The Notion of Water
He spent his nights by the water. The full moon reflected on the water captured his attention. His memory came back in flashes. Staring at the bright moon, his eyes went blurry and he saw images playing across its surface. Joseph woke up knowing more than he knew.
It was fall and the wind rattled dead leaves across the sidewalk. When dawn came, a few joggers ran past. Still looking out over the water, he had barely noticed the night fade and the day start. He knew he could stop searching: that Joe was gone forever.
Joseph’s son went missing ten years ago.
He slept poorly and would go for walks, half asleep, searching. He traveled down dark corridors of the city, unthinking, pulling one heavy foot in front of the other: a march of futility. At night, the city was a dystopia of deserted streets and on manic nights of fruitless searching, he found himself sleeping in bouts on benches or huddled in doorways of closed shops. He often ended up on the lakeshore.
Crouching down at the edge, he would run his hand through the water and feel its cool resistance. Joe’s disappearance had trapped his father in a thick haze of depression. He was ashamed to admit to the police that he couldn’t remember the last time he saw his son. When he woke up in the hospital, Joseph was disoriented and eventually asked to see his son. Joe didn’t visit. He was missing.
Hospitalized for a short while for what doctor’s assumed was a concussion, Joseph’s memory of the last 24 hours had completely dissolved. His head was bandaged. Looking out the window from his bed, he could see only the blue sky - no clouds or buildings - and it seemed as though the sky was artificial. He was in a room high up in the Toronto Western Hospital.
Joe and Joseph had met for the first time about a month ago. Joseph wasn’t there when he was born, when Joe’s mother named him after his father. The pair was reunited after Joe had found his father’s information and reached out. In person, Joe was hard and hesitant to embrace. Conversation was awkward. He was passionate about his partner and had spoken about her with conviction and jealously. Joseph saw himself in his son.
He lay in the hospital bed and let his vision blur as he watched people whizz by. Like a passenger on a train, he saw doctors, nurses, janitors and families flash passed his open door: a landscape strewn with sickly pastels and dotted with metal instruments. An overwhelming nothingness swirled in his mind and he couldn’t grasp what had happened: I know I must have left my house to meet my son and his girlfriend for dinner and I then was admitted after midnight.
When he was in his 30s, Joseph had written romance novels. He had been a longstanding bachelor with a penchant for being alone. He lived within his books and savoured his own fictitious words as reality. A decade later, he would see his soft cover books sitting on thrift store shelves, bought and then returned, tattered, yellow and smelling like secondhand smoke. He took pleasure in knowing the pages had been leafed through with a soft touch and that his words had been devoured. I have to piece together what is fiction and what is reality, thought Joseph.
His tough hands relaxed and spread over the sheets, smoothing them over his propped knees. All night his mind had buzzed with white noise and blurry shadows. The hospital was quiet and Joseph dozed in and out of sleep, dreaming of the past.
Joseph’s memories surfaced only when he was unthinking. They crept into his peripheral vision and would scatter when he tried to put them into focus. After his first night in the hospital, he awoke with no more memories than when he had been admitted. He walked over to the window in his room. He looked down to Dundas Street and saw ghost-like joggers dart through slow-moving pedestrians. For a while he watched a crowd of individuals waiting impatiently for a bus and when the bus arrived, he turned away from the window and returned to his bed. Under buzzing lights, Joseph sank into his too-soft bed.
A few hours later, Joseph woke up and scooted to the end of his bed where the doctor had hung his chart. In chicken scratch, the doctor has noted that his memory loss was psychological and after a dash, Joseph could make out the letters PTSD, followed by a question mark. The white walls felt as if they were closing in around him and he cowered from the burden of lost memories. Where is my son? he wondered in anguish. His mind raced to fill the gaps with false memories from torn-out pages of manuscripts never published. More than once during his time in this hospital, he experienced visions of jewels and water and moonlight. With a dull ache and a fuzzy brain, Joseph began to try to convince himself he had simply drank too much, blacked out and maybe hit his head. He slept often and deeply, erupting into wakefulness grasping at fleeting thoughts.
Joseph could clearly remember everything before the night of his hospital admittance, before his son went missing. Staring out the window from his bed, Joseph sank his eyes into the blue sky and reminisced how he met Celine. When he was still writing, Joseph wrote every day. He’d wake up midmorning, and walk down to Cherry Street, where he stationed himself in the back table of a cafe and wrote stories between sips of hot lemon water. It would be dark outside by the time he raised his head. In the summer, the open door would let in an evening breeze and the sound of moored boats bobbing in the water with ropes and pullies clanging against the mast. Cars stopped driving by and the street would quiet. The changing sounds signalled it was time to stop writing for the day. When it was busy in the cafe, he would type furiously, but when it got quiet in the late afternoon, it was too quiet for him to concentrate. One day, when he was packing up to leave, the barista approached him. Leaning on a broom while she talked, she asked Joseph if he’d like his fortune read. “I just started reading fortunes and well….would you like me to read yours?” Joseph closed his laptop and shook his head. “Free of charge. I need the practice” she said, touching his arm tenderly to garner his attention. He looked up, looked outside, looked at the time and thought what the heck. He did believe in romance, after all, and this could be inspirational. Joseph was not ready for what she was about to tell him.
Looking back on that day from his hospital bed, Joseph tried to piece together what she had said: Beware of the woman who looks like me and beware of moonlight on firey nights.
He woke soaked in the sweat of a nightmare with a guilt he couldn’t justify. Later, a nurse came in to change the bed, and Joseph watched the white sheet inflate with air. He sat in the visitor chair that had remained empty, exhaling as he watched the sheet fall back to the bed. The nurse leaned forward and tucked in the sheets. She made the bed with the same disengaged habitude as a chain smoker lighting the next cigarette. She left without a word and Joseph crawled back into bed, letting the tight sheets depress him into stillness.
Still in the hospital and still trying to solve the puzzle of how his son had disappeared without a trace, along with his memory of the 24 hour block when he last saw his son, Joseph tried to navigate through what he knew of his son. Awake with closed eyes, concentrating, Joseph sorted through crumbs of images, emotions, streets and stories. He dragged his conscious deeper like an undertow, drowning in fragmented memories and frustration. Then he opened his eyes and stared at something he had been looking at for days but that hadn’t registered until that moment. Hanging on the back of the hospital room door was a navy coat. It was the coat he was wearing when he was admitted and it wasn’t his.
He scooted off the bed and shuffled across the room. He grabbed at the coat as if it was made of tangible memories that held the secret to his son’s whereabouts. Checking the pockets, he felt a letter and pulled it out, then shuffled back to his bed to get comfortable before looking at it closer. The envelope was addressed to his son. It was a letter he had sent. This was his son’s coat.
They had both been living in Toronto for decades, not knowing the other was so close, both wandering fatherless/childless for years. Half a year ago, not knowing his dad’s address, Joe Junior had sent his father a letter via a publishing company. They had sent a few letters back and forth before deciding to meet. The letter in Joseph’s hand was the last letter he had written his son. It hadn’t been opened.
It was the third day Joseph had woken in his hospital room. Bathed in morning twilight that pushed across his room in a thick cobalt dust, he grew restless and tried to remember as far back as he could to the night he was admitted.
Cold steam had wafted off his shoulders when he entered the hospital that night. He had arrived wet, too frantic to realize it hadn’t been raining. The triage nurse, while he spoke to her, and while she looked at him and nodded, leaned against the phone on her shoulder and asked someone on the other line to bring a blanket to reception. At first, he resisted, saying over and over that he just needed a map - that he was lost and needed to get back to his son. His urgency was untethered. The weight of his wet clothes kept his wailing insides from flinging his extremities. His arms were tired, as if he had been treading water for hours. He wanted to go back out, but eventually he collapsed into obedience. He was admitted and followed behind a nurse while she walked ahead, her shoes squeaking as his shoes made wet squishing sounds. They had ridden the elevator in silence as his clothing dripped. In his room, she had held open a clear garbage bag he understood to be for his clothes and he undressed, half mad with worry, half asleep and already forgetting what had happened. She left him and closed the door, leaving it ajar.
When a second nurse entered, he was sitting on the edge of his bed in a hospital gown, looking out into the first blush of morning. The nurse asked him some questions he couldn’t answer, and soon she had left too. He watched the brick buildings below absorb the first light and kept staring as a curtain of blue fell across the sky. It was once she had walked out and he heard the click of the door, that it had steeped in he could’t remember what had happened. It took a few more hours after that to realize his son was missing. His fully grown, adult son was missing and no one knew anything. He fell into the peaceful sleep of a man dying from the cold and had geometric dreams of ruby shards in pools of turquoise. But the vision hadn’t taken form and dissipated when he woke.
Sitting in his narrow hospital bed, covered with tight, white starched sheets, Joseph navigated through his recent memories, but could not fill the gap between when he had agreed to meet Joseph and arriving at the hospital.
Was his son out there, also swimming in shattered memories? Was he avoiding his newfound dad - and if so, why?- or was he in danger? What had become of the man Joseph had only just met?
The wind outside was still and he could hear horns five stories down, on Dundas Street. It was his fourth and final day at Toronto Western. Joseph had been treated for hypothermia and the doctors had run a slew of tests to ensure his acute amnesia wasn’t indicative of a serious brain injury. It was time to go home. The doctor who had been visiting him daily answered with a smile and a shrug when Joseph asked if his memory would come back. If he could remember that night, he would be able to find his son.
It was his son’s coat that he was wearing when admitted. It now hung heavily on the back of the door, crusted with salt stains at the wrists and smelling of wet wool. Joseph took a deep breath and got out of bed, stretched, and moved to where his clothes had been folded and placed on a chair. He dressed, and put the coat on. Its weight pushed down on his shoulders. Slightly hunched over, not ready to leave the hospital, Joseph made his way to the elevator.
On the ground floor, he checked in with the triage nurse who had admitted him. She was busy on the phone and pointed him towards an information booth. He had lost his keys and wallet at some point during the night in question. The woman behind the desk put a phonebook on the desk with a thud. He fingered through the F’s and shivered when he saw his son’s name was there. He dialled the number and readied himself, clearing his throat. The number you have reached is not in service. If you need assistance, dial the operator. This is a recording. He hung up and didn’t try again. Next, he called his bank to report his cards missing.
As he pushed the heavy revolving doors, that guilty feeling returned: it was almost as if he expected to be stopped, questioned again about the whereabouts of his son, Joe Junior Fink. It felt a little as if he was slipping out, escaping responsibility. The feeling was fleeting as he fell forward and was spat out into the steel blue city. Outside, the stale hospital air clung to him and so he walked south, down Bathurst, towards the water and against the wind.
Bright white sunlight refracted off the water and into his eyes. The dark emerald surface seemed to breathe like a serpent writhing in its skin. It was windy by the water and he clutched the top of his coat, bringing it closer and snuggling his neck into its warmth. He dipped his face into the collar and took a whiff, searching for the smell of his son. He only smelled the fishiness of Lake Ontario. Disheartened, Joseph chose a tree and sank down into it, his back nestled against hard grooves of bark.
Her delicate skin is pimpled by the softest breeze. She shrugs into her shawl and he feels the warmth of her smile against his shoulder, where she leans. They look out, towards the lake and her hair whips around in the wind. There is only the sound of the water lapping against itself. A figure rushes towards them holding the hand of a woman who looks just like his lover.
Joseph woke from his dream of Celine at dusk. The sun was setting behind him, behind the buildings. The lake and sky ahead had merged into one blue-grey wall. A ferry blew its horn. The pitter of drops fell through the leaves. Outside the tree’s round shadow of dry grass, the rain fell on joggers’ neon jackets and soaked into the coats of happy dogs. He was a shadow unnoticed by those who passed. He looked again at the unopened letter, but didn’t open it. He was cold and hungry and groaned as he stood up to continue on his way home. He knew the house would be empty when he got there; No one was waiting for him.
The rain battered his face and washed away the acrid hospital smell. He walked in a daze as the weather turned wild and rain stung his eyes. The oncoming traffic created flashes of light across his face. His exhaustion made him look like drunken man in a sapphire coat, stumbling and fluttering about in the wind. Tonight, Toronto felt like a maze. He navigated his way through dark streets, letting his feet lead left and right, staggering about in gusts of impulse.
The racing cars pulled rainwater off the pavement like velcro. With a limp neck and heavy arms, he lumbered forehead first, his furrowed face pelted with sharp rain. He let the wind push at his back and help him forward. His memories fell around him with the rain. The drops were scattered throughout the sky, unseen until they were illuminated under street lamps and in the beams of headlights for seconds before they landed in pools of new thoughts, forgotten stories and skewed truths. As he stepped off the curb his foot fell into a puddle and for a split second before his foot touched it, he thought he saw his son’s face, looking up at him from under the surface.
It was a long way to his house, and with no keys to get in once he arrived, Joseph walked slowly, lost in thought. The house looked the same despite its recent abandonment. He wasn’t sure how long it had been since he was last home. Without a set of keys, he went down the side walkway to his backyard. On tip toes, he reached the kitchen window and tried to slide it open. The window cracked open, and he lost his balance. His hands were red and cold and his nose dripped after walking all night in the rain.
Joseph managed to prop up an old plastic lawn chair and balanced on it precariously as he jimmied the window open. He hoisted himself up with a grunt and slid into his house, landing on the kitchen counter, belly first. He sank down, planting his feet on the floor and closed the window behind him. The kitchen was tidy and the house was silent. No one was there to greet him. He had lived alone for years, mostly in silence. Nonetheless, it seemed quieter than usual. Like the moment after a rock is thrown in the water, the stillness was different than before. A shiver ran up his arms and he shook it off.
Without taking off his son’s blue coat - still wet and heavy from a soaking of rain- he put on the electric kettle and sat down at his small kitchen table. When the kettle whistled, he was lost in thought. He was trying to map out his last memories of his son before he disappeared. Joe and his girlfriend were going to meet Joseph and his girlfriend. A father/son double date/reunion. Joseph hadn’t been thrilled about sharing his time with son. They barely knew one another and Joseph was eager to catch up. Still, Joe had insisted his dad meet the woman he loved, Stella.
With a gruff harrumph, Joseph stood up and walked out the front door, leaving his tea untouched and his door unlocked. He checked the address on the letter in his pocket and started walking towards his son’s home. It was a letter he had sent his son. A letter his son never had the chance to read. He still didn’t know how he had ended up in the hospital wet and raging and wearing his son’s coat. He was determined to find his son, and figure out what happened on the night he couldn’t remember.
It wasn’t a far walk and Joseph arrived to the house in just over an hour. Standing outside, he stood with his hands on his hips as he took in the front yard. It was messy with weeds, wild grasses and fallen leaves. He pulled out the letter in his pocket and looked again at the address. The envelope was raw and water-damaged, but he could make out the number and street name. His eyes followed the cracked concrete path to the house and he took in a breath as he noticed the door was ajar. Joseph put the unopened letter back in his pocket; This was where his son lived. He approached slowly and stopped halfway, frozen with a sense of familiarity. The wind blew and the screen door banged against its frame, which jolted him from his train of thought. He approached cautiously, and curiosity carried him up the steps and brought him to the door. The smell of old books wafted from inside and welcomed Joseph to approach. He knocked a few times, loudly, and waited politely for one minute before he bent forward, keeping his feet planted, and peered in.
The house had stale air. Nothing lived here. He let himself inside and braced himself, unsure of what he would find. “Hello?”. No answer. He entered cautiously.
The kitchen window let in beams of light that reached into the living room where dust hovered, undisturbed and uncollected. The living room was sparse: A pair of brown slippers at the base of the small desk; scattered paper; and all around the room stacks of romance novels, water damaged with the yellow pages blooming between the covers. The sweet rotting smell of the books hit him before he noticed they were all his own - the books he had written when he didn’t know he was a father. Joseph shivered and made to leave. He saw a cot, collapsed in half and leaning against the wall with a pillow resting on top. The furniture painted the image of a squatter, perhaps a vetran, accustomed to cots and simple living. He could not believe it had been his son’s home, until he was drawn to a painting. Above the cot was a crude watercolour image of the seascape: Small fishing boats bobbing in the wake of a departing cargo ship with no land in sight. The painting was signed J. Fink. Joseph himself had painted it when he was in his twenties, probably around the time he had met Joe Junior’s mother.
Joe was lost in the painting. He stared at it catatonically, arms heavy at his sides, eyes going blurry in thought as he breathed in the image. The screen door crashed into the door frame with a bang. He jumped and looking around. The house was still empty and he felt it futile to stay and dream for his son’s return.
The cigarette butts had blown out of the ashtray and scuttled across the porch. A rusted cigarette case lay beside the ashtray and Joseph sat on the steps as he inspected it. He was hoping for a clue. Inside was one last cigarette and Joseph let it dangle from his lips as he instinctively reached into the navy coat pockets and pulled out a pack of matches. Soggy, he tried a few before one ignited. As the flame burst into existence, it illumined the matchbook, which was from a place called Lola’s Hideout. He lit the cigarette, inhaled and coughed.
Celine always made Joe feel welcome at Lola’s Hideout. He would spend hours there, typing stories onto his laptop, sipping lemon water. One afternoon, she caught his eye as he was staring through her, into space. She came over and sat with him. He closed his laptop and smiled back at her, waiting. They had never spoken too many words but the felt close to her. He gazed into her with a new love as she began telling him about her mother. She had died when Celine and her sister were children. They hadn’t known their father and they found themselves taking care of one another. They were still close, she added, but said nothing more of her sister. She had given him this information freely, and he listened without interrupting, nodding along the way. When she had finished her short story, she stood up and apologized for bothering him.
“Not all all, Celine. I wasn’t writing anything good anyhow”
She smiled and went back to work. After that, they began talking more. It became a routine. After a few hours and many refills of lemon water, Joe would begin to get distracted and would find his mind going blank and his eyes blurry. Celine would recognize his lull and would saunter over and pull out a chair. They would talk briefly, until Celine became embarrassed or awkward, and would apologize before leaving him be. He began waking up eager to go sit at Lola’s Hideout not to write, but to have his brief routine chat with her.
Celine always made Joe feel he was the only one sitting in that quaint waterside cafe. She was by his side when he opened the first letter Joseph had sent, and had read along while Joe discovered he had a grown son he had never met. It was she who encouraged Joe and helped him pen out a response to his son. In forcing him to open his heart to his son, he opened it to her as well. The day he learned he was a father was the same day he fell in love with Celine.
He opened his eyes and found himself standing on the bottom of the lake. Joe could feel the heavy push of a mile of water on his shoulders. A searchlight from the surface stretched through the thick water, illuminating his figure. Extending out from his body, he could see his hands but they were not the hands he knew as his own; they were younger, thicker, stronger - and they were grasping to hold the hands of a woman, who was floating away into the cold, dark water, reaching out to him. He strained to see her face but she flickers in and out of his vision like a star behind clouds. Above the surface, the moon emerged from the clouds. In the little amount of light, Joe squinted through the water and as the woman is nearly completely enveloped in the black water, the moonlight catches and he sees she has an aura of rubies.
Joe woke with a shiver. He was still on his son’s abandoned porch. In his hand, he was clutching the matchbook from Lola’s Hideout. He knew he had to go see Celine. He stood and ran his papery hands over the blue coat, smoothing it, and reading himself for a few hours of walking. He felt the envelope in his pocket, and pulled it out to look at it again. It was from him, to his son. His son had never read it and Joe couldn’t remember what the letter said. He turned and walked back up the steps and into the house. He left the letter on the kitchen table, then said goodbye to the house.
He still had no wallet and had not eaten since being discharged from the hospital the day before. Knowing the folks at Lola’s would give him a some food if he asked motivated him to carry on. He headed west. His bird legs were weightless and he walked like a ghost, floating down quiet side streets hugging the coat close to his body.
He was nearly there when he got dizzy. He stopped in the alcove of an unmarked door, just slightly wider than his shoulders. He paused and looked out to the dimming light. Traffic was picking up and he made a guess it was about 5pm. Parents were going home to their children. Families were together, warm indoors. He let out an exasperated sigh and pulled his eyes upwards, searching for strength. The sun disappeared behind the houses. He forced himself to keep walking.
At the top of a narrow street, Joe surveyed the slippery pavement in the smokey twilight. Flanked by tall buildings, the street sank down, towards Lake Ontario. In a haze of exhaustion, he continued. With his weary palm touching the bricks for support, he shuffled down towards towards Cherry Street. His thoughts had shifted from his son to Celine and he trudged on like a ferry pushing through water. Slowly, he was getting closer.