Alex loosened his belt two notches but the action failed to ease his discomfort. Undoing his trouser top button, he felt his stomach sag forwards. He hadn’t visited the gym in 6 months: It was one more reason for him to hate himself.
Alex was sitting in the King’s Metro bar, supposedly one of Toronto’s most exclusive hotels. A plaque next to the black and gold entrance doors proclaimed that ‘the Henry Moore Bar was designed by Tring Ampersand, and opened by Brooke Patrick, 5th November 1999.’ Alex didn’t spot the plaque but even if he had, he wouldn’t have known who Tring Ampersand was or Brooke Patrick. He didn’t notice the award winning Amparo Gubb LED installation, ‘Toronto Breathes by Night’, fixed to the wall behind the bar optics. His eye also missed the fifty-foot diameter glass dome over his head; the stained glass panels portrayed key moments in Toronto history, including the great Toronto fire of 1904, and the amalgamation of the city. The dome was so popular that the hotel had begun charging a nominal fee for tourists to come and see it.
Alex didn’t notice any of these things because he was thinking about food. All that interested him was the Metro’s menu of triple decker sandwiches, each one named after a famous Canadian. On the plate in front of him was the crust of a ‘William Shatner’ – roast Turkey, salami, Swiss cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, cauliflower and kidney bean dressing. Alex had been so eager to eat it, he’d forgotten to remove the tiny Canadian flag from the middle of the bread, and had jabbed the roof of his mouth with the cocktail sick. It was the third big sandwich he’d eaten that day, after ‘Margaret Trudeau’ (corned beef, pastrami, crispy bacon, lettuce, feta cheese, mayo) and ‘Dan Aykroyd’ (roast ham, fried mushrooms, devilled kidneys, shallots, hummus, lettuce, sun dried tomatoes, and bacon shavings). Three famous Canadians and he was still hungry.
Business acquaintance Addison Chandler sat on the seat opposite, nursing a large brandy. Addison had had a tough week. He was looking to let off some steam, and needed an accomplice. “It’s your last night in Toronto my friend, and I intend to show you a good one.”
“A good what?” asked Alex.
“A good time! What other kind is there?”
Addison was chairman of the Speed Monkey Media Group, Alex’s main point of contact for the Canadian web design market. Addison had been in the computer business a decade and a half, and worked for all the major industry players – Bit Domain, Bootscan and Cyber Rocket included. Four years ago, he had set up Speed Monkey, a ‘synergetic interface web consultancy.’ A mortarboard-wearing chimpanzee comprised the company logo; ‘Tough Problems, Easy Solutions’ was the Speed Monkey maxim. According to Magnate Magazine, Addison was the 87th wealthiest man in Canada. At fifty-five years old, he had been married three times, fathered six children (1 born out of an affair), and didn’t give a damn what anyone thought about him. Addison was that rare person who felt no compunction to atone for past mistakes. He was a recovering drug addict, and in his mid thirties, had lost almost everything. But he was resilient, and journeying back from rock bottom was, in his mind, little more than a life blip. The Addison Chandler ethos was neither eloquent nor poetic but he was at least honest: “Bury your shit in the past and don’t go digging it up.” Guilt, he believed, was a by-product of other people’s judgements.
‘Canada Net’ was Alex’s first international web conference, and he’d heard enough stories to know what generally happened on the last night. It was nine o’ clock, and the alcohol was flowing freely. Several company representatives had already crashed and burned: some were dozing on sofas, others sleeping in vacant booths. A posse of attractive women prowled the floor, looking for eager punters to liberate from their wallets. Alex had been shocked to learn the King’s Metro Hotel was a popular haunt of escorts.
“I thought this place was up-market,” he said to Addison.
“Yes, it is my friend,” came the reply. “And so are the hookers.”
At least half of the men would cheat on their partners over the course of the weekend, Addison informed him. Alex’s hands clawed at the leather seat, and he shook his head with mild disapproval. ‘Temptation resisted is a true test of character’: He recalled Dustin Hoffman saying exactly that in the film Papillon. Was Dustin Hoffman a Canadian? Alex had no idea. He wondered if there was a sandwich named after the actor, in some other part of the world; only now did Alex consider the strangeness of this particular culinary custom.
Addison laughed. “You’ve got a serious infestation problem, buddy.”
“I’m talking about the bug up your ass!” Alex knew his friend was joking but the comment still stung.
An attractive blonde walked past their booth and Addison appreciatively looked her up and down. “Y’know Alex,” he whispered, “some of these girls will do absolutely anything. Anything! For the right price, naturally.”
The hotel turned a blind and happy eye to this additional source of income, said Addison. “Selling and consuming…well, that’s the bottom line, isn’t it my friend?”
Alex recalled some graffiti he had seen on the exterior wall of a Toronto department store: ‘We are spiritual beings having a consumer experience.’
Addison rose from his seat, in need of a toilet break. He instructed Alex to get the waiter’s attention and order another round of drinks. “My friend, you need to cut the wolf loose, so allow me to educate you.” Alex had never heard this expression before but the meaning was clear enough. “You are gonna enjoy yourself tonight even if it kills you,” said Addison. “And even if it kills me.”
Alex had no interest in losing control, or partying with the pack. Was there a wolf hiding somewhere inside him? If so, food was possibly the only thing that could bring it howling to life. During the last seven days, Alex had worked his way through most of the King’s Metro sandwich menu – only ‘Carlos Delgado,’ ‘David Conenberg’ and ‘Ryan Reynolds’ remained to be eaten. His mind wandered to ‘Ryan Reynolds: the thought of smoked ham and cream cheese seemed irresistible.
Addison had been gone only a few minutes when an elfin brunette with cropped hair, and wearing a figure hugging PVC dress, occupied the vacant seat. “Hello,” she smiled. “Can I join you?” She looked as though she were only a few weekends past being a teenager.
“Someone’s sitting there,” stammered Alex.
Her wide mouth revealed perfect, gleaming white teeth. “That’s okay darling – I don’t take up too much space.” The girl placed her Fendi handbag on the table and extended an expertly manicured hand.
“I’m Dion.” She told him she was from Epsom in Surrey. Dion asked where he called home.
Alex ignored the question. “I’m a married man.”
Dion tittered. “It doesn’t mean you can’t take a day off, does it?” She stroked his hand. “Don’t be nervous, sweetie, I don’t bite.”
Alex excused himself, hurriedly leaving the booth and marching anxiously through the lobby to the elevators. Already he was thinking of the text-lie he would send Addison to cover his disappearance. Alex reached his hotel room and nervously fiddled with his room key. Once inside, he sat on the bed and wrote his text message: ‘Addison, my apologies. I’ve got a migraine, I need to sleep.’ He pressed send and switched off the phone.
Alex picked up the King’s Metro menu on the night-stand: The itch of temptation was becoming almost permanent. Alex was hungry but had changed his mind about ‘Ryan Reynolds.’ Instead, he opted for the ‘David Cronenberg’ (tuna, shrimp, mozzarella, olives, boiled eggs, shaved leeks, English potato crisps, and spicy cucumber salsa). Room service delivered the food ten minutes later.
Alex thought it odd naming a sandwich after a director best known for films about bodily horrors; the shaved leeks reminded him of flaking, sunburned skin, though that didn’t stop him from devouring the food in record time. Wiping a smear of cucumber Salsa from the corner of his mouth, Alex got up and walked to the balcony. The fifteenth floor was high enough to provide a majestic view of the city. An outdoor theatre event was happening down by the waterfront, and there would be fireworks later in the evening. The view should have impressed him but Alex felt nothing. Sometimes, the outside world looked unreal, as if he were viewing life through the bottom of a milk bottle. These feelings of disconnection scared him, and he’d be seized by an urge to binge; the transitory pleasure of eating was often pursued by a longer-lasting sense of loathing.
Letting go of a vigorous fart, Alex inhaled and detected a combination of cauliflower and kidney beans. If Julie had been present, she would have called him out for his behaviour, and accused him of provoking her. ‘Maybe that’s why I did it’, he would have replied.
The internal commentary was getting louder. Over the past year, Alex had begun to analyse his every waking thought. Sometimes the noise was deafening. On one occasion, he had wrapped a wet towel around his head, thinking the cold might reduce the static. Another time, he had balled his fists and angrily smacked his skull in the hope it would open a space for silence; after a ten-minute respite, his mind had begun racing once more.
The pile carpet tickled Alex’s bare feet as he padded back to the sofa. Flicking through the movie channels, he found TCM, which was showing an obscure Rock Hudson film. When he was a child, Alex had enjoyed watching Doris Day/Hudson films with his mother. Tonight’s offering was called Seconds. A fluffy romantic comedy about second marriages seemed like just the distraction he needed … only it wasn’t a film about second marriages. Seconds was the bleak story of a middle aged banker called Arthur Hamilton, unhappy with himself and his position in the world: An actor called John Randolph played the central character, and Rock Hudson was nowhere in sight.
The combination of shrimp and boiled eggs was having an adverse effect. Alex tried to concentrate on the film but felt sleepy. On the television, Arthur Hamilton and his wife were kissing but their intimacy was strained and uncomfortable, and realising that all passion was gone, they simply stopped. Alex vainly fought against fatigue. He slumped sideways, and began to doze.
The sound of drilling woke him. His hand reached sideways, expecting to find Julie. Slowly, his mind converged with his surroundings, and he realized he wasn’t in Manchester, he was in Toronto, and would be for another two days.
Now he could hear knocking. On the television, John Randolph had gone, and Rock Hudson had arrived. The actor was strapped to a hospital gurney, fighting against the disabling power of an anaesthetic. A surgeon was lobotomizing him with a metal drill. The credits started to roll and Alex yelled.
Hee He turned off the television. The knocking continued; it was coming from outside. He walked to the bedroom door and opened it.
“Hello, sexy boy!”
The girl was slim and stunning, with chestnut brown hair which grew past her elbows. She had a smooth complexion, like a white peach, and her lips glistened with gothic red lipstick. Her short, sparkling cocktail dress stopped six inches short of her knees. Alex’s gaze flitted from her pale green eyes to her part exposed cleavage and back.
“Mister Alex?” Yes, he said. “I am pleasing to meet you.” She pressed her hand to Alex’s chest; the smell of Bergamot floated over him. The girl took an assured step closer, sending Alex backwards into the room. Once inside, she closed the door behind her with a clean flick of her stiletto shoe.
“Sorry … who are you and what are you doing?” Alex’s question was superfluous. He knew instantly what she did, why she was here, and who had sent her.
“I am Katarina.” Her accent was Eastern European. Alex guessed her to be about 23 years old. “We have fun together, yes?” Walking across the room, she perched alluringly on the edge of the bed. “Very nice bed”, she said. He watched as she stretched backwards across the mattress with the lazy assurance of a satisfied cat. There was a mischievous glint in her eyes. “Your friend, he say that you work too hard. Need kissy-kissy-suck-suck. So, I help you to relax.”
Like ‘Cutting the Wolf Loose,’ ‘Kissy-kissy-suck-suck’ was another expression Alex was unfamiliar with but again, the meaning was obvious enough: Clearly, they did things differently in Canada. Katarina sensually stroked the sheets in a slow, circular motion. “Sit with me, sexy boy. First we chit-chat, okay?”
Alex was 47 years old and didn’t feel sexy. Some days he felt like a boy. He sat next to her, and took a deep, disguised in-breath, worried that his fart might still be lingering, failing to realise over an hour had passed since then. “You are shy, I see,” said Katarina, “so I start slowly.”
Katarina slid closer. She took Alex’s right hand and started to lick his index finger. Fluttering her eyelashes, she rolled her tongue around the tip in a slow, sensual manner. Alex snatched his hand away. “I go too fast?” she said, innocently.
“I think my friend made a mistake.”
Katarina feigned dramatic outrage. “You not want Katarina? You not want the pleasure of her kissy-kissy-suck-suck? Oh, she is hurt – she is disappointed!”
Alex found people who talked about themselves in the third person unusually irritating. Where had this peculiar affectation started, he wondered? It seemed to be fashionable in the late 1990’s. For a short time, he had worked with an IT engineer called Bob who had a habit of saying things like ‘Bob needs his bonus.’ Rather than speak openly, Alex had secretly added the man’s personal details onto a mailing list for disability scooters. Alex still felt a pang of guilt about what he had done. These days, he felt guilty about lots of things.
Katarina made a series of playful sniffling sounds. Her acting was pathetic but oddly charming. “You not like me, Mr Alex? Not find me…foxy?”
Yes, he liked her, yes he found her foxy. He wasn’t sure if he wanted her to stay or leave. “I think you’re…gorgeous.”
Katarina beamed. Alex asked where she was from. “You make me drink, yes? Then we continue our chat-chat.” She wanted a Manhattan, one of the few drinks Alex knew how to mix. He went over to the drinks cabinet, and poured three shots of whisky into a tall stem cocktail glass, adding another of vermouth. Moving back to the bed, Alex handed Katarina her drink. She told him she was from Riga. Alex had no idea where Riga was. “Is that in Poland?” he asked.
She emitted a high-pitched, wheezing laugh. “No! Riga is capital of Latvia.”
“Sorry,” he mumbled. “I’m not very good at geography.”
“Do you know what place you are now?” she asked, teasingly.
“Toronto,” he said, earnestly.
How long had he been here? Two weeks? Three? Time seemed to have slowed down and stuck; it felt like he’d been here for months. Alex didn’t want to be here but neither did he want to return home.
“How about you?” he asked. “How long have you been in Canada?”
“I have been in this city two years,” said the girl from Latvia. “First I work in bar, very smoky, they play horrible heavy rock, it is hurting my head. Also, wages are very bad. One day, a man buys me a drink, tells me I am beautiful. Sweet old man with a dead wife…he give me lots of dollars to sleep with him. I enjoy his company. In Latvia, I did same job when I was a student but much more money in Canada, so is twice good, yes?”
“Do your parents know you do this…type of work?”
Katarina sipped her Manhattan. The glint in her eye dulled, momentarily. “What work is that, sexy boy?”
Alex blushed. “You know…a lady of the night.”
She smiled sweetly. “So, you think I am still a lady? Good! I like that.” Katarina swirled the drink in her glass, and stared into the liquid. “My parents, yes, they know…we have big family argument, they not so happy, and I not see them anymore.” Again, she referred to herself in the third person. “Katarina is always open and honest, never tells lies. Maybe that is a bad thing. But is her life, and her choices, yes? Why can Katarina not do what she wants?” She seemed eager to hear Alex’s thoughts on the subject and looked at him expectantly.
“Why indeed?” he said.
The girl asked if he could put on some music. “It is too quiet in here.” Alex clicked on the Denver Mc-5220 radio positioned over the headboard; easy listening jazz came over the airwaves. Katarina shook her head with displeasure.
“What do you like?” he asked.
“Katarina loves dance music.”
Alex pressed the auto-select button several times before happening upon a suitable station; an anonymous instrumental with a languorous, trippy beat came over the airwaves, and Katarina moved her head in appreciation. Alex asked who her favourite group was.
“I like English pop group, Right Said Fred. Have you heard of them?” Alex vaguely remembered a group by that name, two preening, muscular brothers with a fashion for shaved heads and leather trousers. “I like them very much,” cooed Katarina. “They make album called Sex and Travel – my two favourite things in the world!”
Alex couldn’t help smiling. “Right Said Fred?! They were knocking around over 20 years ago – just after you were born, probably.”
Katarina shrugged. “In Latvia, things go very slowly.”
Carefully placing her drink on the bedside table, Katarina leant forward, and made a second attempt to ignite Alex’s passion. She nibbled his ear, and simultaneously rubbed her hand across his chest. “We have suck-suck,” she said, breathily, “you will enjoy, I guarantee. No one ever complains.”
A tremor of self-disgust rippled through Alex’s body. He felt fat and ugly. Recently, he had started to undress in the dark; his naked body was something he couldn’t stand to witness, never mind reveal to a stranger.
His younger self would have been happy to sleep with such a girl. In his late twenties, Alex had sown plenty of wild oats: During one drunken eighteen-month period, he’d slept with a different woman every fortnight. A portrait of chaos had emerged when he counted the numbers. Monogamy and love finally arrived in the guise of Julie, and he willingly embraced both. For a while, he was happy. That was before his wife had cheated on him.
Was it cheating? There was a scale of adultery, and Julie hovered at the lower end of the spectrum. She’d been flirting on-line with an old boyfriend from Sardinia. Alex knew it was wrong to log into her Facebook account, but afterwards he felt more than justified. The messages revealed a lot: Julie missed Paolo – he missed her – she was lonely – he was lost – they could give it a second try – he could meet her at the airport, all she had to do was book a flight. There was little sex talk in these messages but Paolo claimed to have dreams about making love with her. Julie said Alex’s snooping was outrageous. Alex apologised but still had the whip-hand. That first row went on for hours.
“This is wrong,” he said to her.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry…” How many times could she say the words? Julie’s apology wasn’t spectacular enough; a sick part of him craved whistles and pyrotechnics. In order to get to a place of forgiveness, he wanted the moon on a stick.
Alex gently pushed the girl away. “I’m a married man. Well, I was the last time I checked.”
“Okay, you are married,” observed Katarina, “but you are also unhappy, yes? It is written all over you.” Alex said nothing. “So! There is no harm”, she continued. “We take short holiday together. I like to make men happy. I will make you forget your problems.”
Alex recalled a Channel 4 documentary he had watched in his single years about two London escorts. On the surface, the pair had seemed tough and independent, hungry not for love but success and money. By the end of the programme, the television interviewer had gained enough of their trust to pierce their armour. Both had daddy issues, and were looking for validation in all the wrong places.
Maybe the girl from Latvia suffered the same. Or maybe she was telling the truth, and enjoyed sex as much as she did travelling. Alex wondered how Katarina had survived in this world she had built, enjoying loveless encounters with middle aged businessmen. Did she ever feel lonely? He wanted to tell her: ‘You’re too lovely to be doing this.’
Alex fell backwards on the bed, his feet dangling a few inches off the floor. He had exhausted himself through over thinking. Yesterday he had stared at the ceiling and counted the hexagon shaped ceiling tiles (all 96 of them). His thoughts turned to the Kings Metro sandwich menu and ‘Carlos Delgado.’
“What do you want, Mister Alex?” asked Katarina.
It was a good question. What did he want? “When I was little, my dad used to sing me to sleep…songs by this old crooner, Sammy Valentine.”
Katarina’s clients sometimes requested bondage or domination – but singing? That was kinky. “I not know Sammy Valentine…” She bristled with enthusiasm. “But I sing Right Said Fred, if you like. Once I do ‘Don’t Talk Just Kiss’ at Karioki Bar in Riga. I get round of applause.”
Alex half smiled. “I’m sure you were very good.”
The girl wouldn’t give up. “Would you like a cuddle?” she asked, hopefully.
“Okay,” said Alex, finally. “That would be…nice.”
Down by the waterfront, the firework display had begun. Katarina reached over the headboard for the dimmer switch, and turned down the bedroom lights. Spooning beside her client, Katarina wrapped one arm around Alex’s shoulder. “I stay here,” she whispered, “until you are sleeping.”
He didn’t feel hungry anymore; his emptiness had moved sideways. What he wanted was to press the reset button and wipe the past clean. Alex wanted to start his relationship with Julie anew but that couldn’t happen until he started behaving like an adult.
What he wanted most of all was to see his father. He wanted a proper goodbye.
“Katarina,” he said quietly, “there’s something I want to tell you.”
“Yes, Mister Alex?”
“I’m a fuck-up…a messed up person.”
The girl from Latvia laughed. “Who isn’t?”
A series of loud bangs ripped through the cool night air. An orange flash lit the bedroom.
“I miss him,” said Alex.
There was a red flash, quickly followed by blue. Within a few minutes, he was asleep.
Katarina’s thoughts turned to home. “We all miss someone”, she said sadly. She pressed her body closer into his. “All of us.”
Steve Timms grew up in Oldham and studied theatre at the University of Huddersfield. His journalism work has appeared in various publications including The Independent on Sunday, The Big Issue, City Life, Welcome News, The Skinny and websites like Little White Lies, Quays Life, The Slowist and What’s On Stage. He is the author of several plays including Filthy Lies, Clean Breasts (Edinburgh Fringe), Detox Mansion (24:7 Festival), Temp/Casual (Contact Theatre), The Distance Between Stars (Studio Salford), and American Beer (BBC Radio 4). In 2015 he won a Northern Writer’s Award. He is a recipient of the Peggy Ramsay bursary.
Several of his stories have appeared on STORGY, including Casino City, The Reconciliation Mix and Waterfall Girl.
Image By: Alexandr Ivanov from Pixabay
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