Hey. You nodded and smiled as you walked past me. I smiled back, barely, and resumed ignoring you. We weren’t friends. Not yet.
My friends and I were rowdy, boy-crazy college girls, bored and looking for trouble. I had a boyfriend that summer. We’d hang out in the parking lot of my apartment and make out, while my uncoupled buddies drank beer and pitched the caps at our heads, jealous and annoyed. You were tall, lanky, with curly brown hair. You had a legitimate job and lived alone—you were too mature for us. I didn’t care much for you, the guy who lived across from the apartment I shared with my two sisters.
Lily was the first to notice you. He’s kinda cute, she told me one day. My neighbour? He’s weird, I told her. But she offered you a beer when you were squeezing by us one evening. You accepted, stopped to chat for a bit. I learned your name was Grant.
Grant. What a preppy name.
It was the summer of 1997, and my sisters and I had just moved into the apartment complex on Bathurst and Eglinton. I loved the bright and airy kitchen of our new apartment and the dozens of shops and restaurants mere steps away. I liked to brag about having a Goth neighbour who was obsessed with knives and drank blood, believing himself a vampire—remember him? He had a ghost-white face and long black hair, and he cloaked his twig-like body in head-to-toe black leather. His less vampiric roommate was in a Dove soap commercial. They blasted Goth opera music, which I was convinced accompanied their sacrificial rituals. Then there was you, Grant, in that tiny studio apartment at the end of the alley in our triplex.
Our apartments were separated by a four-foot wide alleyway. Later, it made you laugh to think we met in the back alley, drunk over pizza boxes. That was your account of how we met when anyone asked.
Lily grilled me about you. I knew nothing, I told her. What? Her eyeballs nearly popped out. But he’s your neighbour, she said, you should get to know him better. She convinced me to conduct an investigation—were you single, she wondered.
The following night I headed to your apartment, five steps away from my door, past the vampires, holding two mugs of hot cocoa and feeling a bit like an idiot. I knocked, you answered, and I noticed your eyes were blue and your smile was kind of shy. Were you happy to see me? You seemed mostly amused.
I was sure I looked like a twelve-year-old girl—bare face, messy hair, ragged sweats, speech and personality of an eight-year-old kid. If I had known then I would want you a certain way, I would have worked harder to look like a woman.
We sat on your couch, chatting and drinking hot cocoa. I was sassy at times, then lukewarm, and giggled and fidgeted when our conversation lagged. It was a silly interview. But I made a note to tell Lily she was in luck: you were single.
Sometimes you looked at me so intently it rattled me; I had to look away. Still, I was keen on your eyes—you didn’t suffer fools, I could tell.
In the coming days and weeks, I gleaned bits of information about you as we squeezed by each other in the alleyway. You were just out of college and held two jobs but were always short on cash. I was poor, too, though later I’d convince you that we were rich—rich in character.
We had both read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, declared it a soulful read, one of our favorites. A sign? Of what, I wondered.
I was still in college, worked two jobs like you, was always broke like you, and was dissatisfied with my life. You were a flight instructor, clocking in hours towards becoming a more experienced pilot. My brain lit up at the thought of travel. I always said if I were a superhero, I’d have the ability to fly. Surely, we were two birds of a feather.
Lily still thought you were cute, but she had moved on to someone taller, paler, goofier. I had broken up for the fifth and final time with my boyfriend, and was eager to welcome a new distraction.
You introduced me to your pets, Sarah the Snake, and a tarantula—what was its name? Creepy, I thought; I should’ve run away. But we watched Friends and Seinfeld—that was normal. We bonded over South Park, so new and so foul and brilliant. And now when I think of you, I think of Seinfeld and South Park, and you and me laughing hysterically on your worn-out couch.
One fall afternoon I came home to find myself locked out of my apartment. But you were home, warm in your apartment across from mine. You welcomed me in, told me I could stay for as long as I wanted, though you had to leave in a few minutes.
I sat on your uncomfortable waterbed, talking a mile a minute, talking nonsense, flustered from my predicament. I watched you. You were standing in front of the mirror over the sink, getting ready for work. You were brushing your teeth, shaving your face, fixing your hair. So calm and careful and deliberate. Your chest was bare. I watched you. Something caught inside me, and everything changed.
I didn’t know what to say to you, my neighbour, my friend. You were suddenly a man I desired, and I couldn’t swallow at the sight of you half naked. Something about you shook me awake from my sleepwalk, and a hidden part of me seemed to recognize you—had I known you from another life?
I tried to wave the feeling away with silly chit chat. How old were you again? Twenty-three. Only a year older than me. My insecurity kicked in, and I admonished myself for not seeming as grown-up as you.
My head fogged with confusion. I tried to chase it away so that everything would make sense again. But something had cracked open, and I’d fallen through my bogus safety net of control; it mocked me, branded me a fool. Because from then on, I was stupid around you.
I had never been more stupid than when around you.
Over the holidays we bumped into each other less frequently; you were busy, I was busy. But I had memorized the sound of your footsteps along the alley as you made your way home. I’d spark with excitement when I saw the flicker of light through your window across from my living room. It warmed me to feel your presence through the cold concrete, five feet away.
It was Christmastime, and there were parties to attend, family and friends to visit. A couple of friends came over my place one night, and we ate pizza and drank beer while we hung ornaments on the tree and listened to holiday music. We got wasted on malt liquor. I harassed the local radio station to play Last Christmas by Wham!, and they blacklisted me after my tenth call.
Then you knocked on my door.
You had come from a party, and I laughed at your glittery getup. You looked blurry. Was I doing stupid things, saying stupid things? Who knows, but I remember you lifted me up and carried me in your arms, took me to my room, and laid me on my bed. And then you were gone. Thanks, Superman, I whispered in the dark.
A few days went by before I saw you again, when you knocked on my door to say hello. I was sure I had embarrassed myself, and stumbled over my words. Oh, hi, yes, hello, what’s up, *cough, cough.* I pretended I didn’t think about your arms wrapped around me, carrying me to my bed.
Did we watch TV? Listen to music? No matter. I wanted to touch you. I wanted you to touch me.
We sat close to each other, like we usually did, but that night you pulled me closer. Closer, closer. You wrapped your arm around me and I leaned my head against your shoulder. You weren’t satisfied. You stretched your body onto the couch, laid down, and lifted me on top of you. You’re warm, I said. I’ll keep you warm, you said; it’s cold outside. I rested my head against your neck, eyes closed in feigned drowsiness. It was late evening.
Then your hands caressed my back, underneath my shirt, your fingertips gliding on my skin, sweet and tender. Touch me, feel me, I pleaded inside my head, all the while hoping you wouldn’t sense my desire. I wanted to act cool.
But I felt your breath on my face and your heart thumping inside my own chest. Then your lips pressed against mine, slow and searching and sparked with longing, and the whole world fell away.
Days went by and I hid from you. I’d find excuses to stay out, coming home late so that I wouldn’t bump into you, so that I could say it was too late to knock on your door. Friends, we’re just friends, we’re just neighbours, I reminded myself. I was afraid of spoiling our platonic bond. I was afraid of what I wanted.
When we finally saw each other again, you lamented the number of days you hadn’t seen me—you noticed my absence, and it melted my heart that you missed me. Exam week is over now, I said, wanna hang out? Sure, you said breezily. As if you hadn’t counted the days you were missing me.
That night, we watched our usual shows together, laughed together, made fun of life. By the time we’d finished watching David Letterman, it was past midnight. I got up from the couch, about to leave your apartment. But the air was electric and neither of us knew what to do next. Stay, you said. You took my hand. You dimmed the lights. You lifted me onto your lap, brushed my hair off my face, kissed my shoulder, kissed my lips. You carried me to your bed. We kissed, and our hands trembled as we explored each other underneath our clothes.
It was god-awful. Our bodies locked up and didn’t work the way we wanted. Nothing was right, and I fumbled and you fumbled, and we were idiots. I knew I should’ve left, I knew it. Now we wouldn’t be able to face each other, and how cruel that we lived next door.
But after a moment of mortification, we broke through our alarming failure. You were inside me now, and in that instant, an arrow pierced my heart and anchored itself in my soul.
Days… weeks… months. Your smile grew more affectionate, more inviting. I couldn’t wait to share my day with you, laugh with you, sit on your couch and watch Seinfeld with you. And when the show ended and I would get up to leave, you’d take my hand and tell me, Stay.
You’d stroke my hair, nibble my shoulder, whisper in my ear, Stay. My heart would tumble into my stomach, and I was ready to give you anything you wanted. I wanted it too.
The Broadway musical, Rent, was popular in Toronto that spring of ’98, and the song No Day But Today called to me: take the risk, no regrets, choose to live. It drowned out all other competing wisdom clanking around in my head, and I made a commitment to follow my heart.
I savoured our easy friendship and indulged in the benefits. But I found myself wanting more from our label-less relationship. It gnawed at me: what were we to each other?
I wasn’t sure what I wanted. Sometimes I didn’t know how to speak to you, how to touch you, and whether to claim you mine.
At home I would strip off the mask I wore in public and find comfort in my worn-out pajamas and moth-eaten socks. At home I was often lazy and stupid and weird, unapologetic of my annoying habits, unrepentant of my flaws. But there you were, my neighbour, sharing my orbit, and I was a twerp around you. How could I confidently claim you mine?
You were in my space, where I shed the polished face, the practiced demeanor. But I didn’t want to be polished or productive; it was too much of a burden. So at home you saw only the awkward, insecure, pajama-clad girl who sometimes shared a tub of ice cream with you.
I often wished you saw me as others did and not as the flighty girl next door. Boys and men fought over me, did you know that? In school hallways, I gained a reputation for being clever and gifted, though I always doubted myself. I spoke up for others, even when I was afraid, and people called me kind and brave. Did you know that?
No, of course not. We never saw each other outside our triplex. Around you, I was a twerp, just a twerp. And maybe that was okay because I thought I was my most authentic around you.
But did you know me at all, Grant?
One spring evening I shimmied up the walls outside our apartment and climbed to the rooftop. I sat there, watching the rush hour traffic on Eglinton. Then something caught my eye—a shiny rock, slightly heart shaped. I picked it up, tossed it in the air, caught it, tossed it in the air, caught it—a mindless, repetitive motion while watching the traffic. I didn’t hear your sneakered feet land on the rooftop. Boo! You startled me, and I screamed and dropped my heart-shaped rock. You picked it up, laughing. Then you fished for your pocket knife and scraped our initials onto the rock. I grabbed the rock from you and kissed it. You told me to close my eyes and make a wish. When I opened them again, you took the rock and hurled it into the ravine behind our apartment. It’s good luck, you said, so your wish comes true.
The following week you left for China to teach abroad for a few months. I took in lovers while you were away—friends with benefits—but it was always your touch I craved.
You were back home again before fall. By then my sisters and I had moved from the triplex into a larger apartment on Glencairn and Marlee.
You called me as soon as you returned, and I acted cool and nonchalant at the sound of your voice. Oh, you’re back? Nice. Oh, you want to see me? Can’t. Gotta work tonight. What, you want me to come over later? Nah, I’ll be too tired. Call me in the morning.
It drained me to resist you, though I was proud of myself that I did.
But the next day, when we lay together for the first time since your return, your touch sent waves of electricity through nerves that responded only to you. The Rent song pounded like a drum in my heart: no day but today. I needed to tell you or I would burst. I needed to tell you or the words would petrify into a lump in my throat and suffocate and kill me. And at that moment when you called out my name and I gasped for air, I said it. I love you.
My insides churned and folded in on itself. My body expanded, light as air, and my spirit floated out of me and flew into another world, rushing past all the stars, the sound of bells ringing in my ears. I had never been so elated, and so afraid. What have I done?
Then you pulled me close and held me tight against your chest, though you said nothing. It was enough for me that you knew.
I didn’t say those words again until that winter, when we argued, and I blurted them out of rage. I love you! Do you know how much I love you? Do you even love me? Do you love me, Grant? I kicked the wall of your apartment. Oh, how you tortured me.
I don’t know… you said. I like you. I care about you. But, we’re not lovers.
Ah… we’re not lovers…
There it was, the poison dart that had struck me when I met you was now seeping its toxins into my veins. I always admired your honesty, but I wondered whether you were also being cruel. I was furious at having been a target of the gods and made into a fool. I raked my fingers into my hair, gritted my teeth. We’re not lovers. I kicked the wall again. We’re not lovers. I hated that I cried in front of you. It enraged me. Well then, what are we doing, Grant? What are we?
I like that we don’t use labels, you said. You were sitting on the couch, calm and composed as always, but with a look of slight annoyance. As if you were witnessing a toddler’s meltdown, and you, the grown-up, watched with patience and irritation.
I hated you then. Hated your patronizing air, the way nothing moved you. But I moved with the fire that burned inside me.
Yes, labels are stupid, I said. But that didn’t ease the discontent in my heart. What a double-edged sword, labels.
But rage and confusion didn’t curb my desire to touch you, to feel your pulse against mine. I should’ve stormed out of your apartment, left you stunned and guilty and alone. Instead, I stayed put, reached out to you, beseeched you. You said you needed to sleep, and that I should go home. You turned off the lights. I stood in the dark, heavy with sadness and doubt. I slid out of my clothes, and joined you in your bed.
You turned away from me, though you let me kiss your body. You would only be inside my mouth that night, an attempt to make peace, though neither of us was being noble.
I walked the thirty-minute trek home in the midnight darkness, in the bone-chilling cold of winter, and cried myself to sleep.
Nineteen ninety-nine. While everyone was celebrating the New Year to Prince’s legendary song, my heart was breaking beneath my slick dance moves. You were moving to Vancouver in a few days.
You had accepted a job at a small airline. You were a skier, and had dreamed of moving west for some time, out of the flat city and closer to the towering mountains and powdery snow. I was happy for you, and hid my sadness behind an overenthusiastic smile.
I almost missed saying goodbye to you on your last night in Toronto. I was taking a shower when you had come by my apartment to see me. When I was done, you were gone. But I found a brown paper bag of my things you had borrowed hanging on my front doorknob—markers, masking tape, scissors. You hadn’t waited for me. And you were leaving early the next morning.
It was cold that night, and the sky was dumping a furious amount of snow. I had no car. I begged a friend to drive me to your place, though I would’ve crawled in the snowstorm from hell to see you.
My friend was the sentimental and romantic sort, and agreed to drive me to your apartment though she had someplace else to go. Only ten minutes, she said, and waited in the parking lot while I fumbled with my goodbye.
I knocked. You opened the door. Hey. You had that roguish grin that stole my heart a year and a half before. I smiled back as if my heart weren’t breaking in your careless possession.
Your apartment was bare. You had emptied and put away your waterbed. There was nowhere to sit, so we sat on your bare floor. You were going to sleep on the floor that night.
Small, stupid talk about unimportant things, like who adopted your pet snake and your tarantula. You apologized for not waiting for me when you were at my apartment earlier; you had so much to do still, was your excuse. How long would the drive be from Toronto to Vancouver, I asked. An entire week, you said. Stay alive, I said. I’ll call you, you said.
Small, stupid talk about unimportant things.
Then you gathered me into your arms. We sank to the floor, lay down on the floor, fingers laced together, hands unsure where to begin or how to let go. We kissed, and our bodies throbbed with sadness and longing. Something choked my nervous chatter and I could no longer speak. Your heart was pounding, and I vibrated hot where your body touched mine. I wanted to tell you. I wanted to tell you so badly: Come back to me…
You whispered my name and my soul smiled, though I could taste salty tears trickling towards my mouth. You whispered my name, and I thought my heart would burst. Unspoken words were buzzing on your lips, buzzing on your fingertips, and I was dizzy with emotion. Yes, Grant? I waited for you to tell me…
A knock, loud and obnoxious, shattered the spell and our fragile connection. I blinked my eyes dry, and a graceless frost descended upon us, cooling all possibilities.
My ten minutes was up.
Stay alive, I told you again. I’ll call you, you said. I hugged you goodbye at your doorway, a frigid alternative to how I had wanted us to part.
You were in town for a visit the summer of 2001. By then I was on my second boyfriend since you’d moved out west. Still, you were never far from my mind.
You were in town, and I was in a relationship. But we were good friends, and I could talk about you with my boyfriend, couldn’t I? We were friends, you were visiting, and wouldn’t it be nice to see each other to say hello and how are you? Harmless. My boyfriend agreed, and we stopped by your father’s house where you were staying.
Hey, how are you?
My boyfriend sensed better. I was too cool, too nonchalant. But you locked your eyes on mine without a care. You knew your place in my heart.
I was startled when my boyfriend squeezed us together and snapped our picture. My smile was timid, while you looked politely confused. We were like deer in headlights, with Mona Lisa smiles.
That fall you were back again to visit. I was living with my boyfriend, and when you called me, I kept my voice low while I spoke to you alone in a separate room. Guilt tugged at me, but my heart rebelled. I missed you.
I lied to my boyfriend and dropped plans with friends to see you. I met you in the park after sunset, when it was dark enough that we could press our bodies against the fence without much fear of prying eyes. Satisfied, we held hands and skipped like little kids, then parked ourselves on a rock and talked in the moonlight. Maybe we’re soulmates, you said. Maybe we belong together.
I pretended not to hear you. Guilt kept me from yielding completely, and I deflected every sweet and tender word with sarcasm. I tried to play it cool. I wasn’t. I was stupid all over again.
I met you again the next day, this time in broad daylight, in the bustling core of the city. I walked with feigned confidence, though nervous sweat was dripping down and stinking my armpits in my polyester shirt, trapping anxiety in my pores.
Hey. You were waiting for me at a street corner. We walked together, your gait calm and slow while my heavy boots were unbearably loud on the pavement, ruining the mid-afternoon drowsiness of residential streets where I followed you to your friend’s house.
I was stupid again.
On the way to your bed, I flung off my clothes and removed my socks and shoes without ceremony. No sensual display of passion or romance, as if I were merely going about my toilet business. Then it was over. You had to leave, and I dragged myself back to a life with a boyfriend I had begun to despise.
I broke up with the boyfriend that fall.
The night before Christmas Eve, I called you in Vancouver. I’d been replaying our last reunion over and over in my mind with the sweetest alternatives, trying to erase the unsatisfactory experience, wishing I had shown you more tenderness. Could I visit you, I asked. I don’t think so, you said. Do you have someone in your life, I asked. Not really, you said. Let me come visit you, Grant, please let me see you. (I was sniveling and pathetic.) No, you insisted. Why, Grant? It’s not a good idea, you said. But that’ll change when you see me. (I tried to sound charming.) I’m sorry, but no. We are still friends, aren’t we, Grant? We can’t be friends, you said, I have enough friends. I want to see you, Grant, don’t you want to see me? I’m sorry, I care about you, but… you’re not what I’m looking for. (Oh, how you hurt me!) What are you looking for, Grant? My soulmate.
I have seen inside you, and you made a home in my heart. You could not hide yourself from me. Or, did I not know you at all?
The following year I moved to Australia. I surfed, swam with sharks, slept with the prettiest boys. I tried to heal my battered ego, vacillating between feelings of low self-worth and fuck-you-world.
In Sydney, I wanted to break as many hearts as I could. Go ahead, I thought, fall in love with me. I will eat you alive. Fall in love with me until I’m a drug you need. I will break you. I will show you, Grant. I will break men the way you broke me.
But bitterness and resentment caught up with me, and I was ever more heartbroken and lonely.
I was tired of hurting and sought a normal life: a steady job, quiet weekends. I finished grad school, and a few years later my career took me all over the world. I married, started a family. Life was wonderful, and I forgot about you. Sometimes.
Sometimes months would go by before you crossed my mind. Maybe a year, maybe more. But there were moments when thoughts of you would consume me like embers bursting into flames. And I would sleep beside my perfect husband in my perfect home, choking my tears, the ache of an old wound fresh once more in my heart.
I bumped into your friend Paul at the subway the other day. That’s how I knew where to find you. I couldn’t believe he recognized me. It’s been seventeen years, Grant, and I hadn’t been back to Toronto all this time, until now. I thought I had become more sophisticated, more grown up, and had shed the old, awkward skin of that insecure girl you once knew. You still look the same, Paul said to me. Then he told me about you. Did you ever hear… he started, and his joker smile turned somber.
I froze in the middle of Spadina Station. The news rendered me mute and stupid, and my old feelings for you cracked open.
You had stayed with Paul during your last visit to Toronto. You had casually wondered aloud about me one day as you were passing by the old triplex on Bathurst and Eglinton. That day, you flew with a friend, an old student of yours who was then piloting the small Cessna you used to fly. Something went wrong, and the plane crashed into the water around Centre Island.
You had kept a rock, Paul said, the size of a small child’s fist, with the etching M+G. He had plucked the rock from your backpack one night while fishing for something or other, and had teased you about it. What’s this, he asked you. My good luck charm, you answered. Who’s M, he asked. My old neighbour, you said. And though Paul had dismissed it all these years as unimportant, he remembered it again when he saw me, and asked, weren’t you the neighbour?
Your good luck charm. So, you’d hunted for it and kept it close to you after you’d thrown it from the rooftop and into the ravine. The heart-shaped rock I had kissed. You had asked me to make a wish. Now I don’t remember what I had wished for.
So this is where you are now, resting here forever. I’m glad—you can see the CN Tower from here. “Died 2002.” Twenty-eight years old. Strong and smart, shining and beautiful. And I loved you. I have always loved you. My simple, humble Grant, eternally breaking my heart.
Goodbye, Grant. Perhaps we’ll see each other again, when we are both rocks.
M. Ocampo McIvor
M. Ocampo McIvor was born in the Philippines, raised in Toronto, Canada, and currently lives in Seattle, USA. She has a degree in journalism and a Masters in Digital Media and Communications from the University of Washington, with further accreditation in data science, psychology, and user-centered design. After a career in technology, Ocampo McIvor has returned to her roots to follow her calling in literature. Her work has been featured in POMME Journal and Rigorous Magazine. *Ugly Things We Hide* is her first novel.
*Ugly Things We Hide*: www.uglythingswehide.com
*POMME Journal*: www.pommejournal.com
*Rigorous Magazine*: www.rigorous-mag.com
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