When we first started dating, the ten-year age difference was really difficult for Dev, as was the fact that I was married. “Hey, don’t mention your in-laws around Maria, okay?” Dev made me promise the week before she arrived from New York for a conference. He wanted to ask her to collaborate on a project and didn’t want her thinking he was “a shitty guy.”
There were a series of rules I had to remember so that people wouldn’t think Dev was a bad person: we couldn’t hold hands in public, I couldn’t tell anyone I’d moved to the city to be with him, even though it was more or less true, I was to keep a distance at events while he interacted with the older women who constituted his fan base and I had to start dressing older in the off chance someone did see us together. If I complained about any of this, Dev would recite the litany of favours he’d performed for me: he’d let me live with him when I arrived in Toronto, he helped me get a sublet from a former professor, he picked out new outfits for me to replace the “ugly clothing” I’d brought with me when I left my husband.
I was wearing one of my ugly outfits—track pants, combat boots and a teal blue sweatshirt that got caught in my zipper of my winter coat—when I fell on the steps of the professor’s house, losing my footing on the eroded wood. I waved off the mailman when he rushed to my aid and continued walking until the pain became unbearable and it was too late to turn back. Dev was at the US Embassy sit-in, and when I called him, he misheard what I said.
“I’m going to pass out,” I told him.
“You passed out?” he responded. “Monster!”
This was his nickname for me, which I had to explain to friends wasn’t meant in a negative way but referred to the fact I experienced emotions in an intense manner. “Make sure they understand,” his voice echoed in my mind after he hung up. “It’s a compliment.”
I walked down Roncesvalles Avenue, which at ten o’clock on a Tuesday was filled with white women in yoga pants pushing baby strollers and elderly Polish men shuffling one leg forward at a time. I walked another few blocks to the closest clinic that appeared on Google Maps, holding my wrist with my left hand, but when I tugged at the glass doors, I realized the clinic was closed. I sat on the edge of a planter and called Dev, who picked up after the fifth ring.
“Hold on,” he said. I heard him leaving the crowd and walking somewhere quieter. By this point I was crying. Dev didn’t think my wrist was broken but would postpone his workday to meet me at the hospital.
“It’s probably just sprained,” he said. “But you should go if it will make you feel better.”
On the way to the hospital, I imagined the projects that wouldn’t be conceived if Dev didn’t work that day. He was working on a piece where he commissioned a harpist to play lullabies on the shore of Lake Ontario. The harpist would face America and the piece would be called “Lullabies for a Restless Nation.” Another piece featured actors Dev found on Craigslist running into Lake Ontario and attacking the waves.
Once I went with him to buy spools of red string and photographed him throwing the string into Lake Ontario to represent the US border. Still another project would simply consist of a livestream of the lake, pending $200,000 in Canada Council funding that he was cautiously optimistic he’d receive and evasive when he didn’t. I felt honoured whenever Dev described one of his proposed projects to me, sucking his lips together as if parsing whether I could be trusted. He hadn’t yet divulged the project he was pitching to Maria.
When I arrived at the hospital, I explained to the triage nurse that I had fallen down the stairs of my sublet. “The outside steps I mean,” I said. “I don’t think it’s broken.”
She was unaffected by my assessment and told me to take a seat. By the time I was called to a waiting room, my hand had swollen, and was beginning to bruise. The cold had numbed me from the pain, and inside the hospital, a dull throbbing was deepening in my wrist. I couldn’t move my hand independently, and to unzip my jacket I had to use the other hand to hold the fabric as I shrugged my shoulders to maneuver my arm from the sleeve. Over the next hour, I waited as patients were ushered in for x-rays and examinations and with each name that was called, it became increasingly clear that I was the lowest priority in the triage. I began to believe it was as Dev had said: I was just being dramatic.
“White fragility!” Dev announced when he appeared in the doorway of the waiting room, cleaning the vinyl seat with a wet wipe from his pocket.
“I’m sorry you had to leave the protest because of me,” I said when he finally sat down.
“It’s okay,” he said, eying my outfit. “You’re lucky I’m such a nice guy.”
Dev told me he’d seen my landlady at the embassy, and he made me promise not to tell her it was the stairs of her home I had fallen on.
“She’ll feel really bad,” he explained. I watched as he took a rolled up New Yorker from the inside pocket of his jacket and settled into Talk of the Town.
A few minutes later the nurse called my name. The girl was my age, wearing blue jeans, and asked if I was pregnant, an impossible scenario given Dev’s fastidiousness. She then placed a heavy blanket over my torso and arranged my wrist for the X-ray because it was too painful for me to do so on my own. I expected she would take a single image to humour me, but instead she consulted with a colleague and repositioned my wrist.
“Is it painful?” she asked, turning my hand at an angle it had never previously adopted.
My eyes filled with tears, but I shook my head, and when she was done, I was ushered to yet another waiting room, this time separated from Dev. I wondered whether he had cancelled his studio time or still considered the afternoon salvageable for his work documenting Lake Ontario.
“Well, it’s fractured,” the doctor announced. I cried in a mix of self-pity and triumph and was ushered to yet another room, where a nurse applied strips of plaster from my hand to my elbow. As she molded the plaster to the area around my thumb, I asked if there was a difference between a fracture and a break.
“Is a fracture less severe?”
“There’s no difference,” she said. “They’re the same thing.”
When I emerged from the nursing station, Dev’s face adopted a quizzical expression. It had simply not occurred to him that the source of my pain was anywhere but in my own head.
I waited as he sent a series of frantic text messages before walking me to Café Chopin. “This is your most monster move yet,” Dev declared, taking a long sip of Żywiec. I didn’t know if he was referring to me breaking my wrist, forcing him to leave the protest, or all of it.
After finishing our beers, I stood at the streetcar stop, holding my broken wrist with my other hand, and asked if he wanted to come over.
“The conference is next week,” he said. “I need to make up for all the work you made me miss.”
I nodded, because everything Dev told me sounded reasonable, or at least less unreasonable than my own requests and feelings, which were always too much. Back at the sublet, I found my landlady in the kitchen, scrubbing the pots I had blackened in her absence. She told me the last subletter had also broken her wrist while living at the house, and I felt betrayed she had not offered this information earlier, as if prior knowledge might have prevented the accident from occurring. Heeding Dev’s advice, I gave vague answers as to how I’d injured myself and she raised her eyebrow when I explained I had “just fallen on the street.”
The next week, my plaster cast was replaced with sleek, black fiberglass and donning this new armour, I met Dev on campus before his talk. “You’re always so sweaty,” he said, patting my back as I explained the streetcar had been late.
“Is Maria here?” I asked him.
“Not yet,” he told me. “She has a meeting.”
We headed inside the room, where the participants from the previous session were still clearing out. As more and more people left, it was evident that only a few grad students were sticking around for Dev’s talk. I sat in the front row and took pictures of his performance, which I diligently posted on social media.
“Good job,” I mouthed when he finished.
While the next panelist presented her work, I thought back to the art residency where Dev and I had met six months earlier. It was here that he had first looked to me in the audience for approval. He’d once joked that he could tell how he had done based on my facial expression and whether I had a look of pride or seemed distracted. At the residency, we had slept together for the first time the afternoon before his performance, and so I was beaming.
After the panel, I waited as Dev chatted with the few attendees. I clicked on Dev’s tagged Instagram photos and next to the selfies we’d taken, which made my mother query why he was always “lurking behind me in pictures,” there were new pictures of Dev with a group of people I did not recognize. I felt a surge of jealousy as I clicked through the group pictures taken the night before at the conference hotel. I zoomed in and found Maria present in the corner of each frame. As we walked from campus to the hotel, I tried to catch my breath.
“I feel hurt I wasn’t invited last night,” I said.
“It was just a networking thing.”
“I didn’t know you cared so much about networking.”
“You’re being unreasonable,” he said. “It was for work.”
“Okay, but don’t you see how it makes me feel left out?”
“All I want is my world to be bigger and gentler,” he said, pounding the middle of his chest where he often told me I’d damaged his heart. “Why are you trying to make my world smaller and harder? Why are you trying to limit my happiness? This is worse than when you ruined my book launch, and that was probably the last conceptual poetry launch I’ll ever have.”
It was time for Dev to recite the list of things I had done wrong, which always culminated in getting too drunk at his book launch and accusing him of fucking his publicist.
“Why did you pick my life to ruin?” Dev said. “You’re the meanest girl I’ve ever met. Were you this mean to your husband? You want to know why you weren’t invited? Because spending time with you stresses me out. That’s why you weren’t invited.”
We walked the rest of the way to the conference hotel in silence.
“I’m having a cigarette,” Dev said.
I went inside and stood in line for a drink. After I got my beer, I spotted Dev talking to Maria, much taller than the Instagram pictures showed. I watched and he lined up behind her at the trays of miniature sandwiches. He then followed her to a table of presenters, standing on the outskirts of the group, and then to the bar. The two of them were physically so different it looked like a reverse cat and mouse game she hadn’t consented to.
“Are you in lot of pain?” a man in a suit asked me. It took me a few seconds to realize he was talking about my wrist.
“The alcohol helps,” I said.
“How did you break it?”
“I fell down some stairs.”
“I hope that’s not a euphemism for anything.”
“No, I’m just really clumsy.” I said. “It was stupid.”
“I don’t think it’s stupid,” he said. “It sounds really scary, and I’m sorry it happened.”
I was taken back by his directness and thanked him for his concern. The man went on to ask me the circumstances surrounding my fall. When I told him it was the front steps of a house I was subletting, and that the wood was worn away, he suggested that I seek legal counsel. The man was an architect. There were building codes, especially surrounding private rentals, he told me. He encouraged me to call the city inspector and said I could do so anonymously if I was truly uncomfortable with seeking recompense. The inspector would come to investigate, see that the steps were unsafe, and sue the owner not on my behalf, but on behalf of the public. I told him about the mailman who had rushed to my side and could act as a witness.
“You don’t need a witness,” he told me. “It’s a public safety issue. Your word is enough.”
The man’s desire for justice was moving. I felt a lump in my throat as he wrote down a URL I knew I would never visit. It was enough to know my pain was real, that someone else had noticed it. When he finally left my side, he wished me good luck, and patted the top of my cast.
I walked along the periphery of the room, scanning the vicinity of the bar for Dev. My heart swelled with pity as I found waiting outside the women’s washroom, checking his watch, standing guard for his absent collaborator. I caught his eye, and it was guilt that made him leave his post and return to me. We drank another beer, and then headed outside for a cigarette, but were stopped in the lobby by a woman pushing a man’s hand away from her.
“Can you help me?” she asked.
“Of course,” I replied, eager to help a woman leave a bad situation. I left Dev with the man and walked the woman to the elevator.
“Are you okay?” I asked. “Do you need me to call someone?”
“Oh, I’m fine,” the woman said. “My husband and kids are asleep in another hotel, and I can’t be seen going into the elevator with him.”
“Everyone here knows us,” she said. “We meet every year, but if anyone found out about this our careers would be over. Can you wait about five minutes and then send him up?”
I returned to Dev, who was now smoking outside with the man. As they laughed together, I focused on swallowing a Tylenol for my throbbing wrist. They finished the cigarette and the man headed inside, saying goodnight with a wink.
“I feel used,” I told Dev when we were alone. “It seemed like she was in trouble, but she just wanted us to help her lie about her affair.”
“That’s strange,” Dev said.
“Did you think that too?” I asked.
“That she was in trouble?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “The guy, though, he’s a curator for a pretty important gallery. He said I should send him some work. This could be really big for me.”
I had wondered what men spoke about while women walked each other to elevators, whispered names, or watched each other’s drinks, and now I had an idea. We returned to the bar, where we Maria seated alone, conversations teeming around her. She yawned, and excused herself, citing an early morning. When she left, Dev stood sadly, playing with his pinky ring. His expectations for the night evidently had not been met.
“You didn’t want to talk to anyone else?” I said. “You’re all done networking?”
“I’m just tired.”
“Your friend seemed nice,” I said. “What did she say about the project?”
“I didn’t get a chance to ask her yet,” he said. “She’s been really busy.”
“Maybe tomorrow,” I offered.
On the way to the subway, Dev sucked on his lips and told me he wanted to commission Maria to create a perfume inspired by her childhood experiences of Lake Ontario. “The perfume would be the poem,” he said. “The project posits that the purest form of poetry is a smell. Do you think she’ll be interested?”
Before I could respond, the train pulled into the station, filling the platform with a loud screeching. The sound was so brutal and unrestrained I thought for a moment something violent had occurred.