all his best instincts, he declared he was on his way. He felt terrible about leaving his parents. His dad, an Irish would-be poet, was increasingly morose and spent much of his time drinking Glenlivet and watching the Seattle Mariners lose baseball games, and his mother relied on Fen and his brother to do much of the company’s heavy scrubbing. The fact that Fen had lied to her, told her that he had been “tentatively” accepted at Osgoode Law School, only intensified his guilty feelings. Saskia convinced him though that he should master the art of forgetting, that once you had your life became a lot easier.
Beer in hand, he now joined her and Carson, who had thrown on jeans and a Meat is Murder t-shirt, for his first Toronto breakfast. Everything in the loft looked like it came from a garage sale or a junkyard, and Saskia had painted and drawn on much of it. The groaning 50’s era fridge was candy apple red, and there was blue streak across the oven window. The wobbly table they sat at was really a door, painted canary yellow, balanced on some milk crates. Stuck to it were two half-melted candles crammed in empty wine bottles. Saskia had told him the night before that the warehouse’s power often went out. They ate the buckwheat crepes and, after the beer was done, drank grapefruit juice (with a splash of vodka) from empty jam jars, while Carson merrily recounted the events of the night before.
When Fen had trudged in just a few hours earlier, grubby and weighed down by his backpack, Carson had scowled at him like he was a scarab. Everything that Carson learnt from Saskia about Fen over dinner—that he studied history, was fascinated by Napolean, might go to law school one day, had an uncle who was a priest in County Kildare, liked the early films of Francois Truffault and played ukulele– only seemed to fuel his contempt. And Carson was nothing if not intimidating. He had come to Toronto from Halifax on a lacrosse scholarship several years earlier. He had quit sports, and now was doing a doctorate in Cultural Studies at York, but still had had an athlete’s body and forcefulness. He was six-three with thick trapezoids, spiky punk hair, spider tattoos on his neck, and a spotlight glare.
Over the course of the night, he had, much to Fen’s amazement, become Fen’s biggest fan. “Good show,” he said now, raising his jar. “You deconstructed yourself last night,” he chuckled as if this were the ultimate complement. “You’re a floating signifier, and to prove it you’ve got six new nicknames.”
Saskia concurred, “You were, like, amazing—you’re a hit in Toronto already.” She filled up their jars with more juice, and Fen took a long swig, partly to hide his blushing face.
“I had a good time,” he said. They exploded again. Everything he said was now hilarious.
In truth, he couldn’t remember much. The night for him was a series of ellipses. He did remember that they had walked to another decrepit graffiti-covered warehouse and that it was filled with dozens of sexy, cadaverous people dressed in black, that he had flirted with a small woman with blonde dreadlocks called Ammonia and philosophized with a surly graduate student who said he was researching the relationship between “fucking and naming.” He did remember too that he had made some people laugh by opening his mouth when it was stuffed with Graeme crackers and magic mushrooms and that he had found a banjo and played a set with the band and that people had started calling him Fredo Baggins (after Fredo in The Godfather) and that everybody he had spoken to had, for some strange reason, used the word smut. Almost everything else about the night was fuzzy. But if he had been a “hit,” so be it. He was just relieved that he didn’t seem to have done anything mean or life-threatening.
“Well, we’re glad you had a good time. That’s your typical Toronto night, Westie. We’re doing it again ce soir.”
“Carson thinks he has a sense of humour,” Saskia said, chewing her crepe and shaking her head.
“I’ll pass thanks,” Fen said to Carson. Even the mention of another night out had produced a wave of nausea and made him think once more about returning home. “By the way,” he said, trying to take the attention off himself. “I heard last night about a ‘smut offensive.’ What exactly is that?”
He immediately regretted asking the question. Carson and Saskia stopped smiling and went silent. For a few moments, the only sound was the cutlery on the plates. Saskia shot an inquiring glance at Carson, as if to ask whether or not they should talk. Carson nodded once, coolly. It was like they were considering letting Fen into an inner circle.
Saskia said quietly, “Well it turns out that you arrived in Toronto at the most amazing possible moment. We didn’t want to make too big a deal about it, but last night was sort of the first night of our campaign against the government of Canada.”
“Against Bill C-54,” Carson added.
“It’s what you said– a smut offensive,” she said, putting her utensils down and squeezing Fen’s hand, her eyes smiling once again.
“Mulroney and his Bible-thumping Brownshirts are trying to censor us,” Carson said.
“To stop artistic expression and it’s all because they’re sexually repressed,” she said. She leaned forward and the top of her housecoat opened a bit wider.
As Fen shifted around awkwardly in his seat, Carson walked to a messy desk in the corner by the window, opened the bottom drawer, and pulled out a file. He sat back down, removed an official looking document from it, and read: “ ‘Pornography’, it claims in the legislation means ‘any visual matter showing vaginal, anal or oral intercourse, ejaculation, sexually violent behaviour, bestiality, incest, necrophilia, masturbation…’ and get this, ‘or other sexual activity.’”
Saskia shook her head in dismay.
Carson continued, “The Conservatives are trying to push this through the house. Pretty soon we won’t be able to read Nabokov.”
“And that’ll be the least of our worries,” she added.
Fen had heard a little about the legislation on The National. At the time, it hadn’t seemed like such a bad idea—he had heard about porn involving girls in blenders–but he hadn’t thought about the implications.
Carson pulled a newspaper article out of the file. “This is what one of our MP’s, James Reimer from Kitchener, stated in our House of Parliament: ’Let’s stop kidding ourselves. Any depiction of any person as a mere object of sexual self-gratification constitutes a perversion of human sexuality.’ Can you believe it? It’s like Big Sig never happened.”
“Freud, he means,” Saskia said.
Carson said. “You can sell the country down the river to the US, but heaven forbid you read a stroke book. We’re fighting back.” He pounded his fist on the table, making the plates jump.
“We’re going to shock the country out of its complacency,” Saskia said.
“We’re going to have public readings of banned works,” Carson said.
“Henry Miller, Lady Chatterly’s Lover, only the juicy stuff.”
“And we’re going to put porn—Swank and Penthouse– in the art galleries.”
“And have outdoor screenings of In the Realm of the Senses and Pasolini.”
“And cover every exposed dick and twat in the AGO.”
“And stage a nude Othello!”
Finally, Carson proclaimed, “Come one, Westie. Are you with us?”
He didn’t know what to say. The whole project terrified him. He just couldn’t picture himself reading a sex scene from Henry Miller in public or playing Iago in the nude. Meanwhile, that voice inside was once again hectoring him to go home again, to use 99 of his remaining 330 dollars to pay for that ticket back West. They needed him back there—Mama Mulligan above all. Then he looked at Saskia’s broad exotic face, into her black always smiling, always moving eyes. She was, at some level, insane. And she was beautiful, beautiful in a subtle way, a way that a jock or a car salesman might overlook, a way that crept up on you and then….
“I’m with you,” he said, and she and Carson both cheered and stamped their feet.
“It should be quite a ride,” Carson said.
She raised her now empty jar and so did Carson. They held them towards Fen for a toast. He took a deep breath. He was thousands of miles from home, in a strange, muggy city, in a creaky and highly flammable warehouse, nursing a monster hangover, and he was being asked to wage war on his own government, potentially in the nude, and on top of all that he was, for the first time in his life, hopelessly in love.
Saskia said, “So here’s to a summer of…”.
“Smut,” Carson said.
Fen raised his empty jar and clinked it against theirs.
“Welcome to Toronto,” she said.