Danila Botha was born in Johannesburg and lives in Toronto. I discovered her while I was reading books for the Danuta Gleed Literary Award earlier this year, specifically her delightful first story collection Got No Secrets. These two stories are brand new, stories written in a gutsy, head-on, colloquial style about love, sex and mis-connection among the urban 20-somethings she knows so well. Her characters are all compulsively themselves, driven, probably always, to make a mess of things, but vulnerable, full of desire, and often touchingly witty.
These stories are part of a collection of short stories, with a little poetry included that is called For All the Men (and Some of the Women) I’ve Known. I had this idea a few years ago to write a collection of stories that focused on the romantic and personal relationships that I, and people I was close to had experienced. I’m only in the process of completing it now, mainly I think because I needed more time to reflect on what I’d been through recently (a divorce, the loss of a friend of many years, a big break up) It’s been genuinely therapeutic to write, and in some ways, more personal than my other two books. I was influenced the most by other short story writers and poets for this collection. Aryn Kyle’s Boys and Girls Like Me and You, Jami Attenberg’s Instant Love, Amy Jones’ What Boys Like, Rebecca Rosenblum’s Once, Lynn Crosbie (I think I reread all of her books) and the South African poet Rene Bohnen (and her book Spoorsny) were probably my biggest influences. I also listened a lot to the singer-songwriters Simon Wilcox and Amy Correia, who describe the ins and outs of relationships in a way that is so very literary and precise. —Danila Botha
Two Stories Not-Exactly-About Love
By Danila Botha
The Other Other
I ride the streetcar with my headphones on. I pick the loudest stuff on there: Bikini Kill, Ramones live, Metallica. I silently will the blast in my ears to blunt the thoughts in my brain. I will myself to look like a normal passenger, not some fruitcake on the verge of an anxiety attack. I get off the streetcar and navigate my way through a packed Queen East neighborhood. There’s a sidewalk full of people speaking languages I can’t identify. I make my best guesses: Arabic? Punjabi? Turkish? Cantonese? There’s a high rise apartment building that looks a pile of cement blocks. Wet laundry hangs from the balconies, flowered bed sheets and bathroom towels hang in the windows. There’s a club with a cherry neon sign that says XXX girls. A sign underneath it in gold script reads, Lap Dances: More Bang For Your Buck. There are tv screen-sized photos of the girls in the glass window of the doorway. I find myself studying them as I stand there having a smoke. Blondes and brunettes, one redhead. Three line bios with their names and origins. Yuki is from Japan. Claudia is from Trinidad. They’re wearing lingerie or bikinis, little triangles of lace or cotton, open legs, eyes on the prize. I look closer and see some cellulite, some stretch marks, on Kelly’s (a blonde from Norway) thighs. Striking but reassuringly not perfect. A more streamlined version of some of the girls I’ve seen at university, the kind with rhinestone playboy bunnies dangling off metal studs in their bellybuttons. These girls are the real deal; sex is just a transaction to them.
There’s a 24-hour McDonald’s and a 7-11. A Coffee Crime with homeless types hanging around outside, spare a quarter, miss? I really can’t, I say, I have to take the subway, and I forgot to get a transfer. Like they care what my reason is.
It hits me like a wave: Get a lap dance, drink a Grape Crush Slurpee. Just be normal and have sex. Just do it already.
An ad for Trojans on the subway says Double Her Ecstasy. I wonder if it’ll be as good as everyone says. I chew my cuticles. In two days I bit my nails down to the quick. I knock my flip-flops together. My knees vibrate involuntarily. I try a panic attack prevention technique my therapist taught me. I look around and focus on an object. I describe it slowly in my head. This is a newspaper. It’s grey and black and white. The headline says War on Terrorism. There is a picture of George Bush, debris where the twin towers once stood. The oxygen flows more smoothly into my lungs again. I uncurl my hands from the fists they have formed.
If I decide finally to have sex today, all this worry will be over.
I met him at a job interview. It was about a year ago. I really liked the magazine that he worked for, and he was the editor. I emailed him about writing music articles. I wanted to review albums and interview bands. I sent him samples of my writing, and told him I was eager to learn. I wanted to be a journalist. I wanted to have a portfolio of print or online online articles that would help me to get accepted into my program at university the next year. I was seventeen and going into grade twelve. He was twenty-nine, turning thirty, married, but he told me that he was in the process of getting separated. I looked at you, that day, he told me later, and I wanted you right away. We had good chemistry. He wanted to meet at a coffee shop at Queen and Spadina to do the interview, and I was excited to get to go downtown. He ordered a carrot juice, and little strands of the peel stuck to his front teeth. We talked about music, mainly, and movies. He said that Fiona Apple and Tori Amos were two of his favorite singers.
I told him that the Tori Amos song “Silent All These Years” was my favorite of all time. I pulled out a booklet of her lyrics that I always carried with me in my bag. He listened carefully, his eyes on me, his hand on my elbow, as if my words were full of meaning and importance. He seemed so sensitive and attentive. She’s beautiful, he said. I interviewed her after she played a show at Massey Hall two years ago, and I couldn’t take my eyes off her the whole time. He grinned at me. I kind of have a thing for redheads, he said. I blushed, twirled a piece of my carrot top hair around my finger. I’d always been self -conscious about it. The only time the guy I’d dated before had mentioned my hair was to ask me if I dyed it. I guess he found out eventually that my drapes matched my carpet. I hadn’t actually had sex before because I’d only ever had one boyfriend, and he was just a guy in my grade who I went to school with. We’d made out a lot, even fooled around. He’d groped my breasts, guided my hands into his underwear, that kind of thing. I once went down on him in his bedroom, on my knees, like he asked me to. I closed my eyes, and when I looked up, Miss Italy, wearing a red, white and green bikini, splayed on top of a Ferrari stared back at me in poster form. It wasn’t exactly romantic, but we’d been together for a year and a half so there were feelings involved. He wanted to go all the way, and in some ways so did I, but I wanted it to be special. I wanted to feel more connected and taken care of. I wanted to feel safe. We broke up and about three weeks later I had my job interview. His name was Dillon Evans, and he explained that the spelling was Welsh because his father was from Cardiff.
He was impressed with my knowledge, he said, and with my vocabulary. You remind me a lot of myself when I was your age, he said. I had the same love of words as you do. We talked for two hours, and I was giddy. I was used to boys in high school who got to know you slowly, for weeks or possibly months before they asked you out. I didn’t expect it but he called me that night a couple hours after I got home. He said he got my phone number from my resume and asked me if I wanted to meet again with him to discuss doing some album reviews. He said they already had in office intern, but they would gladly give me some freelance writing jobs, and pay me twenty five cents a word for whatever they published. He asked me if we could meet again to discuss it further. We met to the same coffee place, spoke for an hour, and he offered to give me a ride home. He kissed me as he dropped me off. Soon we were seeing each other once or twice a week. He took me to screenings of movies and to Ethiopian and Lebanese restaurants. My mouth and nose burned from the sauces, meats and stews that were filled with chili peppers, but I loved injera, the sourdough flatbread that it came with. I grew to love the grainy texture of taboulleh, falafel balls made out of deep fried chickpeas, and hummus. He took me for pizza and fried calamari in Little Italy and for massa sovada, sweet bread and cookies, in Little Portugal. We saw bands play, and we always got in for free.
He was into clothes; he bought everything vintage and lusted after couture. He liked to paint his nails black or silver and wear eye makeup. His favorite was a gold MAC eyeshadow that he said he had found on the ground in a parking lot. He wore leather pants with no underwear. He wanted to rush headlong into sex, but I refused, and he grew irritated. I was used to being able to take my time. He told me that he’d had five partners, and that he’d always used condoms, except when he was married.
Oh, about that marriage. Months passed, and he kept saying that he was going to move out, and then giving me reasons that started to feel more and more like excuses. He would tell me about their fights in excruciating detail. He would lie on my lap in the back seat of his car and unburden himself. He would tell me that it wasn’t the right time, convince me that it would be better for both of us if he waited. She’s aggressive, he’d tell me. She’ll come after you and confront you and make your life miserable like she does mine. He assured me that they slept in separate bedrooms. Still I felt bad about sneaking around. We only saw each other during the week, during his workday, when I was done or skipping school, or at night when he was supposed to be covering something for the magazine.
As far as I knew, she had no idea I existed.
I didn’t want to do anything morally wrong. Once he asked me how I felt about my parents. I said that I didn’t always like them, but I loved them because they were family. That’s how he said he felt about her. Later he told me that he was sure that he didn’t love her.
I’ve fallen in love with you, he told me. I want to be with you all the time. I think about you at nights and on the weekends, and I can’t get any work done. I want to go to bed with you and wake up next to you. I want to come home to you, Mira.
I just have to choose the right time to leave, it’s complicated, but believe me, I want it to be soon. I love you and would never want to hurt you. I’m so grateful for your patience.
He bought me sunglasses and eyeliner from his work travels, expensive perfume by Jean Paul Gaultier for Christmas. It’s my favorite scent on a woman, he said.
This is what I knew about his wife: her name was Ann-Marie. She was two years older than he was. When he met her he was twenty two, skinny and broke. He had no car or job and wore thick nerdy glasses. She was overweight but kind. He showed me a picture of her. She was blonde, and three times my size. She had a hook nose and a heart-shaped face.
When he left her, he moved to a high rise building downtown. He signed a lease, put down his first and last month’s rent. He wanted me to spend his first night there with him.
He tried, I think. His apartment floor was a trail of vermillion rose petals that lead to his bed. The Verve’s Bittersweet Symphony was playing.
The last time we had fought about him leaving her, he sent me eighteen of them, long stemmed. They came in a big cardboard box with a tiny note that simply said Love, Dillon. It wasn’t even addressed to me. Their petals were black red, the color of blood clots when I had my period. I wanted to be sick.
I kissed him first, and let him take off all my clothes. It hurt more than I expected. My hymen tore and there was a small blood stain on his sheets.
Five minutes, he’d say casually, later.
We did missionary style like in the Sex- Ed textbook. It supposed to feel intimate, the two of us looking into each other’s eyes, but it didn’t. He was pumping hard, it hurt, and I wondered why it didn’t feel as good as it was supposed to. I didn’t spend the night because I still lived at home and I didn’t know what to tell my parents. Besides, I figured I could stay over anytime now that he’d finally moved out.
On the train ride home I felt my elation growing. I had done it. When we walked out on the street we must have looked like a real couple, not a guy and his mistress. He stopped to kiss me twice. We walked arm in arm. There was no gold braided wedding ring on his finger. He wore glasses, his hair was a mess of products and bed sheets. He had just used a rinse to dye it darker, and he looked younger. We looked closer in age.
The next morning I wake up smiling. He calls me before school, from his apartment instead of from work and I jump up and down.
He is busy the day after. I press for time on the phone. He is evasive, he mumbles about deadlines and then says something about not being good enough for me.
I ask him what he means. He tells me that I am not the first person he’s cheated on his wife with. It was just after my mother died, Mira, he says. You know how close I was to her, I mean, I showed you her picture and everything. She committed suicide and I was such a mess. The doctors didn’t know what was wrong with her, and they just found her hanging in our basement, and Ann-Marie’s mom called to tell me, and for months I felt like my life just stopped. I mean, we’d just gotten married, and I had to wear the same suit, the same dark purple thing that I wore to my wedding to her funeral because I couldn’t afford another one. The sex was terrible, even then, Mira. It was infrequent at best, and totally unsatisfying. Plus, she was never exactly gorgeous, he adds. I never had to have her the way I have to have you. I sigh. I feel guilt. I feel nausea. I feel flattered. My head is spinning.
He met Liz, he said at the LCBO. They both reached for the same Chilean wine. She served it to him on their first date with sea bass. She was his age, and he liked her. She was adventurous in bed. She had travelled more than he had. They had an affair. His wife didn’t catch on until she found an email correspondence between them, when he was breaking it off. She forbade him to see any of his female friends any more.
At a party, he was drunk and made a move on one of her best friends. I am shit, he finishes, and at first I am shocked but then I hear him crying, quiet whimpers and then tears I can practically feel through the phone. No, no, don’t cry, I say, you have to forgive yourself. Do you forgive me, he asks, so quietly I almost don’t hear him. Of course, I say, of course I do. I love you.
It hits me later. Maybe I can’t trust him. Maybe I don’t know him at all.
I don’t see him for the rest of the week. On Wednesday and Thursday, he tells me he’s having a boy’s night out with his best friend, Bob. I tell him how great it is that he has support.
I barely hear from him.
He says Ann-Marie has been calling him obsessively.
He says he needs space. I need to make my own decisions, he says, do what’s really right for me and not everyone else.
I don’t sleep much. I worry and pace and cry sometimes. I am what’s right for you, I think. It’s obvious.
I don’t hear from all weekend, and on Monday I call him at work.
He tells me that he’s moving back in. He’s spent the weekend talking to her, trying to work things out. You’re young, Mira, he says. But Ann-Marie is a known quantity. She knows she wants to spend her life with me.
I am numb. I try to reconcile everything I know about him with what he’s told me, with what he’s done .
He is good to animals. Once, we were walking to his car in the annex in February and we saw a cat outside. He rang the doorbell to tell it’s owners because he was so worried about it. He holds open doors for strangers. He gives blood at least twice a year.
He calls me one last time, right before dinner. He tells me that there was one other girl he was seeing, too.
Her name is Blair Armin, he says and I recognize it instantly. She is another writer for the magazine. They met exactly two years before I was in the picture. She is my age, and she had once been their in office intern.
He says that they share the same bleak worldview.
He says she has a stronger personality than me,
They both love the bands Nine Inch Nails and Placebo.
I press him for details about what she looks like, and it comes out: she is thinner than me.
She has dead straight dark brown hair and full lips.
She is nicely sarcastic. She is independent. She takes it all in stride.
I know her type. I wish I was her.
I wish I was dead.
He is talking to a counselor. His wife’s benefits package at work pays for it. She still doesn’t know a thing. He’s starting to write a book.
If he was really free to choose, he tells me, he would have chosen me.
He loves me greatly, he says.
Even if I had the choice, I think, I wouldn’t know what I want.
Ann- Marie knows. She wants to have his children. She wants to stay with him forever.
Blair knows. She gave him an ultimatum, then left him for a boy her own age.
He loves us all, he says, and it occurs to me that I have no place in the hierarchy.
Ann-Marie is the Significant other, Blair the Other woman.
I am simply the other other.
I stare up at the sky after I’ve hung up. It’s 6pm, and the sun is out, the wind rustling through the leaves. I wonder if there’s a God, if someone up there sees the humor in all this. I look down at my feet and exhale deeply.
I find it hard to believe in anything at times like this.
He didn’t really have time for a girlfriend. He was in an academic crunch, four months away from graduating from dental school. She seemed like the type that was serious: serious about life, serious about her career, about relationships.
She had the strangest accent he’d ever heard. It sounded like a mix of a lot of things. He couldn’t place it. Where are you from? he asked her. Everywhere and nowhere, she said, and shrugged. She was from Quebec, from a tiny town called Cap Rouge. After her CEGEP, she had lived in Berlin for three years, and then the Netherlands for one, before moving to Paris to go to university. He could tell she didn’t really like talking about herself, so he didn’t press her further. He told her about himself; the small town in Ontario he was from, his family, his friends.
She looked at him with obvious wariness, even when she smiled. She’d be a lot hotter, he thought, if she didn’t seem like she could be a giant pain in my ass.
He votes Conservative, and doesn’t read fiction, she thought. He doesn’t know Michelangelo and Raphael from the Ninja Turtles. What will we ever talk about?
She was affectionate though, he noticed, and clearly up for a lot of things. She was good at dirty talk, good at teasing the hell of him. There was something sexy about her laugh, the way it came from deep in her throat. She seemed like the kind of girl that was hard to shock.
He was a foot taller than she was, and when he put his arms around her, she felt like he was swallowing her. It felt strangely reassuring. You remind me of a character in a Disney movie, she told him. He looked at her oddly. Who? he asked. She smiled. The crocodile in Peter Pan. Remember the “Never Smile at a Crocodile” song? His expression was the definition of blank.
She made him feel like she was onto him. Like she wouldn’t take any shit. There was something that got under his skin about it, something annoying, yet something he guessed he probably needed to hear. She taught grade seven and eight at the French immersion school, a twenty minute walk from where he lived. She could be bossy, and, occasionally, she forgot that he wasn’t her student. She’d fix him with a look, a mix of chagrin and disappointment with a tiny dash of anger. There was something alluring about it.
He noted, the first time he kissed her, how full her lips were, how reluctantly she parted them. Everything seemed deliberate with her, purposeful. Her mouth was dry, he moved his tongue along hers. The moment before, she’d crunched on violet-flavoured candies that her mother had bought her in France. He winced, picturing her teeth cracking. She tasted like potpourri, like flowers and Tic-Tacs, cigarettes and Diet Coke. He noticed her teeth the first time she smiled. He liked her eye-teeth, their sharp little ends. She told him she liked to bite, and he imagined them nibbling his shoulder, or the skin below his clavicle.
She liked the way he hugged her, the way she and all her heavy thoughts suddenly felt so insignificant.
Diet Coke is bad for you, he told her one day. You shouldn’t drink it.
She shrugged. Everything causes cancer, she said.
No, I mean, it probably does, but I meant, you know, it’s bad for your teeth. It strips the enamel off them. You’ll get cavities.
She laughed. It’s a bit late for that she said. He liked the way she said the word bit, a beet. I’ve already given my dentist thousands of dollars this year, and it’s January.
You probably shouldn’t smoke either. She nodded, looking at him seriously this time. Oui, je sais. My grandmother died of lung cancer just last year. She was just in her seventies.
He touched her shoulder. Was she a heavy smoker too?
She shook her head. She never smoked a day in her life. Maybe everyone goes when it’s their time, and there’s nothing any of us can do about it.
Their first date began at 11:30 at night. Their clothes hit the floor before the end of the first hour. He had said, we can go for coffee, but she was running late, so after five texts, each delaying her arrival by another twenty minutes, or half an hour, he had told her just to come over.
She was taken aback by the disarray in his apartment. He was redoing his floors, retiling his bathroom. It looked like a construction site. You have very manly hobbies, she said, looking him up and down like she was trying to figure out just what she was doing there. Well, it’s true, I’m not into needle point or knitting he said, and she laughed uncontrollably. She was surprised he even knew the terms.
He’d pulled off her skirt, her tights, her winter boots. She laughed when he left his socks on. What if I needed a lot of foreplay, she teased? I mean, hypothetically, anyway? He laughed, slipped a finger between her thighs. She moaned. You don’t, he said confidently, I can feel. She laughed, moaned softly, then louder, then gave in, inhaling, shuddering deeply.
The morning after they’d slept together, he got nervous. He got up and showered. He made coffee and ate breakfast. She continued sleeping, looking faraway. He paced next to her side of the bed, til she woke up. It was 8:15am. They’d gone to sleep at roughly 3:00, after two amazing rounds, both satisfied.
She rubbed her eyes, sat up slowly, smiled at him.
I don’t want you to get all weird now, he told her.
She looked at him like what the fuck.
He looked back at her, and smiled tightly. Like all boyfriend and girlfriend-y.
She nodded, looked him in the eye, said so you want it to be just about sex?
He looked at his feet. I don’t know what I want it to be, ok? I just want to go slow. Get to know each other. Ok?
She nodded. So if I ask you to marry me now, that would freak you out? Or if I tell you I love you next time you make me come?
He laughs. Shut up, Camille, he said, and ran the back of his hand along her soft left cheek. She kissed his fingertips.
Still, she was surprised every time he called her. Every time he texted. If she had her period and didn’t want to have sex, and he still wanted to see her. It dawned on her slowly one day: he actually likes me.
What she liked most about him, was that he was as straight talking as she was. Girls ask for too much attention, he told her, and she nodded, knowing that it was true. Often the question of how much she liked a guy was entirely dependent on how much attention he paid her. On some level, it was a relief to know that other women were guilty of it too. On another, it suddenly seemed ridiculous to her.
What do you miss most about being in a relationship, she asked him one day. Having someone to talk to about my day, and having someone to have sex with, he answered almost immediately.
She liked how simple he made it sound.
He was ambitious about his career. He seemed genuinely passionate about teeth. It disarmed her a little. She’d assumed that dentists were boring, and bored with everything.
She also assumed, based on her own experiences being drilled and poked and cut and frozen, that dentists actually liked inflicting pain. Every time he touched her gently it was like unwrapping a tiny present. His touch grew softer every time he saw her. It made her feel like her skin was melting.
Doesn’t dentistry have the highest suicide rate of all professions, she asked him one night, lying in bed next to him, marking, as he studied, her left hand stretched across his stomach, his on her thighs. He looked at her like she was crazy.
So, I’m really glad you like it so much, she said. I don’t think you’ll get depressed doing this job.
He laughed. You’re sweet, you worry about me.
She shook her head. No, I don’t, she said. That’s what I’m telling you.
He laughed harder.
They always stayed in. He ventured over to her tiny apartment once, but she preferred his, debris and all. They tried to see a movie together once. They sat in the back row and made out. When she moved from her chair to his lap, and put a hand under her skirt, he realized she wasn’t wearing underwear. They’d left after five more minutes, straight to his car. They were surprised that they’d steamed up the windows, that it actually happened in real life.
It had been almost two months, and it occurred to him that they’d never actually been out together. In public. On a real date. It occurred to him that he’d never even seen her eat.
He asked her if she wanted to go for dinner with him one night. She looked at him blankly. Why, she asked. I want to take you out, he said. She thought of all the men she’d known in her past, all their fake promises. She had no patience for real dates, when it came down to it. But she was starting to trust him.
Why, she asked, again, knowing that she needed to hear him say it. Because I like you, Camille, he said, and she smiled. She was starting to believe it.
They went to a seafood restaurant, on the water. She ordered the salmon that was swimming in butter, that came with a side of mash potatoes and was afraid to look at the price. She did what she always did in restaurants. She chewed her food carefully. She ate slowly. She drank water before and after. She was starving. It was delicious. She felt like she needed a shovel. He ordered them crème brulée for dessert. The caramel top layer was crunchy, the middle perfectly moist. She licked her lips.
When they were finished she excused herself to go the bathroom.
She’d been doing it for roughly fifteen years, long enough to have permanently damaged her digestive system. A part of her stomach, a doctor explained to her once, that was supposed to clamp didn’t anymore. She could make herself vomit without using her fingers, without thinking of something nauseating, without any effort at all really. She could vomit spontaneously. She could vomit quickly, bring up an entire meal in less than ten minutes. She was excellent at it.
It made her feel, for a few minutes a day, like she could breathe. Like she was in control. Like she was normal and calm instead of full of self -loathing.
She’d been in and out of rehab for years, but nothing really seemed to help. She tried not to let it take over her life. So she couldn’t keep her food down, she reasoned. So she needed cavities, an occasional root canal. So her stomach burned sometimes. So she’d lost her appetite. So what? She’d live, she hoped anyway.
She stopped to fix her make-up to put drops in her eyes to mask the redness, to wash her mouth out with water, to use mouth wash, pop a fresh piece of gum, use hand sanitizer, douse herself in a cloud of perfume.
She knew she was safe. If there was one thing she knew about Scott it was that he didn’t ask too many questions. She knew he was smart enough to have figured it out. That he might know. That the irony of it might strike him as funny. It was like a bad punch line: she feared intimacy the way a bulimic fears a dentist. The word love caused her stomach to tie itself into knots. It did her head in, to think about it.
His lips were stained purple from the wine he ordered. He reached for her hand under the table. She whispered, come here, quietly, but loud enough that he could hear it, and kissed him quickly. In public. She felt the blood rush to her temples.
I like romance, she whispered after he’d paid, when they got up to get their coats. I like it a lot. I’m just afraid of being hurt. He pulled her close to him, patted her hair. It’s ok, he said, even though she wasn’t sure it would be.
Later that night, back in his apartment, he pulled out a small chocolate heart, wrapped in red foil paper. Is that for me, she asked, grinning. No, it’s for my other girlfriend, he answered, and she slapped him. She wanted to eat it right then, but the effort of throwing up seemed like too much. Plus the apartment was small, and he’d find out. She promised him she’d eat it the next day. I wanted to ask you if you’d be my valentine, he said, but I figured it was too cheesy. She giggled.
Yes, she said, a few minutes before they both fell asleep.
Poignant and believable. Thank you.