31 Days of Stories 2013, Day 10: “Toronto” by Cassie Beecham

May 10, 2013 by · 1 Comment 

From The Modern World

The_Modern_WorldThe eponymous city in Cassie Beecham’s harsh, acidic story is a character unto itself, a seething, hypocritical metropolis in the eyes of Annie, the twenty-eight-year-old B.C. transplant who serves as narraror. Annie, who has vague notions of wanting to be an actress, but currently finds herself “between careers,” has fled to the big city from her stultifying home in Castlegar, B.C. Her upbringing, she claims, “had been as small-town-nondescript as is humanly possible,” complete with loving parents and a boyfriend who held down a steady job, played in a bluegrass band, treated her well, and cooked her meals. “In Castlegar I played soccer on the weekends and everyone wanted me to have a baby,” Annie remarks caustically. “It was a John Mellencamp song with heli-skiing.”

Annie flees east, “like so many others who knew deep down that they were destined for failure but wanted to fail big.” Her initial desire is to go to New York City, but without the necessary documentation she has to settle for Toronto. Once she arrives, she finds that the city lives up – or, perhaps more precisely, lives down – to her expectations:

The city was exactly the way I’d imagined it. Outside the downtown core it was filled with low-rise brick buildings in various states of disrepair. Most were sleazy bars accessible only by a back entrance. Everybody under the age of 45 dressed like they were teenage rock stars. In the winter Toronto feels like a Polish slum and people seem happy with it that way.

Toronto, as seen from Annie’s jaundiced perspective, has a seedy, decrepit aspect to it; its denizens recognize the degraded quality of their surroundings but don’t seem to mind. This, for Annie, is part of the city’s essential hypocrisy. “Toronto was filled with fakes like me,” Annie says, “girls with suburban or rural upbringings who had come to Toronto in order to wear thrift-store jeans and find heartbreak.”

Beecham’s story takes place over a twenty-four-hour period during which Annie locks her boyfriend, Hank, in the living room of the apartment they share. The argument that precipitates Annie’s action is about money, something she acknowledges as a constant source of friction. “The two of us, we had money issues,” she says. In this instance, the sum – twelve dollars – is relatively piddling, but the fight escalates to the point of physical violence, with the two hurling a can of chili at one another. Annie admits this kind of aggression – the kind that leaves bruises – is a regular occurrence: “We were that type of couple,” she says. “The really in love kind. The kind where every time you opened your mouth you caused the other person hurt or misery of some kind.”

Annie’s assessment of love as authentic only when the lovers are constantly doing harm to one another points to the irony in Beecham’s story, which is couched in Annie’s self-delusion. Annie leaves a caring, attentive boyfriend in Castlegar for an intemperate, disdainful man in Toronto, and thinks the latter represents genuine love, something that is in keeping with her notion of small-town B.C. as sleepy and boring compared to the romanticized ideal of city life she carries with her about Toronto. “I … wanted more violence in my life,” Annie says about her dissatisfaction with Castlegar, “or upheaval maybe.”

Hank’s own upbringing is marked by upheaval: his little brother, Francis, died in a house fire when Hank was a teen, his father and another brother, Andrew, both committed suicide (though Hank believes the latter to have died of a drug overdose), and his mother suffers from bipolar disorder. As with her faulty notions about love, Annie romanticizes the anguish that Hank has suffered, assuming that his past has turned him into a kind of brooding, Byronic figure. “His childhood easily trumped my typical one, and I suppose to an extent, it consumed me; in the span of a week Hank came into my life and was completely able to erase my narcissism.”

On the couple’s first date, Hank takes Annie to the College Street dive bar Sneaky Dee’s, where they share nachos and beer. Then they return to Hank’s apartment, where he rapes her.

Beecham’s handling of the date rape is subtle and precise, with careful attention paid to the narrative register. Unlike the pitched argument that opens the story, the scene in Hank’s bedroom is almost devoid of intensity: the rhythm of the narration remains languid and dispassionate, replicating the mental state of someone who is trying to deny or repress the psychological significance of a traumatic event. Annie’s deferrals (“Let’s not”; “Don’t”) are presented coldly, as is her assessment of Hank’s reaction: “But he did, anyway.” This is immediately followed by Annie’s rationalizations about Hank’s motives: “Maybe the music was too loud and he didn’t hear me, because he didn’t stop.” After the fact, Annie continues to try to explain away Hank’s behaviour, downplaying the importance of the event and offering excuses for his refusal to accede to her protestations: “Things even out in the end,” Annie says. “If your brother is burned alive in front of you when you’re thirteen, you’re forgiven if you rape a girl, who really likes you a lot anyway, when you get older.”

The scene in Hank’s bedroom extends the violence that characterizes the couple’s relationship. The irony in Annie’s locking Hank in the living room is that she knows she can get away with it, because Hank, a carpenter, cares too much about the apartment’s French doors to risk ruining them trying to break out. Hank will withhold violence on the inanimate doors in his apartment, but has no qualms about meting it out on Annie.

This, too, is a form of hypocrisy. It is not incidental that Hank’s apartment is located above Honest Ed’s discount warehouse. To access the unit, the couple must bypass a group of department-store mannequins, another manifestation of the inauthentic nature of the city and its inhabitants. Not for nothing does Annie point out that when she first met Hank, he was dressed in Converse sneakers and “an ugly knitted sweater”: “He was attempting to look ironic, but not quite pulling it off, which seemed to be the style of the moment. At the time I thought he completely personified Toronto.”

Beecham leaves her story open-ended, although she does provide Annie with an Ibsen-inspired doll’s house moment of independence and assertion. The implication is that Annie has at least begun to divest herself of her fanciful notions about trauma and misery. But her stark assessment of Toronto still resounds with a painful, poignant strain of truth: “The folks there seemed to understand that most humans need some form of sadness in order to feel complete.”