Saturday, October 27, 2012

The Longest Street in the World

The interpreter was sitting at a table that bore an artful scattering of freshly printed books.  The table was in the lobby outside the theatre inside the Royal Ontario Museum.  He was in Toronto, his home town.  He had not spent more than a few days in a row in this city in more than a decade, and many things had changed, including the Royal Ontario Museum, which now sported a jagged prow at its north end that projected rudely out over Bloor Street.  He remembered the galleries and restaurant the weird crystal had replaced.  He didn’t understand why they had been replaced.  They weren’t old.  When he was a student in this building, their halls still held the nasal bite of recently-poured concrete.  They were still in his head, in his sinuses and in his memory, but here, now, they were gone.

The next group approached the table, a dad with two children, a boy about grade 6 and a girl, grade 3.  After countless grade-specific elementary school programs, interpreters see children as grades.  There were a lot of kids here on a Monday afternoon.  Was it a holiday in Ontario? 

First the people talked to Derek Coulter, and then they talked to him.  This was the first stop in a short, promotional book tour, which would work its way west. Derek was the primary author of Animal Update: The Book.   The interpreter had provided humorous two-page inserts about hunts for rare species in British Columbia, derived from his segments on the show.  They were spaced throughout the book, accompanied by stills from the episodes.  Derek was the primary book-flogger, and did all the face-to-face media stuff.  The interpreter was there for completeness.

An Asian boy with spiky hair and wire-framed glasses, grade 4 or 5, was next. 

“Hi,” said the interpreter.  “What’s your name?”


“Nice to meet you Ben.  How come you’re not in school today?”

“It’s a professional development day.”

“Oh.  Lucky you.  Would you like me to sign your book?”

Ben held his copy to his chest, protecting it from the interpreter’s poised pen.  He said, “I like your part of the show.  It’s funny.”

“Thank you,” said the interpreter.  “What was your favourite episode?”

He froze.  “I’m not sure.  It’s what my mom told me to say.  She, my mom, she knows you.”

“She does?”

“She was your friend when you were young.”  

The interpreter leaned closer.  “What’s your last name, Ben?”


Becky Pang had married Tony Lo, the boy her parents had planned for her to marry.  This he had known for a long time.  He learned this in his junior year at university, a passing comment from a mutual acquaintance from back then. The news paralyzed him.  The next day he failed an organic chemistry exam he would have aced. The interpreter sat back and scanned the lobby.  She was standing near a pillar, holding hands with a little girl.  She half-smiled and half-waved. 

“Excuse me, just a sec,” he said to a woman with a grade 3 daughter, the next people in line.  He walked around the table and said to Ben, “Let’s go talk to your mom.”

Milling people were in his way.  He finally got there.

"Hi,” she said.

 “Hi,” he said.

“We watch your television show.”

“It’s Derek’s show.  I’m just a comical diversion.  I get paid to fall into swamps.”

“Ben loves it.  And this is Melissa.  But she’s still mostly into Dora the Explorer.”

“Hi there,” he said to the child, whose glossy hair was tied in a ponytail.  She was looking up at him.  She looked like her mother.

“Hi,” she said in a tiny squeak-voice.

The interpreter said, “I’m sorry, I can’t really talk now.”  A log jam was forming in front of his empty chair, and Derek was peering at him through the throng.

She asked, “Are you in Toronto for long?”

“I fly out tomorrow.  Winnipeg, then Calgary, then Edmonton, then home to Vancouver on Friday.”

“Where are you staying?”

“Across the street at the Park Plaza, which is now called something different, like everything else in Toronto.”

“Here.”  She handed him a sheet of paper folded in half.  “Can we meet for dinner or something?  I’m free tonight.  The kids are staying with Cindy.”

“Cindy,” he said.  He remembered Cindy, the youngest sister, the one with the scoliosis brace.  She was musical.  He had taught her chords, helping hold the guitar against the brace.  “How’s Cindy?”  He didn’t really want to know how Cindy was.  He was addled.  Here was Becky Pang.

“She’s good.”

“Good,” he said.

Becky said, “You better go back to your station.  Derek’s looking impatient.”  She made whooshing motions.  “Call me when you can talk.”

“Becky,” he said.


He didn’t answer, walked backwards across the lobby until he bumped into a baby stroller.  He spun around, apologized to the parent, and turned back.   Becky and her children were gone.  He looked at Derek, who was smiling at him.

The book signing ended abruptly at 3 PM with a loud pronouncement by a woman the interpreter didn’t know.  He was glad it was done.  So was Derek, who also disliked this side of things.  He came over and said, “Beer.” 

They wandered along the north side of Bloor Street to a bar.  The interpreter said, “I got drunk here many times during grad school.  I was always the same person, but the bar kept changing.  Different names, different motifs.  It has changed again since I left.”

Derek said, “Probably more than once.”

It was presently an oak-panelled British pub with a tin ceiling, which it had also been several iterations before.

Unlike when the interpreter had been a graduate student, they had intended to stop at a single pint.  When the glasses were one draw from empty, Derek asked if the interpreter wanted to have dinner with his family again.  Derek lived in North Toronto with his wife, Mimi, and their two children, Michael, grade 3, and Lizzie, kindergarten.  Mimi’s mother lived with them too.  The interpreter had dined with them the previous evening, and had enjoyed himself.  The Coulter-Villanuevas were a hospitable bunch.  The grandmother was difficult to understand but was sweet, and the children were rambunctiously adorable.  But this evening he craved solitude. 
He said, “Thanks for the offer, but I want to spend an evening reacquainting myself with my old city. I’ve been away a long time.  For five years I lived three blocks that way.”  He pointed through the wall, compass bearings fixed in his brain.  “I want to walk around, let the memories wash over me.”

Derek asked, “How long is it since you’ve been back?”

“Eight years, but the last time was a short visit.  I came for a wedding.  I saw Crawdad, went to the wedding, and then flew home.  I’d been away for several years before that.  It’s been about eleven years since I was really here.”

And then out of nowhere, as the interpreter was raising his glass, Derek asked, “Who was the woman with the kids you abandoned me for?”

The interpreter didn’t drink.  With his glass hovering short of his mouth, he said, “Sorry about that. It was unexpected.”

“No, it’s all right.  Who was she?”

The interpreter placed his glass back on its coaster.  He stared into it, and said nothing.

Derek leaned to stare into it too.  “You can read beer foam? What’s the answer?”

The interpreter said, “That woman is someone I used to know, back in high school.  Apparently her son is a fan of the show.”

“An old friend,” said Derek.  They sat up straight.

“She asked me to have dinner with her, but I don’t think I will.” 

“Why not?”

He shrugged.  “History.”

“Do tell.”

He shook his head.  “It’s not important.”  He plucked up the glass and drank it dry.

Derek said, “C’mon. Tell me a story.  I paid for the beer.  In fact, I’ll buy you another.”  He signalled two fingers to the server.

Two fresh pints dropped softly onto two fresh coasters.

“Story time,” said Derek, before taking a sip.

The interpreter gave in.  “She was my high school sweetheart, sort of.”

Derek cocked his head to the side.  “Sort of?”

“We had to keep it secret.”

Derek was a new Canadian, a recent immigrant from the United States.  He had been sponsored by his wife, who herself was an immigrant, having arrived in Canada with her mother and sister as a child.  What a happy melting pot this country was.  As if any country was.  He asked, pretty much sure he knew the answer, “Why?”

The interpreter said, “Our parents.  One of the many things we had in common was xenophobe parents.  Her parents had no use for me, and mine had no use for her, which from the get-go portended impending tragedy, and exaggerated everything.” 

“That’s hard,” Derek said, “at that age, when you think you’re all grown up, but you lack any real power at all.”  He was interrupting a narrative the interpreter could spout as effortlessly as any naturalist talk in his interpretive kit.  The interpreter was a professional speaker.  He could speak easily and at length about many things, about how and why birds migrate, about the ecological connections between mushrooms and trees, about how leaves change colour in fall, about the northern lights.   But easier than any of those, and at greatest length, he could speak about Becky Pang.

“The last time I ever saw her, before today, was during the summer between high school and university, a night when her parents came home early from their restaurant and threw me out of her house.  She’s screaming at her mom, her mom is screaming at her, her granny, who was our ally, is screaming at her mom and dad, her little sister is staggering round in her scoliosis brace crying.  It ends with her dad cursing at me in English and in Cantonese, chasing me down the street in the pouring rain, me in sock feet with my shoes in my hands.  He’s half a step behind and every three steps or so he’s punching me in the shoulder, swearing that he’ll kill me if I ever speak to her again.”

“Whoa,” said Derek.
“And my parents couldn't have been happier.  Afterward I could imagine my dad urging her dad on.  Go on!  Punch him again!  Today I see her, and instantly that awful night was like last week.   Don’t ask me more.  I’ll go on for hours and you’ll have to buy me more drinks.”

Derek asked more. “That was what, 20 years ago?”

“Almost.  It was almost exactly half our life ago, now that I do the math.”

Derek said, “I would have dinner with her.  Share bittersweet memories of forbidden love.”

“You don’t think you’ll regret it if you don’t?”

“I think I’ll regret it if I do.”


“It would be cheating.” 

“Dinner’s not cheating.”

“If you go out for dinner with someone your girlfriend—the mother of your child—wouldn’t want you to be going out to dinner with, and she doesn’t know you’re doing it, it’s cheating.  I’ve told her about Becky Pang.  She’s knows Becky Pang’s not just some random old high school friend.  She’s Becky Pang.”

Derek said, “Becky Pang. That’s a great name.  It’s a combination of sweet-faced girl-next-door, and pain.”

“That’s exactly what it is.  That’s her.”

Derek said, “I don’t have a high school sweetheart, or one that I can remember.  I have memory gaps, because of a brain injury.”

“You got a skull fracture in Bermuda during a hurricane.”
“Oh.  I told you about that.”
“The night you hired me.  We were drinking.”
Derek said, “Oh.  Right.  But my point is that I do have an ex-wife, whom I married young, just out of high school, and then split up with still pretty young, which is almost like a high school sweetheart gone wrong.   I think I would enjoy having dinner with her now, after all this time, to figure out why things went wrong.  I think we could become friends again.”

The interpreter said, “I know what went wrong, and it wasn’t her or me.  I never stopped being her friend.  I never wanted to stop.”

Derek said, “Okay, you’re right, it’s different.  Still, if it were me, I would have dinner, reminisce, and not tell Stacey.  It would be a simple, harmless evening.  It would be fun.” 

“I don’t think so,” said the interpreter.
“Becky Pang.  What a name.”

“Ha, there you go,” said the interpreter.
“There you go—what?”

The interpreter said, “I saw her hand.  No wedding ring.  She told me her sister is looking after her kids tonight, no mention of a husband.  Plus, look at this.”  He had to stand up to dig the piece of paper, now folded in quarters, from his front pocket.    He unfolded it and held it up for Derek to see. “Look.  She signed this note using her maiden name.  Why add a last name?  Why even sign it?  It’s a signal.   She’s saying she’s single now, and she’s asking me out for dinner.”  He placed the piece of paper on the table between them.  All it bore was her name and a phone number.

Derek studied the paper.  He said, “Okay, suppose she’s single, and she assumes you are too.  You’re both grown-ups, and you, yourself, are not single.  You’re not going to jump her, and my bet is she’s not going to jump you.  You’re no longer horny high school students groping in the textbook storage closet.”

Amazingly, Derek had imagined something that had actually happened.  The interpreter and Becky had been caught among the toppled book stacks by Mrs. Gunn, a prickly Scottish math teacher, who told them they were lucky—she had intervened in time and prevented them from going to hell.  Then she sent them to the principal’s office.  They begged the principal not to phone their parents.  He was a softy, and he didn’t.  He simply made them promise not to do it again.

The interpreter said, “You don’t get it. It’s not really about being single or not.   It’s about not turning back to where we were, not relapsing into an impossible situation.  It was unfinished.  We never even said good bye.  It’s still hanging.  It’s unresolved.  It’s Toronto.” The interpreter had not held his daughter in more than 24 hours, which was the longest stretch since she had been born.  He wanted to be holding her now, his nose to the crown of her head, but he was here, in a bar, with Derek, with a hand-written note from Becky Pang on the table in front of him.  After all these years, she still had the same tidy, tiny handwriting.   He said, “So it’s a mess. I’m now here, but my life is back there, with Stacey and Marcie.  But here is still the same here it always was, and here is Her, and the Her-wound never healed.  It doesn’t matter how long ago it was.  If I’m with Becky, I don’t know what will happen.”

Derek said, “All you know for certain is that she wants to talk with you.  She must remember that last night too, and you’ll talk about it.  If you have dinner with her, you’ll talk about that, and you’ll reminisce about other things, and talk about what you’ve done since then, how your lives have gone.  Then maybe you’ll find that things have turned out okay for both of you, and you’ll be happy for each other.  Then maybe you can finally let go.”

After a long pause, the interpreter said, “No.”
“No I’m not going to see her.”
“You would rather stew about her forever.  Toronto will become a scab you never stop picking at.  Or maybe it is already?”

The interpreter said, “You spend most of the second half of your life, the semi-adult to adult half, mourning someone, and during that time she becomes less real and gradually transforms into a gently haunting myth, an entity who every so often pops up in a dream and gives brief hope, but then always vanishes before anything comforting is said, and you wake up and stare at the ceiling feeling freshly disappointed and cheated—but each time maybe a bit less.  You go on, quietly hoping that the next time you dream her she’ll say something you need to hear and the dreams will stop, and you’ll have peace.”

“What do you need to hear?”

“If I knew that, I would have dreamt it by now.”

Derek said, “I don’t think wishing on a dream will ever get you peace.  Becky Pang isn’t a dream.”  He tapped the piece of paper.  “Dreams don’t have a phone numbers.” 

The interpreter smacked his hand flat on the table.  “But by now that’s all she’s supposed to be!  An occasional little flicker of memory that over a few days fades away. That’s how I process it, after all the time that has passed, all the possibilities that have been lost since that night.  A flicker that will go away and stop hurting.  That’s her.   If I see her again, sit with her, talk with her, I’ll have eighteen years of retroactive heartache swarming me all at once.  It’s already percolating, after seeing her for only 30 seconds—and it shouldn’t!  She fits in my life as a vanishing dream.  She doesn’t fit as a real person anymore.”  He shouted, “I’m with someone else now, and a baby girl, way over the other side!  It’s totally conflicting!”

“Okay, okay.” Derek was glancing around, making calming motions with his hands. 

“I shouldn’t talk about her when I’m drinking.”  The interpreter gulped down the rest of his beer, and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.  He said, “I’m not calling her, not today.”   He refolded the paper and pushed it across the table to Derek.  “Please hold onto this for me.   You can give it back tomorrow after we’re safely airborne.”

“You should at least call her to tell her you can’t have dinner with her.”

“I’d hear her voice, and that would be that.  Thanks for the beer.”

They left the bar and parted ways.  

As he walked, Derek fingered the folded piece of paper in his pocket.

The interpreter headed east, along Bloor Street toward Toronto’s most famous thoroughfare, its north-south nerve cord, the street that begins at the lake and stretches north forever, far beyond the memory of the city.  This was Yonge Street, the longest street in the world.  His eventual target, for vague sentimental reasons, was the apartment building he had lived in while in graduate school.  It was shoe-horned into a narrow block not far south of Bloor Street, and its eastern ground floor was a row of fast food franchises with doors opening onto Yonge Street’s west side sidewalk. 

But when he got to the busy Bloor-Yonge intersection he took a brief detour north to visit a favourite book shop.  Four minutes later he stood, staring, as people brushed past.  He absently patted the top of a parking meter as if it were the head of a dog whose tail might start wagging.  The book shop was now a Starbucks.

He turned back south, crossed Bloor, and was at the start of the familiar trek.  Ahead were a dozen blocks containing an endlessly changing mishmash of clothing stores, camera shops,  sandwich shops, pizza places, sushi diners, hair salons, nail salons, book stores, record stores, leather shops, head shops, strip clubs, video parlours, bars, anything and everything, accordioned into rows of two- or three-storey buildings, most built in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century.  Shop-fronts were at street level, and up above were small offices or cramped apartments, almost invisible to shoppers.  And now, he saw, modern high-rise condominiums had joined the mix, dropped from the sky to obliterate what?  That one there? Oh my god, the Uptown Theater, where they had many times shared popcorn and a straw.

Still, despite the more jarring changes, Yonge Street remained what it had always been, a road of wonder that widened the eyes of kids from the sterile suburbs.  Suburban teens, in pairs or larger groups, every weekend would hop on the subway and head from north, east and west to Yonge and Bloor.  There, they would emerge to walk this street, downhill, the subtle slant toward the lake.  Some would walk down the east side, and then back up the west, completing a circuit.  He and Becky usually walked down the west side until it was time to cross to go to Sam the Record Man.  There they would browse, usually buying nothing because they had little more money than what was needed to get back home.  Yonge Street was their safe place, where no one would tell them that they didn’t belong together, or threaten them because they were.  When they reached the Eaton Centre they would sit in the food court in uncomfortable plastic chairs on one side of a four-person table, holding hands, ankles hooked, glared at by families with laden trays.  They stayed alone in the crowd for as long as possible, glancing at their watches, watching time race away.  When they could delay no longer, they would stuff their change into the hopper at the subway booth and ride home, fingers intertwined, her head on his shoulder.

Stacey had never been to Toronto.  Like many western Canadians, she adhered to an irrational, almost religious hatred of Toronto.   It was a cold, heartless metropolis, all about striving and greed.

“No.  It’s a great city,” he tried to convince her.

“It isn’t.” That was her truth.  She had never walked down Yonge Street with anyone.

He continued on until he was standing on the corner, looking up at the building he had lived in.  He counted floors up to his former living-room window. In summer the sun would pour through, creating almost unbearable heat.  In winter it would frost over and he would melt initials with his fingertips, which one by one would become too cold to have any effect.  When the frost was thick, he couldn’t complete the arc of the P.  His neck started to hurt.

His phone rang.  It was already in his hand. He checked the screen.  It was a Toronto area code, and the number had two consecutive sevens in it.  The number on the piece of paper had had two consecutive sevens in it.  He let the ringing time out, almost.

“Hi,” he said. 

“Hey Will-Will, it’s me,” she said.  

“Hey Me,” he said.   The last time they had said those words to each other had been through thick plastic handsets attached by springy coiled cords to hefty phone bases plugged into a walljack somewhere.

She said, “Derek Coulter phoned me.  He gave me your number. He said you were too shy to phone me.  He told me he stole the piece of paper I gave you.”

Will said, “Where are you?”

“Downtown.  On Yonge Street.  I’m in a Starbucks.”

There was another one across the road.   It used to be a Wendy’s.  Starbucks was as indiscriminate as it was voracious.
“Please walk out the front door,” he said.  He counted down in his head: Five, four, three, two, one...  He threw his arms in the air.

Traffic pushed back and forth between them.  It took forever for the light to change.



Katie (Nature ID) said...

I don't believe it. Is this really the end?

Hugh said...

Hi Katie,
I don’t know when I decided, or if I actually did, to make it into a serial. I’ve run out of the little interpretive moments that started the series, and I don’t want it to lapse into a soap opera with little to do with interpretation (if it hasn’t already). I thought it was a good way to end it, which is to say as ambiguously as possible, and maintaining the underlying theme—even if he wins, he still loses. He’s home, but his home is also in BC. In either place he’s unfulfilled. Perhaps you may recall that at the end of Tea Kettle Island, Derek moves to Toronto. That was me, having recently moved to Vancouver from CA almost two decades ago, wanting to go home. (Toronto is my home town.) I guess part of me still wants to. Every so often, as Neil Kelley said about the interpreter (, I walk into a memory hole. It’s so easy to do with Google Streetview.

That was a long answer. The short answer is, I dunno. Maybe I should rescue him from himself, send him back to BC. Thank you for reading. Hugh.

Tim said...

Gah! The Interpreter has a name!

Thanks for sharing the life of the Interpreter with us...I hang on to the hope that there will be more stories some day.

Hugh said...

Hi Tim,

I did that partly to say that his identity has changed, that he's no longer an interpreter, and partly because she was an important person who knew him long before he was one. She would be the one to re/unbrand him.

Maybe I'll write more stories using his name. I'll ponder a while. Thanks for reading, and for your comments.

Patricia Lichen said...

Derek! What a jerk! Mind yer own business.

(Nice hint, by the way, that fiddling with the folded paper in his pocket as he walks away.)

Well, time will tell whether the Interp stories are done with you!

Hugh said...

Pat, That's a wise way of putting it. Time will tell.

I'm glad you noted the paper-fiddling. And there is another possible complication: Did the interpreter give Derek the paper, expecting or hoping that he would phone on his behalf?

Patricia Lichen said...

Yes, not only that, but the Interpreter also said Give it back to me tomorrow rather than Get rid of this for me. Derek would have noted such equivocation. (I did!)

Hugh said...

This is even more complicated than I had thought through. I didn't think about that subtlety (in Derek's POV), but it works. I was thinking that the interpreter would want to keep the paper, either for sentimental reasons, or maybe to phone after leaving Toronto, once safely away. I had a hard time writing the conversation in the bar, because the situation was a dilemma for the interpreter, and conversations about dilemmas tend to go in circles. I edited it a few times after I first posted it, and if I read it again a week or a month from now I'll probably be tempted to fiddle with it again.

As always, I am grateful for your thoughts and input.