Excerpt from 'Portals of Hope'
Hope woke to the plaintive strains of John Lennon’s latest lament for his long dead love Yoko. She slid her hand out from beneath the covers and silenced John mid-wail, letting a moment pass before easing her legs out of the bed.
Stretching to scoop up the pile of clothes from the bedside chair, she clutched the bundle to her chest and shifted her weight, freezing in mid-step as the hardwood floor cracked loudly beneath her feet. The towheaded man who slept, tangled in the bed sheets, continued to snore softly as she hurried from the room.
On any other morning, she would have stayed in bed waiting for the day’s details to come to her gradually, but not today. On this date for the past seven years, a memory she wished would cease to be her waking thought was, once again, her waking thought. Colin, the man in the bed, was not a part of this past, and his well-intended words of consolation would feel intrusive and unwelcome.
She showered quickly and dressed in the tiny bathroom, taking special care not to graze her knees or elbows against the iron bars of the radiator. No makeup today; it was not a makeup day. Entering the kitchen, she scribbled a somewhat vague note explaining her stealthy departure and propped it among the pots of emerald shamrocks that sat arranged in a horseshoe pattern in the centre of a battered oak table.
At the hallway closet, she shrugged on a black leather jacket and wound a heavy woolen scarf around her neck. With an economy of motion, she shoved her feet into well- worn boots while tucking her auburn bob up into a silver bike helmet. Moving quickly, she draped her messenger bag across her shoulders and stole from the apartment.
The staircase emitted muffled shrieks of protest under each footfall, and she worried that the sound would wake Colin. Stepping through the side entrance and out into the bright morning sunlight, she almost collided with the building’s landlady who bustled about the stoop, sweeping away the remnants of an urban evening in this trendy part of Toronto.
Executing a quick sidestep that belied the woman’s considerable bulk, she called out, “Good morning, Hope.” The landlady continued to sweep in time to the music in her head, presumably Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries,” judging from the brusque downward strokes of the broom.
Smiling, Hope considered her long-held theory that each and every individual on the planet resonated on a unique frequency created by the music, or lack thereof, that emanated from within their souls. Over the short journey of her twenty- six years, she had already encountered such diverse souls as “Moon River,” the eternally elegant, seventy-nine-year-old Southern Belle who was haunted by the relentless advance of old age, and the perverse nineteen-year-old twisted sister who fairly reeked of “Highway to Hell.”
Bent on her quest for solitude, Hope offered a brief smile to the landlady in return and said, “Good morning, Grace.” Her words hung in the crisp morning air like tiny ghosts. An involuntary shiver ran through her as she freed her Schwinn from the bike rack and set off in the direction of her emotional safe house—a place where it was possible to keep her melancholy at bay with the instant gratification of a flaky croissant, still warm from the oven, and a double-shot cappuccino.
It was late April in Toronto, and finally, the long, slow thaw to summer had begun. It felt wonderful to liberate the Schwinn from the storage locker earlier in the week, and she rode hard now, inhaling the
In the week and she rode hard now, inhaling the crisp breeze that carried hints of rain that would soon bring green grass and daffodils. She swore she could almost smell the hot dog vendors as she pulled to the curb and secured her bike to the rack.
The aroma of fresh baked pastry and pulverized coffee beans that met her at the door of Ilsa’s Café was her Zen. Feeling at one with the Pillsbury Doughboy, she lingered as she walked slowly past the marble countertop crowded with metal pans of every buttery, rich French pastry imaginable. Inhaling deeply, she seated herself at her favourite table facing out onto the street.
Living in Toronto was like travelling to foreign destinations without ever having to leave home. Its mosaic
of nationalities blended seamlessly, enriching each other’s life through the myriad new experiences they continually exchanged. Hope could have dim sum for breakfast, Italian for lunch, Indian curry for dinner, and snack on sushi, all within walking distance of her apartment.
She enjoyed the old world charm of the café with its absence of Wi-Fi. Hope believed that electronically enhanced cafés promoted isolation and wondered why anyone would venture outside of their house if they only wanted to reach out and touch someone electronically.
The phrase “curiouser and curiouser” drifted into her thoughts. It was odd. Although “curiouser and curiouser” was an expression she was likely to use when considering the human condition, Hope definitely felt that in this instance it was not her thought, but someone else’s. She wondered if this was déjà vu.
One evening, while under the influence of a particularly enjoyable bottle of ruby-red Cabernet, she confided to Colin that déjà vu moments such as these occurred to her all too often and tipsily postulated that she might be only a few genes removed from the girl who uttered that same observation from the other side of the looking glass. Then she cast a suspicious, slightly out of focus eye in Colin’s general direction and declared, “When it comes right down to it, we could all trace our lineage back to the same two people.” Propped up by the wine, she carried on, concluding that he was the worst kind of pervert for hitting on his own kin this way, managing to sound more and more like Daisy Duke as she warmed to the subject. Eventually the ridiculous diatribe served its purpose, cracking Colin up and avoiding a deeper discussion of the voices within.
Now, her heightened senses picked up the clatter of a cup on a saucer, followed by the throaty swoosh of the cappuccino machine. She glanced down at the headline of a newspaper left behind by another of the early morning caffeine junkies.
JFK TO OFFICIATE AT NASA CEREMONY HERALDING FIRST MOON – BOUND COMMUTER FLIGHT
The photo accompanying the article was of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, flashing his handsome, toothy smile. His receding hairline and wealth of laugh lines served only to enhance his infamous charisma.
Hope liked the aging humanitarian, and so did most of the female population. Unable to ignore his many marital infidelities, Jackie and JFK divorced shortly into his second term as President of the United States, and Jackie reverted to her maiden name, Bouvier.
After it was discovered that the medication JFK was prescribed to relieve his chronic back pain contained high levels of testosterone, something the man was in no short supply of to begin with, Jackie Bouvier re-entered his life, reasoning that he was not entirely to blame for his marital infidelities that were legend. How could you help but sympathize with the guy when his constant back pain was the result of towing a crewmate through the dark waters to safety by gripping the rope between his teeth when their PT boat was torpedoed by a Japanese sub?
But Jackie was no fool, and although this disclosure elevated his public approval rating dramatically, it did little to increase his approval rating with his ex-wife. In her new role of friend and confidant, rather than jilted First Lady, they were still seen together here and there, looking far too comfortable for an old divorced couple.
Hope looked up from the headlines to find Ilsa, the owner of the café, standing over her with a steaming cup of cappuccino in one hand and in the other, a bone china plate bearing a croissant dusted with icing sugar and heaped with fresh berries. Hope smiled gratefully as she pushed the newspaper aside to make room and said, “It’s like you can read my mind.”
“It’s all part of the friendly service.” Ilsa was one of the few people who knew the sad significance today held for her friend and started Hope’s usual order the minute she saw her come through the door. Placing the coffee and croissant in front of Hope, she smiled affectionately, then retreated, telling her to call out if she could bring her anything else.
Hope fought melancholy as she munched on the warm croissant and sipped the scalding cappuccino. Out the window she watched the city slowly wake and come to life. First came the delivery trucks bulging with fresh produce and baked goods on their way to market, next came the office workers clutching five-dollar coffees in well-manicured hands followed by the tourists, venturing out in search of breakfast then heading off to see the sights.
She pictured herself and Colin as tourists on a tropical island, lying on yellow and blue striped lounge chairs facing an azure ocean. They drink crimson cocktails from hurricane glasses, laughing gaily as Colin pokes himself in the eye with the little paper umbrella. She almost laughed out loud at the image.
A decade or so ago, she would never have considered tropical islands as a vacation destination; however, these days it was much easier on the social conscience to vacation on the beautiful white sand beaches of third-world countries now that the first-world countries finally got their collective shit together and ended the insane poverty that plagued so many of those beautiful, but suffering, countries for so long.
Maybe she could talk him into taking a mini-sabbatical to travel now, rather than later, when supposedly, they would be better able to afford it. Who knew what the future held, no time like the present, yada yada yada. She started to build a case for the trip as she swallowed the dregs of the cappuccino. Lowering her cup, Hope saw a street artist arrive to set his work space up outside the window. She realized with a start that she had dawdled too long and would be late for work.
She paid the bill, leaving a generous tip, and called goodbye to Ilsa over her shoulder. Sprinting for the door, she barely avoided a head-on collision with an elderly woman. Looking up, Hope found herself staring into the startling depths of the woman’s ice-blue eyes. Apologizing profusely, she continued out the door, holding it open for the elderly woman as she went.
Glancing behind her, Hope saw the look of concern that clouded the woman’s features, the blue eyes a full shade darker than a moment ago. As the look seemed out of proportion to the incident, she ignored it. Throwing herself headlong into the fray, she arrived in front of the Queen Street Mental Health Centre with one minute to spare.