The Sliding Door of a Toronto Streetcar
by Nicholas Coursel
Spadina Avenue runs south toward Chicago back through my heart. Stepping from the side alleys onto the bustling streets, over the pigeons, past the bums, past the Bao Woman selling sweets on the corner, past the bums again, through the beautiful stench of it all—the world begins. It all opens up. Chinatown is Toronto and Toronto is the world. We’re all here some way or another.
The streetcar slows to a stop and she gets off. Her light brown crop gets pulled up by the bottom of her backpack as she jogs to beat the light. Her shoes are still filthy from the night we snuck to the top of Casa Loma and drank strawberry soju until our eyes couldn’t see and the CN Tower was nothing but a dancing Monet in the night. The silver-blonde highlights in her hair glimmer under the Canadian sun. And through it all, I can do nothing but stare.
That’s been the story of my summer. I came to Toronto on assignment: come up with 2,000 glorifying words about the ongoing gentrification of Kensington Market and how the city should be grateful for its new yuppie ruling class and make it go hashtag trending.
It takes a certain type of man to interview nepo-babies and tell the story of how brave and daring they are for selling $14 artisanal currywurst in the name and pursuit of culinary greatness. Usually that man is poor and his bills are due soon. So much for investigative journalism. Oh well, Northwestern was a lifetime ago. Things change.
The stereotype is true, you know—Americans can be bought and sold to the highest bidder. Or at least I can. Money is money and rent is due and food only lasts so long before you need more. The only problem was the mag paid Canadian. Not only was I selling my soul, but I was doing it at a 30% discount.
My apartment, or rather my room, was just off D’Arcy in one of the compact residential alley-streets you see all over Chinatown. It was filthy and covered in trilingual graffiti, but that’s Toronto. I never could’ve guessed Hell had a turquoise front door.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” I heard as I stepped onto the landing.
A loud crash. My feet stalled on the first step.
“I fucked Steve last week!"
Who was Steve?
More crashing, more shouting. But my suitcase was heavy and the flight, though short, was turbulent and awful, so I shrugged and continued up. There were worse places to die.
I had to lift the door and jimmy the knob to get it open. And when it finally did, they were both there. A haggard woman wearing a tattered sari gripped an old desk lamp and stood fuming. Her blonde hair was drenched in sweat as she screamed and cornered a tiny man in desperate need of a shave and shower.
Pupils dilated, they glared at me like a pair of raccoons that’d been caught sifting through the trash as I pushed through the door. They didn’t know whether to bite or run or keep on fighting, so they just stared.
It took them a moment, taking me in, but when they finally did it was the man who spoke first. “Who the fuck are you?” he asked, and my heart almost stopped.
My hands rose above my head as I chuckled to hide my quivering legs. “I’m just here for the AirBnB. I come in peace.”
The man relaxed, sighed, and shoved past me. “You picked the wrong place. Have fun living with this crazy bitch. We’re done, Sarah. This is it.”
The door slammed to the sound of laughter and footsteps climbing down the stairs. I knew what he was doing, egging her on, but I don’t think she did. Or at least she was too angry to be rational to notice. Before I could get a word in, the lamp was soaring through the air two or three inches from my face. It crashed against the freshly slammed door and shattered.
“Sorry about him. He’s just—” “Crazy?” I suggested. It was better to have the lamp thrower on my side, especially when the alternative had already slammed his way out of the apartment.
The woman laughed and shook her head. “Something like that.” She extended her hand and I took it. “Andre told me we had a fresh one coming. You’re the American?”
“My name’s Tammy. It’s nice to meet you.”
“Sorry,” I replied, eyebrows furrowing, “I didn’t catch that. What’d you say?”
“My name’s Tammy,” she repeated. “It’s nice to meet you.”
“Peter. Nice to meet you as well.”
“Welcome to Toronto, Peter,” Tammy-Sarah said. “Follow me. I’ll show you your room. It’s the furthest down the hall, close to the roof deck for when you bring girls home.”
I forced an awkward chuckle again and cursed the editor who’d booked the cheapest AirBnB possible. “You’re gonna love the neighborhood,” he assured through the phone. “Super authentic.” And if I didn’t, oh well. There wasn’t anything I could do about it. I was illegally working on a tourist visa, getting paid into a bank account back home in America.
Three hours later the forty-something-year-old double-named-woman made me a full Vietnamese spread and talked about the Chinese lover she probably didn’t but certainly had in Florida or South Carolina—she said them both three times each—and we ate together next to what remained of the lamp.
The words and stories she spoke were disjointed and nonsensical, but I’d be hard-pressed to say she was lying, at least not intentionally. There was something there behind the wrinkles, something kind and true and at one time probably something beautiful. It was an odd occasion, almost definitely racist, but she felt genuine and loving and like she truly meant well. And the food was among the best I've ever had.
“Your last day in Toronto,” Mei says, pulling me into an embrace as she reaches the sidewalk. “So what's the plan?”
“Same as always, probably.”
“Xiao long bao?”
“Our spot’s down the road.”
“Our spot,” she repeats.
I take her hand. It’s full of sweat. We continue walking.
The walk is much quieter than usual. There’s something about feeling the last page of a book and knowing it’s ending but not having read it for yourself yet. Two paragraphs remain and you’re praying for the twist you know isn’t coming. Life isn’t an M. Night Shyamalan movie. It’s predictable. You see the ending long before it comes. It changes for no one.
“Number one and number three, please,” I tell the lady behind the counter, but the register already says our total.
Mei pulls out a wad of bills and hands it over. I smile and thank her and silence settles over us again as we stand and wait. When it comes, we say thank you once more and then head outside to sit down on the park bench we’ve sat on fifty-five times to eat. And then she asks me the question she always asks, “Why don’t you stay?”
“This isn’t my home.”
“It wasn’t mine either when I first left Guangxi.”
“And now look at you. You’ll never leave.”
“Exactly. Where else would I go?"
We both know the city flashing through my mind, but there’s no point in saying it. We’ve already been through it a thousand times. Too dangerous, too far. Too impractical. There are so many different ways to say no.
“I wish you would stay.”
“It’s impossible,” is all I can manage. She doesn’t believe it, and probably never will, but it’s the truth. Maybe it won’t be looking back, but it sure feels that way looking forward.
“Don’t act like you don’t love it here,” she interjects.
“I love—” I stop myself, sigh, then say, “I loved it for what it was.”
“For what it was?"
My turn to look away. She can never know that our first time meeting at the film festival I’d accidentally broken into was among the best moments of my life, second only to the first time we kissed, up on my rooftop overlooking the skyline. She’d shown me Old Boy and In the Mood for Love and taught me how to say and forget basic Cantonese.
Her adopted city temporarily became my adopted city, and I found myself walking up and down Spadina late at night dreaming about how long I could stretch it all out. Each day was something else. Cabbagetown, the Beaches, an overpriced boat ride to Toronto Island. Three months was a lifetime and I wasn’t yet ready to die. She knew all of that. She'd lived it right there with me. But what she didn’t know were the calls to my editor, one becoming two, and two becoming three, a small feature turned into a deep dive.
There’s more to this, you know. I think we need to go deeper. One more month should do it. Well, actually, maybe two.
What’s the point in telling her? That part of me’s dead. I’m an internet writer—a blogger and full-time embracer of the twenty-first century. Maybe I’ll start writing about crypto, or go all-in and pump out sales emails. Then maybe I could stay. Maybe I’d even be able to afford a condo without two-named crazies. Or maybe that’s just the American in me. Anyone can do anything if they try hard and work hard and keep on trying and work hard.
“It was the best place to spend these last three months,” I say finally.
“A fun city to get sent on assignment.” “A fun city to get sent on assignment?” I can feel her looking away. “It’ll be huge for my portfolio, I hope. Maybe I can use this to get something going back home. Something bigger. Something real I actually care about.”
How a series of blog features on persons of interest in Kensington Market, Toronto’s hottest and most up-and-coming neighborhood, will inch me closer to real investigative work back in Chicago is beyond me, but it sounds nice to say. It’s a dream I desperately want to get caught up in. So I have to go. I have to keep trying.
A young busking man settles across the intersection and begins setting up his chair and unpacking his guitar and unfolding the QR code bib he wears so nobody steals his tips. My eyes focus on him. We’re all pimping ourselves out, one way or another.
At least he retains some dignity. The internet doesn’t allow for that. It’s forever. I could go on to win the Pulitzer and if somebody typed my name into Google and searched hard enough they’d find it. They’d find it all. Kensington Market: Toronto’s Best Kept Secret, Eating Your Way Through Toronto’s Eclectic Hidden Gem, and Currywurst and Community Gardens: An Afternoon with Leslie Kim. Those articles were my summer, but they served a purpose. Each letter was another evening with Mei, every paragraph brought a moment I’ll never forget.
“Let me read it.”
“What?” The focus snaps back into my eyes.
“Your article,” she says. “You know, the one you’ve been working on all summer.”
She has no idea. It’s better that way.
“Oh, no. I can’t.”
“I want to read the thing that brought you here. It’s been three months and you’ve hardly said one word about it.”
“I don’t care what it’s about—"
I look away from the busker as he picks up his guitar and begins his first song. “They won’t let me. I signed an NDA.”
Peter the blogger, slinging articles on currywurst and vegan honey on the internet. That’s part of me she never gets to see. That’s not the man I want her to remember.
“Okay,” she says softly.
Her voice fades into the soft strumming of the guitar. A song is playing and I’m sure it’s beautiful, but I can’t hear it. No one can. The busker’s words are swallowed by the hundreds of engines roaring up and down Spadina. Movement. People coming and people going. There’s a palpable energy to the street. And to think, just three weeks ago we were one of them.
Driving to Niagara in a rented U-Haul box truck because that’s all I could manage being twenty-two and foreign and broke and wanting to impress a girl with four hours’ notice. Rushing and getting back before midnight so we could afford dessert by avoiding another day’s rental fee, but having to walk seven kilometers because of it.
It was a summer of clichés, but dammit, clichés are cliché for good reason sometimes. The world would be a much better place if we all embraced them. She made the absurd and the gritty and even the downright disgusting have new meaning and that means something. If it doesn’t, what’s the point in any of this?
“I can’t believe summer’s finally over.”
“Maybe this wasn’t the best idea,” she replies. My hand tightens. “Maybe it’s impossible to ever truly have one last good day.”
“We should’ve left it at Casa Loma.” I don’t mean it, but it’s true.
“That was a good night.”
A wry smile comes over my face. Hers too.
“When does your plane leave?” she asks.
“Tonight. Eight o’clock.”
“And you’re sure there’s no way? My family came here with nothing.”
“There’s no visas for wannabe writers.”
My sentence trails off into nothing. It’s not as if I haven’t tried. Eighty nights of Google searches and Reddit threads. It only took a week after meeting her to realize I wanted to stay, even if it meant staying on with the mag. But there’s only so far you can stretch things.
“If there’s one thing Toronto doesn’t need,” I force myself to say, “it’s another struggling writer crowding the streets of Kensington.”
“There’s always another way.”
“You only say that because it worked out for your family.”
“I’m saying it because I don’t want you to leave.”
“Neither do I.”
“It just sucks.”
“That much we can agree on."
My grip on her hand tightens and I can feel her shake. My heart does the same. It feels like my chest won’t be able to contain it much longer. Neither of us are willing to let go. “So this is really it?” she asks quietly.
No, no, no. It’s not it. Anything but—please.
“This is it,” I sigh.
And in that moment, I become the Boy from Chicago and she becomes the Girl from Toronto in the story of our lives. She remains where she is, but not really. Not in any of the ways that matter. Cars honk all around. She ignores them; we both do. A red streetcar slows to a stop. She jogs to it. I watch in slow motion. The busker continues to play. The door slides open and there’s only one thing left.
We’ve run out of time. Our life, our future boiled down to a singular moment, rolls back to zero. She steps inside and the sliding door closes. The streetcar pulls away. She’s right next to me but she's gone. I want to watch her leave and watch the streetcar fade into the water, but I can’t. It’s far too painful.
The reality is there are no new stories, only predictable ones. I know that and she knows it, too. Whether we wish it to be is irrelevant. I was always leaving and she was always staying. Love, if you can call three months that, has a funny way of falling to the wayside when you’re young and drunk on ambition. Just look around. Toronto’s full of people like us, damned if we do and fucked if we don’t. The choices we make, the outcomes, they’re all the same.
She opens her mouth but closes it again. Hope lies south of the border, but she’s right in front of me. She’s a certainty. The capital m of Maybe lives in my brain and fights against what already is. Visas, writing, respect—making it. These are the technicalities of life and art.
What if I go to the right cocktail party? What if I meet a guy who knows a guy who knows a guy and the blogs become a book and that book becomes two and everybody forgets about how it all started? But then again what if I don’t and she meets somebody else? Planes fly in and out of the city two to one, after all.
Hours will pass and nothing will change. I’ll go home and I’ll duck into the alley and ignore the pigeons, the bums, the bao, and everything else. A rat will scurry past and I’ll just be disgusted. The magic of the city, the amazement, it’ll all be gone. Stench is stench. D’Arcy is empty. The turquoise door leads nowhere. Only fools fall in love with a halfway-home, with a woman that’s not a citizen in a place he can’t get a visa.
Tammy-Sarah sits alone on the couch and the lights are all switched off. A bag of peas sits lifeless on the floor by her foot. I don’t say anything. We both know.
“Your last day?” she asks as I near my bedroom door.
I stop moving. “Yeah."
Nicholas Coursel is a French-Canadian writer and educator born and raised in Chicagoland. His work aims to shed light on the forgotten while always embracing his working-class roots.