LETTER FOUR

EVERY WORD IS A GAMBLE

"Sometimes the fates roll the die in your favour. Sometimes they don’t. Other times… fuck do I know." Thus spake an old man, in an altered frame of mind, distributing wisdom to the youth.
 

Henry,

I don’t know New York.  But from what I’ve heard, life can be a lot brighter in California.  I guess what I’m trying to say is, Hell, great to hear you’ve found a place!!!

Here things aren’t so bad.  Let me tell you about something that happened to me a couple weeks ago.  It happened on the day in the calendar that Rumi was born, which isn’t important, except that I think it could help me remember the date: September 30.

When I took a seat in Hart House reading room, which is a Hogwarts-style room with a bunch of chairs and tables for studying, I sat down within viewing distance of the pool table.  I wasn’t expecting to play pool, but the couch placed in front of it was one of the only seats available.  I definitely wasn’t expecting to play pool with Cassie.  I didn’t know Cassie, but I’d seen her before, mostly around the reading room, which is small, and attracts its own group of regulars.  She stood out.  She was wearing a very dramatic hat seemed displaced, like some lost girl looking for Kansas, not quite realizing that home had gone the way of the rotary dial telephone and the Packard convertible.  On two so different wavelengths, I couldn’t conceive that our paths would ever come into contact.  Conceive again, hombre.

I was thumbing some pages on the couch when Cassie, in a round hat with a wide stiff brim, a hat with the dimensions of a panama hat and the sturdiness of a bowler hat, approached the pool table, and leaned over it with a smile.  The following conversation I pieced together from what I could hear.

“Wondering, could I join you two on the next game?”

The players exchanged a glance.  They were a couple, and they weren’t keeping track of the score.  As happens, the green baize playing surface had become a stage for desire to act out its fantasies in a subtle interplay––fingers slowly running across fuzzy wool cloth, eyes softly making contact along the sightline of a pool cue, bodies bending and straining, contorting themselves according to the dictates of the table.  It was a good show.  That is, until Cassie broke the fourth wall.

The couple looked at each other, maybe trading thoughts on the potential outcome via some kind of sex-charged telepathy.  Who knows what they were sharing, but from my vantage point, it wasn’t wow, what a great idea!

Some words were mumbled back and forth while I deliberated my options, glancing occasionally at my book.  I’d come here to read.  However, whatever I might have preferred, my choice was this: to sit, or not to sit; to enjoy my solitude, or to intervene in the course of events unfolding in front of me.

I packed my bag, and set a course for the exit, making sure to pass by the girl in the hat, who had by then returned to her seat.

“Sorry,” I stopped beside her.  She looked up at me.  “I’m not exactly sure what you said to that couple, but if you need an opponent, I’m here.”

I don’t remember if she said anything other than: Yes, sure.  It makes sense, but her face lit up in a smile, which is not the worst thing ever.  Being careful, I told her I was going out for a smoke, giving her the chance to slip away if she was disappointed.  When I got back, she was still there.

After the couple packed up, Cassie chalked up and broke.  It was a bad shot.  The triangle burst like a crumbling ice floe, and then just halted.  At least it was better than my first shot, which took flight.  Who knows how far it might have travelled if it hadn’t hit the wall.

We played two games.  Cassie won both, although, for the record, I had a dashing jump shot.  We didn’t speak much.  I asked her where she usually played.  “I don’t remember the name… Dock Ellis, I think, on Dundas.” It sounded fake.  But later, I looked it up.  It’s real.

I have a policy against going around buying random people drinks.  Still, I had just lost, twice, and it’s an ancient custom that the loser always pays for drinks.  So I asked her if she wanted to grab one. She said yes.

“What are you having?” I had to yell this across the room.  It was cafeteria style, she was lining up at the cash register with her salad while I sat at the bar.  She glanced in several different, hard-to-predict directions in quick succession before she answered.

“Whiskey.”

“On ice?”

“No––straight up.”

Every decision Cassie made felt last-minute.

I got her a Jameson, in a lowball.  For myself, a 50. Damned if I’m drinking whiskey just because she was.

I felt a little silly before she sat down.  It’s easy to make a fool of yourself through your wallet, especially when you don’t got much to spend.  But I couldn’t ask for her money.  So I settled for a compromise.

“I’ll get this round, and if you ever see me again, you get the next round?” As if I were in a position to bargain.  But she agreed.

We settled in.  Our conversation began in earnest.

“That was fun,” sipping her drink.  “Maybe I’ll book the table next Monday at 4.  Come in, early morning, make sure to get it.  Make it like a weekly thing.”

I made the Christopher Walken face, like I’m balancing the moral expense.

There’s nothing more natural than two young people talking about what they want.  That said, other than our schooling, which both involve a liberal arts program, we were very different people.  She was impeccably dressed, ambitious.  She was in Women’s Studies, wants to attend London School of Economics, which I suspect seems pretty legit.  Down the road, she wants to work for the UN.  In the face of this, I exaggerated my career ambitions, highlighting, as we all do, what I believed to be my more attractive features: I said being a translator would be my ideal profession.

We talked about school.  I told her about how I'm almost finished school.  Cassie was just starting.  At some point during the pool game, I’d pegged her for some shy Rosedale Arts School graduate: she had seriously good taste, hence arts school, and from her audacity in asking to join the couple’s game, she seemed protected (don’t question my logic!), which led me to think Rosedale.  Also, she did not fit in with her surroundings at U of T, which I took to mean that she was a first year student.  This last prediction was the only prediction I got right.  She was older than she looked: she’d been out of school for ten years after dropping out of highschool at the age of fifteen, which I wasn’t expecting.  I, on the other hand, had feebly and tenaciously never dropped out.  And not tenacious in an admirable way, more like tenacious in a pitbull reflexive sort of way, where once you chomp down, you don’t let go.

I never asked which high school.  She never told me her exact age, and I never asked.  I started to think I’d pegged her wrong.  Maybe she hadn’t grown up on Easy Street.  Hard to say.  Just when you think you’ve got someone all figured out…

She went on a book tour through the desert with the writer of a book about searching for a dog in a series of photographs.   She showed me some pictures.  They did the whole VW thing, camping, whatever.  She liked Cab Calloway, wanted to swing dance.  All this sort of fit in with her Golden Era Hollywood actress meets blue jean rocker chick vibe.

We talked for an hour or so, the clock ticking closer to six.  At ten to, she got up.

“I still owe you a round.”

She paused.  I decided to make things easier, in a way that made things harder.

“If you’re serious about booking the pool table for 4pm come Monday, I can make an effort to show up.” I know this sounds noncommittal, but that’s just what I said.

“Okay.” She smiles as I sit at the bar.  “You know, you’re my first friend here.”

“Same to you.” This was honest.  I’d never taken classes at this campus before.

That was a week two days ago, and I still haven’t seen her.  It’s hard to say if I flopped on her, or she flopped on me.  I stopped by the pool table two hours before our appointment.  I had a bad feeling.  Something in the atmosphere felt wrong.  I went up to the help desk in charge of the pool tables and asked if anybody by the name of Cassie booked a table for 4pm. Nope.  It was booked by a group from 2 to 6pm.

Bad sign.  Two hours before an appointment, no confirmation and the table wasn’t booked…  I didn’t think she was going to show, and I wasn’t gonna stick around to find out.  So I didn’t.  

I’ve stopped hanging around Hart House.  The world’s too big for me to spend all my time there.  Plus I would guess Cassie stopped going there as well.  If she flopped on me, there’s no way for her to know that I also flopped on her, meaning that she wouldn’t know that we’re square.  So, she may have changed her study routines to avoid any awkward encounters with me.  Factor in my untraceable habits, and the odds of passing by Cassie, even walking between classes, are very slim.

Then again, you never know.  We get further and further from where we came from every day, yet we still run into people we know every once in awhile.  You could call it the Mecca theory: There are some destinations that people go to en masse at least once in a lifetime.  Times Square is one of those places.  What Canadian tourist in New York doesn’t go to Times Square? Funny thing is, if I wanted to run into Cassie again, I could probably just bum around there for a decade or two.  She’d have to walk by eventually.  Whereas stand at some street corner only a mile or two away, perhaps near, I don’t know, Harlem River, and the odds of running into a Canadian you knew from your past shrinks considerably.

What do you think about this, Henry?

I guess it’s easy to rationalize coincidences.  Really though, sometimes you have to wonder.  I mean, if there is anybody in charge of this carnival, I doubt he gives a damn about us one way or another.  But there are some accidents so bizarre they make you paranoid the owner’s been calling the shots even before you walked under the flashing marquee lights above the entrance.

In good faith,

Sal