I wake to the long, low horn of a towboat and the smell of creosote wafting off the river. Work’s calling and it feels like something’s blowing in. I roll onto my side. Cardboard boxes, piles of clothing and a tire greet me. My lungs expel in a sigh and I bury my head in the blanket. I can’t believe I’m living with my stepmother.
I drift back to sleep listening to the alarm sing on my phone, ‘Somewhere, Over the Rainbow’. Too lazy to hit the snooze button, I dream I’m a bluebird soaring over the Queen Elizabeth bridge. I’m high enough to see the congested, green guts of the river forking around a small, grassy ait. I flutter above the yellow silt as it churns and ripples before fanning into the estuary. My wings carry me through the popcorn clouds and below a lemon-drop sun. I follow the engineered streets that make up the sloping city and seek refuge along the harbour front.
At the Quay, I find my place in the sun. I settle on a railing and spread my iridescent, blue wings. This is happiness, the lightness of living – until a lunch bucket tug, like the one I work on, passes. My wings fall off. And, I’m on the tug going no where.
Bang Bang Bang.
“Wake up!” My stepmother is hammering on the wall with her cane. ”Get your arse out of bed!”
My eyes open. With a hoarse voice I yell, “You keep doing that and a pile of junk is going to crush you!”
“Coffee!” she screeches.
“You can’t have coffee! You’re getting your blood work done, remember?” I lean over and turn off my phone.
“I want a coffee!”
I kick off the blanket, uncovering a middle-aged body in blue striped boxers. The wiry hairs on my chest rise with the slope of my beer belly. I test the elastic of my shorts by taking a good, long scratch. With effort, I get up and pull on a pair of grey socks. My clothes are heaped on decaying, cardboard boxes. Where does the old lady find this crap?
My door is ajar. A baby buggy, missing one wheel, is filled with local newspapers and a pair of red shoes. They’re not even my size. I grunt to get around it.
“Are you dressed?” I ask, through her door. Chimp, her psychotic chihuahua goes berserk.
“Course I am.” The door can’t fully open and she has to slide out. She slept in her clothes. Her beastie dog is in her arms.
“The handy bus will be here to pick you up. I’ve got to get to work.”
“Why can’t you come to the hospital with me?”
“I’m helping Janson bang out his rudder blade. Then I have an AA meeting.”
“Bah, AA. I could have another heart attack.”
“A heart attack,” I reply sharply. “What are you on about? You were out and about last night.”
I point to the baby buggy.
“What? It can be fixed.”
“Nothing in this home is going to get fixed.”
I dodge the rubbish, Chimp and the witch. Time to escape.
It’s a thirty-minute walk to Janson’s tug. The early morning air is ripe with mud and dead fish. I board to the schlup schlup of the tires on the gunwale bouncing off the dock. Janson hands me a coffee and disappears. The rattle and squeal of a train running parallel to the waterfront makes the hairs on my neck go up. That sound. It makes me feel nauseous. I feel myself panicking, breaking into a sweat.
“You’ll see better with these.” Janson has appeared at my side. He hands me a pair of binoculars. “I saw some weird bird this morning.”
I put my coffee on the capstan and accept the glasses with shaking hands. I avoid the train and adjust the lens to follow the outline of a maroon building.
A man zips into view. A blonde, husky man. He’s carrying a bag. I know that guy from AA. I look again and confirm my sighting. Robert. Pretty sure he’s gay. Clean for twelve years.
I want to know where he’s going. Is he meeting someone? Robert nips into the Old Crow, a coffeehouse, and out of my sphere.
I’ve let the old witch’s messages ring through to voice mail.
“I’m home. They took five vials of blood and couldn’t stop the bleeding because of the blood thinners. Since you aren’t here, I’ll have to go get milk.”
We have milk. I bought milk yesterday. I refuse to listen to the rest, and put my phone away.
“Thanks for helping me out,” says Janson.
“No worries.” I wash my hands.
“I’d offer to take you for a lunch and drink . . .” he says.
“Thanks anyway. I’ve got to get to my meeting. Can you give me a lift to the train station?”
“Janet’s got the car.”
Robert’s still on my mind. “Can you float me across the river?”
I’m standing in front of the café. Black cage bars protrude from the door well. They stop drunks from sleeping on the doorstep at night. I was one of those people. I bow my head. It takes courage to grab the handle. A wave of warm air and fresh coffee greets me. In two steps, I’m in a foreign land. Bright, clean, uncluttered. A group of young people watching something on a handheld screen burst into laughter. An old-timer is filling in a crossword. I smile and feel at ease.
“Daniel? Is that you?”
I swivel and am speechless. Heat rises in my cheeks.
“Rob. Robert,” I choke. He’s still here.
“I’m looking forward to giving you your first year pin of sobriety.”
“Thanks,” I mumble. I want to say, ‘You made me cross the river’.
He says, “I’ve been on my computer. And, just met a guy.”
Shit. I step back.
“Not really my type, if you know what I mean.” He smiles and winks at me.
Is he flirting? I’ve never been sober enough to have a conversation with a someone I’m attracted to. I step back farther.
“Wait! We need to celebrate.”
I’ve got to leave.
“Daniel?” He says, grabbing my hand. “I’m buying you a coffee.”
Robert knows my drunk story, but asks to hear it again. He’s patient and waits.
“I was an engineer with a bottle by my side…”
“What got you stop drinking?”
“An accident. I missed the signal lights and took the train down the wrong tracks. Hit some box cars. No one hurt, thank goodness.”
Robert nods. He sips his coffee and keeps his grey eyes on me.
“What are you doing now?” he asks.
I’m not going to tell this beautiful man I live with my stepmother because I’m afraid to move out on my own.
The questions stop. My phone is ringing.
“Hello? Yes, this is Daniel. She’s in emergency?”
“I’m so sorry,” Robert whispers.
He gets me to the hospital. He navigates me to a bedside so I can say goodbye to a body.
My stepmother looks deflated. Her skin droops from her face, wisps of grey hair are stuck in her eyelashes. Her nails are thick and dirty from collecting junk.
I find myself weeping. The witch is dead.
“I’ve called your friend, Janson. He’ll pick up the dog.”
I’ve crossed the bridge. I’m not going back.