For a period of one month, beginning on 27 February 2015, teaching assistants at the University of Toronto were on strike. Advocating for fairer funding packages, hundreds of students took to the streets of the city in an attempt to better their working and schooling conditions. Written collectively by three U of T students during the height of the strike, this piece of fiction is not a discussion of the politics at play so much as it is an exploration of the embodied experience of being caught in a capitalist system that seems rigged for mostly everyone to lose. In it, they explore the affect of resistance and the hope of revolution.
“Renew someone’s faith in mankind. Smile at them.”
“My first time was in the washroom.”
My eyes flit from one ad to the other. The first is sponsored by peopleforgood.ca, and the other is for Veet hair removal products. The two ads, framed and elevated, look conspiratorial next to each other. I feel strangely disturbed by this, by something that I can only articulate as obviousness. These two ads evoke a constellation: mankind, hair removal, fertility, faith. I smile to myself as I playfully catalogue this fortuitous complementarity under the file “Promotional Providence” in my observations.
I look elsewhere on the subway car, beginning with inanimate subjects. There is writing that has been etched on the window across from me. The image strikes me as mercilessly violent. The words are illegible, but their meaning is clear: “this was done with a sharp object.” There is a brown stain under the seat in front of me. I can see how it is sticky. Because of their closeness, their subterraneanness, and the dead glare, subway carriages have always been synesthetic spaces for me. Even the sound of the wheels approaching has a specific smell for me.
I now turn to the passengers. I notice one who is sitting across from me, staring. As soon as I notice this, I look away—these thoughts go through my head: for fuck’s sakes doesn’t seem local do they want something from me? don’t be angry maybe there’s an explanation some kind of disability then you’d feel guilty. I interrupt this chain by looking at another passenger’s knee, which has been resting against mine, and which—synesthetically—I can smell. I notice another passenger seated in the corner across from me: eyes flitting nervously between me and something else, and I realize that they think that I am somehow with the passenger encroaching on my space. Maybe they have good reason to make this assumption.
When I get up to get off, the feeling is relieving: no more of that uninvited contact, or the uninvited conjectures, gazes, grotesque advertising. I walk up and out of the station to join the strikers, and another striker looks at me, surprised to see me.
In that instant of their sight transformed by a delayed recognition, I register a sense of failed expectation. Here I am, where I am not supposed to be. I know this is my own psychosis more than anything, this caring about the discrepancy between who I am and what I am imagined to be. That small moment of the meeting of eyes revealing that, in their mind, I am not the kind of person to practice an activist politics. I can imagine the small talk because I know they saw me bearing witness to their surprise: “Oh! I didn’t think I’d see you here!” or “So glad you are able join us!” I realize that the knee’s smell on the subway was poison gas, compromising my integrity, and I become what this striker imagines me to be and I keep walking. Rush of hot blood like thunder in my ears and how long will it take to walk off their curiosity that I am somehow more than they imagined?
Beat. Beat. Beat of my feet taking me elsewhere.
What is small becomes large with slight justification.
I catch the light of the sun as its descent begins to align with the east/west cut of the street. Almost golden, blindly golden, and the moment begins to settle. Footfall becomes a way to measure breath and in the coordination I move away from being taken off guard and into the next part of my day, now suddenly open. Out of sight and out of reach, beat, beat, beat.
The sunset has always had the allure of the rainbow, as though the light ended somewhere and what if I kept on marching until I found that place, the origin of the world spilling forth? Or, what if the plane—the fastest kind of travel I know—could match the turning of the earth and I could travel between places as though instantaneously, arriving at the hour I departed? Theoretically, I could climb up into the sky, impossibly high, and follow the sun’s golden hour around and around. This magic ship runs on inexhaustible or replenishing fuel and my feet have no need to touch the ground, living a spinning luminous life. At that moment, in laughter, I try to stare into the heart of that bright fire and bang! Crash! My boot catches on uneven cement. Exaggerated weight falls forward and, for the second time this day, my knee makes uncomfortable contact with a stranger and I perform a kneeling pose in the street.
I look up, embarrassed. And although this is not my most graceful position, I smile internally at how coordinated this scenario is, at least in terms of narrative: interactions with strangers, today’s leitmotif; how staring at the sun is always done obliviously; my damn knee. I file today under “Day of Interruptions” in my almanac. From the ads in the subway, to the strikers on the street, to the irregularity of the sidewalk (have I been interpolated by the pavement?), I realize that I am an interruption in this world: life is not convenient.
“Are you ok?”
“Yeah, sorry. Did I bump into you? I wasn’t paying attention.” I don’t want to make eye contact. Right now, every thought I have reads like those violent scratches on a subway window—scrawled marks that ostensibly reveal the glass as plastic. But when I finally do make eye contact, I realize that this stranger is beautiful. I remember a phrase that I read once, in a love letter I found at the flea market: this stranger has “whale eyes.” Eyes so different from the staring passenger on the subway. I say, “I was just looking at the sunset.”
The stranger looks at the sunset as well. “It’s beautiful. I thought that the sun had deserted Toronto. Or at least, that it was on sabbatical.” The stranger smiles, kindly self aware of their wit, demonstrating the following: the assumption that I also identify as an academic, and that I would take this joke as camaraderie. “Were you off to the strike?” the stranger says.
“Yes… No, no, I wasn’t. Or I was, but not any longer.”
“Well, if you don’t want to go, maybe you could join me for a cup of coffee. There’s this place over there…” the stranger says.
The most summarizing adjective that I can find for this place is “reflective,” like a new Buick. Everything is polished: the napkin dispensers, the silverware, the jukebox in the corner, the chrome lining on the edge of every flat surface, even the red leather cushions in its own squeaky style. These objects refract an image of myself in individually distorting ways: the playfully circular dope staring back at me from the coffee spoon, the sneering countenance spread across the chrome that lines the bar, the captive imprisoned in the napkin dispenser. We’ve been having a pleasant conversation, about classes, teachers we might know, the ways life is difficult for each of us. Everything’s going fine, until I see a face staring at me from the sidewalk. They’re here.
For the past hour, or the past several moments, my instincts, and all my attentions were entirely present and alive and consumed by the moment. I felt quite close to it all: to my strange coffee-date, to the sunset, to the sidewalk. I was so connected, so created by everything. But then, suddenly, it was like my hands had slipped from that cliff and I was falling into some enormous, ever-expanding abyss.
I remember, with a horrible jolt, that I am mortal, everyone around me is mortal, and sometime soon we will all be dead. Can you fathom it? And not long after my death, the earth will shatter, fall in upon itself, fade and perish. All the poetry, the art, the words, the breaths and the kisses of the world, everything will be a non-memory in some universal void.
I see myself, looking out the window at those people, then looking at my coffee-date, then at my coffee—from several thousand galaxies away. I am essentially invisible; I am non-existent even before death.
The creaky, crumbling heaviness on my heart subsides slightly as I look down at a drop of coffee that has fallen upon my finger—I could look at myself from beyond and beyond and beyond—but I could do just the opposite and look into that drop—closer and closer. There is the infinite either way. Something about it is comforting—I am suspended somewhere in between these never-endings. I am a middle-sized someone, somehow standing still.
“Would you like a refill?” Our waiter beckons smilingly to my mug.
“No, thank you.” I respond. Which was real life? The erratic, exploding images in my head or the verbal exchange between waiter and I?
I leave the café, alone, after saying goodbye. It is time for me to go and meet them.
We walk down the city street, and as I notice the tired, dirty snow all around, I wonder if my depressing ruminations were the result of the weather. Each day has looked exactly the same as the last for so long, but the march of the sun, the march of the seasons, is the gift of this middling place where the fact that nothing lasts forever means that there will be melting soon.
In the almanac of days, on this day of interruption, if I am to do something more than lament the texture of body or the cut of light or systemic inertia, then I am the place of protest. What if I were to fall on my knees again, now with purpose, and refuse the rules of polite social behaviour? I would throw my head back and let loose animals sounds. And yet, I do not. I keep to my minimal forms of participation, marching along in silence not only because I am lost here, in thought, but because my personal rules of social behaviour dictate that I not shout along with them. I’ve never been one for games. But I know that here, as I march, I have decided something about myself, like a teenaged epiphany, that calls me to be more radical and less susceptible. I look ahead at the swarm of burgeoning teachers of which I am a part, realizing that I will not be whom they imagined me to be and this is liberation.
Two pieces of the yet-to-come are in my mind as I move along in my own kind of marching: the academy will only ever fit as a jacket too small, bursting at the seams; and I must reconfigure my intimacies so that the kind of coffee I shared today is no longer an aberration of my own social tendencies but an extension of bravery required to believe in unseeable things.
But the more I try to gather the pieces into some kind of story—the coffee, the pavement, the sun, the snow—the more clearly I see that the bits are not meant to fit; things unravel, fall apart, scatter and spread upon the body of an aimless wind. I try to turn those movements into poetry, into some kind of choreographed dance—but there’s no poetry here.
Though my mind can’t help it. I still make connections and search for symbolism. Something about the group of bodies, winding before me, shoulders touching, faces close to mine—reminds me of the subway train. The way I feel towards these people is warmer and brighter and better, but I still imagine a cylindrical, train-like moving thing, fading from red and white and shiny to white and blue and bustling like people do. And like that endless beat, beat, beat, I hear a background voice in my head: “renew someone’s faith in mankind. Smile at them.” When I close my eyes, I see a smiling head, and a dismembered-looking limb moving slow and creepy, being shorn of its hair with thick Veet cream. The strange juxtaposition is too much and the constellation breaks, all the parts afloat, moving apart like Pangaea in my brain’s waters.
It’s dark out now. Colder too. I can feel that shiver moving through the crowd—I can tell that we all want to be inside again, soon. Go behind walls, take off our jackets, share another hot drink, sleep, sleep, sleep, until the sun rises. As I make my way to another nearby café, there is dread building in my stomach for the inevitable, dingy subway ride home. One particular image rises above all the rest: my body, crumpling against the pavement, and the moment of warm touch between me and stranger. Maybe my limbs are tired, maybe my mind is tired, maybe I want to draw another person in—but my body aches to fall forth, to make a discernible shape, elbows bent, knees like corners, eyes closed, heart open, hands up or clasped or held or hidden. But I resist and continue walking.
Bahar Orang is a medical student at McMaster University. She holds an MA in Comparative Literature and a BASc in Arts & Science, and is passionate about women’s health and narrative medicine.
cheyanne turions is an independent writer and curator concerned with art's capacity to provoke otherwise possibilities. Recent and upcoming exhibitions include projects with the Art Museum at the University of Toronto, the Audain Gallery (Vancouver), Gallery TPW (Toronto), Mercer Union (Toronto) and SBC galerie d'art contemporain (Montréal). She has published widely, including with Afterall, the Banff Centre, Canadian Art, C Magazine, Hyperallergic and the Vera List Center. In 2017, she participated in documenta 14. She is currently the Director of Education and Public Programs at the Vancouver Art Gallery, and sits on the board of directors for 221A.
Quigley has participated in and organized “para-academic” educational initiatives in Vancouver and Toronto, and has been a member of Turkish translation workshops. His current research examines Arabic and Middle-Eastern appropriations of French existentialist literature and philosophy through Derridean deconstruction.