Anna Leventhal’s acclaimed short story collection Sweet Affliction (Invisible Publishing) won the Quebec Writers’ Federation Concordia University First Book Prize and was named one of the best books of 2014 by the CBC book club. Her writing has appeared in Geist, Matrix, Maisonneuve, The Montreal Review of Books, and several short fiction anthologies. She was nominated for the Journey Prize, won a Quebec Writing Competition award, and was shortlisted for a Canada Writes award. She lives in Montreal.
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"THE SHIRT" [excerpt]
from Sweet Affliction (Invisible Publishing 2014)
I went to the party at Marty’s insistence, and maybe because I had an inkling that something was going to happen, one of those psychic tingles that foreshadows a life-changing event, though generally I’m wrong about these things. When I was fifteen I had a panic attack that lasted three days—at the end of it OJ Simpson was found not guilty. I’ve learned to listen to the feeling in a muted way, like listening to the radio while you’re doing something else, with the back of your brain. You pay attention or you don’t; either way the radio is on.
“We’ll make an appearance,” Marty said, like we were celebrities. Marty wanted a wingman, and I was happy to oblige. The alternative was The Wire and two fingers of scotch. I’m not saying this in a self-pitying way. At a certain age a man gets comfortable with the alternatives he sets out for himself. But I felt like I owed Marty something, and a party—strangers, sociability, a little of the old palaver—seemed a reasonable payback.
This party seemed to have not yet gotten its sea legs. Rafts of people drifted here and here, flotsam and jetsam, drifters holding bottles by the neck. I knew fewer people than I didn’t. That was becoming normal.
I noticed the shirt before I noticed who was wearing it. It was Dior, a striped button-down, aristocratic in its bold colours. Blue and gold, royal shades. I knew it was Dior because I had the same one. Not everyone can pull off a Dior shirt, and I include myself in that category. I bought it because my girlfriend at the time liked excess, in fashion at least, and I was experimenting. With what I’m not sure. Experimenting with experimenting. She and I split up and the shirt went from heavy to medium rotation. I wore it more the closer I got to laundry day. Eventually it ended up at the back of my closet, jammed in with some parkas and a Hawaiian shirt I’d thought better of. There was a cigarette burn between the third and fourth button, from when Marty tried to hug me and missed.
The guy in the shirt flitted in and out of my peripheral vision for a while. I passed him coming out of the bathroom, then he was standing in the hallway with three other guys. They seemed to be talking about a movie, but then I heard one of them say “pvp or pve” and I realized it was a video game. Later, when I went to get another beer from the fridge, I saw him on the balcony, having a lonely cigarette. He wore no jacket, which is how I knew it was the same guy. An old girlfriend told me I was face-blind, but I’m really more man-blind. I can tell women apart easily; men, only by their hair and what they’re wearing. In movies from the fifties and before I’m completely at sea—all those matching crewcuts and shirt-tie combos.
“Andrew,” Marty said, appearing next to me with a girl in tow, “this is Selena. She just moved here from Beijing. Selena, Andrew used to live in China.”
“Taiwan,” I said.
“Exactly,” Marty said.
“Where in Taiwan?” Selena asked.
“For how long?”
“Two years,” I said. “I was an English teacher.”
“I spent some time there too, as a student,” Selena said.
“Perfect!” Marty said. He scuttled off, and Selena and I got to talking about Taipei. I told her about how I taught the kids in my class to sing Johnny Cash’s Ring of Fire more or less phonetically, and how I expected to feel awkward being over six feet tall, and never did, and how there were certain foods I still missed and couldn’t find anywhere here.
“This one kind of green vegetable,” I said. “I’ve never seen it before or since, but it was in everything. At first I hated it, but now I crave it all the time. It’s been bothering me for years.” I don’t know why I said this, since it was something I barely thought about anymore. But talking to Selena I suddenly felt it was very important, like she was going to be the key to my gaining some kind of understanding of myself. “Do you know what I mean?” I said.
“Not really,” Selena said.
“It was kind of a combination of kale, mustard and something almost soapy tasting, like cilantro maybe?”
Selena shook her head. “I don’t know,” she said.
“Well, anyway,” I said.
She smiled at me then, in this way that reminded me of my old girlfriend Jinghua. It wasn’t just because she had that same accent where the consonants curve around the vowels like cupped hands. It was this quality of smile that I had always interpreted as being secretly for me—there was an outward part of it, which was to show the world that everything was going great, but it had an inner chamber too, a chamber of irony and some pleasure withheld, reserved for me only. Now I saw myself on the other side of that smile, and I wondered what had really been going on in Jinghua’s head.
Some time later I ended up on a sofa with Selena, the guy in the shirt, and a couple other people. Someone had put on The Velvet Underground. Marty had gone on a dep run with the girl he was after, so things seemed to be progressing well in that department. Selena mentioned I had been an English teacher, and the guy in the shirt took that with a kind of grave interest.
“Did you like teaching English?”
“I guess I did,” I said. “It’s satisfying to watch people actually get better at something they’ll use in life.”
“What’s your favourite verb tense?” he said, leaning forward with his hands on his knees. The shirt was frayed at the collar and cuffs, and had a cigarette burn between the third and fourth button.
“The present perfect,” I said after a moment.
“It’s the most difficult to explain,” I said. “I don’t know if it’s particular to English but a lot of esl learners have trouble with it. But once you get it, it changes how you think about time. And,” I said, “it has the best name.”
“Present perfect,” said the girl whose apartment I think we were in.
I sneaked another look at the shirt. It fit him differently than it had me—it was longer, but tighter in the chest and shoulders. He was bulkier, like a guy who works out, or used to.
I had left for Taipei five years ago, after six months of unemployment and binge drinking. My room was a futon and some cassette tapes. I had a toefl certificate and a prescription for Adderall, and I didn’t much care where I ended up. I remember falling asleep in the Dior shirt the night before I left, next to a girl I’d met at the bar. In the morning she sat on the futon, naked under the shirt, drinking coffee while I frantically packed. “Do you want any of this stuff?” I asked her. “Clothes? Coffee mug? Music? I have a tape of Live at the Gymnasium.” But she didn’t have a cassette player. I sent her a postcard when I first got to Taiwan and we messaged a few times, and then I met Jinghua and end of story.
“What do you mean, it changes how you think about time?” the guy said.
“Well,” I said, “because it doesn’t describe an event that occurs at a specific point in time, like, say ‘I ate a sandwich.’ It’s about whether or not something is part of your total life experience. ‘I have eaten a sandwich.’ There’s no specific time at which you ate a sandwich, but sandwich-eating is something you can say you’ve done.”
“Total life experience. That’s good. I like that,” the guy said.
“Lovely,” said the girl whose apartment it was.
People said I was different when I came back from Taiwan, and it’s true, I was. But not in the way they thought. “Andrew’s been pussy-whipped,” the guys said. The girls said “domesticated.” It’s true I didn’t party the way I used to, but it wasn’t that, exactly. I was like a person who finds out that his incurable, fatal disease was actually just allergies. People saw the look in my eyes, the newfound knowledge of impending life, and they mistook it for calm, or resignation. I didn’t care.