Illustration by Andres Garzon
The carols, decorations, and glitter drove Marko to anger. His bank account was empty, his worn wallet filled with tattered receipts, his mail full of unpaid bills. He couldn’t believe how broke he had become. He expected he’d find a job by now, but he felt as if no organization wanted to hire a paramedic. He needed to move faraway to a town in Northwestern Ontario and work as an air paramedic, but he was afraid of flying and didn’t want to leave Toronto. These days he felt his training was worthless. Years elapsed since he graduated from college, but he found no work as a paramedic; he worked part-time at a group home for people with intellectual disabilities.
After two years of unemployment, having attended college full-time for three, he decided to try to work in public transit. He pinned his hopes on a job as a train operator with public transit, which paid well, but the interviewer was turned off by his style and conservative dress—his hand-me-down shoes and double-breasted suit. He erred on the side of caution, but it backfired with managers. The interview was a train wreck; he couldn’t conceal his disappointment, when he pounded his fist on the manager’s desk, since he felt desperate to land a union position, with contract guarantees. He even enjoyed commuting on public transit; he studied for most of his emergency medicine courses on the subway train to Centennial College. The idea of operating a subway train appealed to him, but afterwards he called human resources and the assistant said they had filled all vacant positions.
Now, with Christmas a few days away, he didn’t have the funds to buy Ivana the Guess handbag she wanted. Ivana, too, was struggling. She was working like him, casual shifts and holiday weekends at a group home, but she also found a part-time job as a cleaner at a hospital. The group home had promised them both full-time jobs, but they barely paid their personal support workers minimum wage. Both employers had promised full-time jobs, but a conservative party was elected, and these organizations were government funded non-profit agencies, who expected job and budget cuts.
He needed to find the funds to buy Ivana her Guess handbag now. He ransacked the piggy banks and coin jars he left hidden around the cramped apartment, in the rambling neo-Victorian mansion. He took a box of hardcover and academic health science books that he’d bought for college courses over to a second-hand bookstore, but the money he received in return was barely enough for a bag of groceries. Thinking he needed to take desperate measures, he remembered his friend Danny, a fellow paramedic student, who, alongside Marko, was in one of the paramedic crews that responded to a multi-vehicle pileup on the Highway 491 with numerous gruesome casualties. Afterwards, Danny was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. He ended up driving a taxi and often visited Marko in his apartment. He expressed surprised when he saw Marko take antidepressants and anti-anxiety medication. Danny thought it was a blessing that Marko couldn’t find work as a paramedic. He constantly replayed the scene of the gruesome expressway accident to Marko. Danny told him he could sell his prescription drugs for a profit. Marko told him he didn’t want to become involved in a criminal enterprise. A year later, Marko was broke and felt he could not depend on anyone, including his father, who died from agonizing cancer, medication helped alleviate. Days before the Christmas holidays, Marko still wanted to treat Ivana special, even during hard times.
He went through the clutter of creams, lotions, colognes, perfumes, deodorants, razors, toothpaste, toothbrushes, and prescription drugs in the medicine cabinet. A while ago, Danny told him he could sell the Prozac and Xanax for a tidy profit, but Marko had only a few left now, since he used the peachy pills, which he considered a lifesaver in stressful situations. He realized his mother probably had more prescription drugs, after his father suffered a prolonged and agonizing illness from prostate cancer that metastasized to his lung, liver, and brain. Aside from undergoing chemotherapy, his father became a patient in palliative care at home. To alleviate his suffering, he used prescription painkillers and sleep medications before he died. Marko’s mother had a tendency to keep everything, from grocery receipts to utility bills from decades ago to prescription medication, beyond the best before or expiry date. Marko decided to pay his mother a surprise visit—he took the subway to his mother’s house just off Bloor Street West, near the coffee shop where he once did his high school homework.
* * *
After graduating from York University, Ivana acquired a teaching degree from the Faculty of Education at the University of Toronto. She couldn’t find a job as a teacher. She found the discipline in Toronto crowded with job seekers who couldn’t use their degrees in their chosen fields and competed for the few substitute teaching positions available with the Toronto school boards. She worked an overnight shift as a developmental services worker at the group home in Etobicoke for people with intellectual disabilities.
Ivana kept asking Marko what he wanted for Christmas, but Marko wanted them to stick their pledge to abstain from giving Christmas gifts to each other as a pragmatic measure. Ivana insisted he tell her, or they wouldn’t make love that night. He told her that in an ideal world what he wanted for Christmas was an e-book reader.
Ivana checked her bank account, but she was already over the limit in overdraft. She simply didn’t have the money to buy the e-book reader that Marko desired. She thought the idea of an e-book reader made perfect sense as well; both loved reading, but he spent more time reading, and read more books, faster. She was tired of hauling around boxes of books every time they were forced to move from one furnished room to another. With an e-book reader, all his bulky, heavy books, which consumed so much space in their living quarters, would find safe storage in digital files in the device memory, either in a flash drive or the micro-SD card.
She loved Marko. He loved her for her personality and intelligence, but they only became intimate after she wore a short tight skirt and a low-cut blouse at a Croatian soccer banquet in the church basement, so she suspected he was initially enamoured with her physicality. She remembered she even joked of working as a high-end escort when they had difficulty finding work, except she then found the prospect lamentable, loathsome, repulsive. Now she was reconsidering, and the idea seemed acceptable.
She decided that if she was to afford a Christmas gift for him, she needed to hustle. She needed to advertise discreetly, but on the Internet, in classified ads, personals, women seeking men, et cetera. She looked at a website called Casual Encounters and placed a classified ad, trying to be hired as an escort and masseuse. She posted an advertisement offering super discreet personal services, including a massage with a happy ending. Within several hours, she had a response, and she quickly exchanged e-mails and text messages. Then she went to a house in the east end to make money.
* * *
Marko snapped at his mother when she started asking about his personal life. She told him in Croatian he was better off moving back home, and his girlfriend was an unsuitable woman for someone as intelligent and promising as him. She wanted him to return home to save money and to apply to medical school at the University of Waterloo, so he could become a doctor. Ivana’s parents, she complained, were city slickers from Zagreb, who put on airs and pretended all their family and offspring were doctors, lawyers, bankers.
“Mom, this is Toronto, and we’re both Canadian. Born and raised in boring Bloordale Village in Toronto. We met at Our Lady Queen of Croatia Church when we were teenagers, but that’s the end of it. We don’t even speak the language, hang out with your people, or go to church anymore.”
He listened to her worries about his diet. He looked thin. Was Ivana was feeding him properly? He explained he was mature enough to cook his own meals and wash his own laundry. He didn’t bother telling her he and his girlfriend were thinking of getting married in a civil ceremony at city hall. Even if she approved of their relationship, she would have been outraged they weren’t inviting the extended family, and disappointed they weren’t having a huge white wedding, a luxury they couldn’t afford for the foreseeable future.
He went to use the washroom and found an empty bottle of OxyContin. Marko asked his mother about all the painkillers his father was forced to take to alleviate the symptoms of cancer. His mother told him the painkillers were still in his night table. She climbed up the stairs, slowly, carefully, and found the bottles of prescription painkillers, the synthetic opioids filled at the pharmacy the day his father died, he noted. His mother warned him about the painkillers, but asked no questions, since as far as she was concerned, her son could never do anything truly wrong. He put the prescription painkillers in his satchel bag, and headed to his apartment.
* * *
Ivana left a note, under a magnet on the refrigerator door, telling him that she had left the apartment to visit a friend. She intended to visit her first client. With only two days left until Christmas, time was running out, and she acted with a sense of urgency.
* * *
Marko called his friend Danny, who told him he knew a stand-up guy who would buy the pills. Danny said he would set up a meeting for his friend from the paramedic program with the buyer at the Trapper Shack Burger restaurant, located near the intersection with Finch and Yonge Street, beside the 24-7 convenience store, a short walk from Shepherd subway station. The buyer would meet him shortly after midnight.
At St. George subway station, Marko boarded a late-night subway train. During the commuter trip, he decided that if it took him a while to get acquainted with the buyer, and he missed the last southbound subway train, he would take the Blue Night bus service home back downtown. He hurried through the rain, which turned to sleet and snow, to the fast food restaurant. Cold, shivering, and anxious to use the washroom, he wished he had dressed warmer and had not drunk so much coffee.
In fact, Marko felt so anxious that he took a lorazepam from his father’s medications. In the Trapper Shack Burger, Marko made a quick visit to the washroom, where a man, dressed in a heavy parka, insulated pants, a fur hat, and winter boots, warned him it was dangerous and the end was near. Outside the restaurant washroom, Danny introduced him to the prospective buyer and hurriedly left the fast food restaurant, after buying an ice cream cone. Danny’s quick exit into the gloomy weather made Marko more anxious.
The man laughed, but Marko thought he was a gangster, a career criminal, which was partly what made him intimidating. He was bald, dressed in expensive distressed denim and polished loafers, and he looked like a member of the Russian mafia. The man then asked what he had, and Marko showed him the pill bottle.
“These looks like oxycodone,” he said. Holding the translucent bottle beneath the table, he examined the round tablets closely. He flashed the light from his smartphone on the contents. “You’ll sell these to me?” Marko nodded and mutely mouthed the word yes.
“You’re under arrest for possession of narcotics for the purposes of trafficking.” The man held Marko’s arm with a firm grip as he flashed a driver’s license and went through his arrest procedure. He handcuffed him, and escorted him out of the Trapper Shack Burger restaurant and across the parking lot at the back to his black car.
* * *
Ivana went to the house on Yonge Street. She thought her client lived in quite an affluent neighbourhood, but when she arrived at the address she found a rundown house between a bicycle repair shop, and a Starbucks café. The man was dressed like a playboy and smelled of an expensive cologne, a subtle, nuanced, musky, yet appealing scent. He wore an elegant scarf, and he introduced himself as a filmmaker and movie producer. He asked if she wanted to join him on a road trip to a film festival in New York City during which he planned to visit Sofia Coppola.
Then he asked her if she would give him a full body massage. She said she wasn’t an experienced masseuse, but she would do her best. He asked her if she would provide him with some oral pleasure.
“As in deep—”
“Yes, that would be even better.”
“My boyfriend likes it. How much are you willing to pay?”
Whatever her rates were, he replied, as long as they were reasonable.
Yes, of course, she said, and started to unbuckle, unbutton, and unzip his pants. He pulled out a leather wallet, opened the billfold, and showed her a shiny badge and his Toronto police identification.
“You’re under arrest for communicating or attempting to communicate with a person for the purpose of engaging in or obtaining sexual services.”
* * *
Standing alongside what looked like an unusual car for police, Marko decided to tell the officer the truth. The man frisked and searched him as he stood handcuffed to a Ford Mustang.
“I was just trying to make enough money to buy my girlfriend a Christmas present. I haven’t been able to find a job.” Marko told him how depressing it was being unemployed, and the difficulty he had finding work in the field he trained for, paramedicine. With a criminal record, it would be impossible to find work as a paramedic, although he sometimes got the impression that the best paramedics were rogues and renegades, unafraid to go the extra distance to try to save a patient’s life. This was the first time he had ever been arrested or charged with anything. The man went into his car, while Marko stood handcuffed to the passenger door handle. After emerging several minutes later, the officer said that he checked his name in the database and found no hits. Marko thought it was unusual. He hadn’t heard a police radio, and hadn’t seen a laptop screen.
“You’re lucky I haven’t called this in.” The man eyed the pills in their translucent bottle. He peeled the labels off with his sharp fingernails before he deposited the container in his leather bomber pocket. “You’re also lucky it’s practically Christmas eve.” Looking at his bejewelled wristwatch, the man saw the time was well past midnight. “In fact, it is Christmas eve.” His breath made a huge cloud of smoke in the freezing air as he exhaled, and with a sigh, he unlocked the handcuffs. “You’re a persuasive talker. I don’t know why you’re not working in communications.”
“I was trained as a paramedic.”
“Yeah, but a man has to eat. You could even work as a police dispatcher. Car 19, break-in at Finch and Jane, suspects fleeing on foot —something along those lines. Whatever, dude. I just don’t want to see you on my beat again. Get out of my sight.”
The man drove off with the painkiller pills, and sped through red lights at the intersection of Yonge with Finch Street. Thinking he had just stepped out of a house of mirrors, Mark thought he could use some pharmacological relief right about now. When he realized he never saw the man’s identification—he had merely seen the flash of what appeared to be a plain provincial driver’s license—he wondered if he’d just assumed the man possessed a badge, or if he was a retired, fired, or rogue cop. Perhaps he’d been an impersonator.
In the nighttime chill of the north end of North York, light snow drifted, powdering cement and asphalt. Marko walked down Yonge Street and underground into the subway station. The token and ticket collector shouted he’d missed the last subway train for the night.
Marko left the subway station, walked to the next bus stop, and boarded the all-night bus. The factory shift workers and pub-crawlers were already pushing their way through the standing crowd. He rode the bus home southbound along Yonge. In a meditative mood, he walked along Bloor Street through the falling snow to the apartment in the rambling, dilapidated Victorian mansion that he shared with Ivana.
* * *
When Ivana saw the undercover police officer’s identification, she gasped and told him she couldn’t find work in education because of an oversupply of teachers. She was currently making minimum wage and worked alongside high school dropouts hired off the street. She told him that if she was charged and had a criminal record, she would never pass a background check for a teaching position. She could even be fired from her current position. She had only decided to advertise to provide personal services this close to the holiday season to buy her boyfriend a silly e-book reader. She told the cop her boyfriend loved reading, but books were a major inconvenience whenever they were forced to move from house to apartment to rooming-house to student residence and dormitory and back again.
The plainclothes officer told her he was separated from his wife because of his work, but he currently didn’t have any outlet whatsoever. He wondered if she would be able to provide him with some oral pleasure as a favor after all—one good deed deserving another.
She couldn’t see any harm in the quid pro quo. The price was worth her freedom and reputation. In fact, a favour seemed like insurance against prosecution.
He drove her to an underground parking garage in a nearby office building, dark, empty, with dingy walls of cement blocks and cracked floors of concrete. He unbuckled and unzipped his khaki trousers and she reached for his shrivelled member, shrunken from the damp chill.
* * *
Tipsy from liqueur and coffee, the couple decided to visit Our Lady Queen of Croatia Church for Midnight Mass. The gifts they received in parcels, wrapped in twine, from their parents, they regifted and exchanged with each other. For Christmas dinner, they walked to the sprawling McDonalds on Yonge Street, across from the strip club and comic bookstore. They ordered hamburgers and fries, and substituted hot coffee and sugar for iced Cokes.
Trying to reassure each other that their love was precious enough of a gift to each other, they decided in the future they’d celebrate Christmas without gift exchanges. For dessert, they feasted on apple pies—two for a dollar—and soft ice cream cones. Then they ordered more ice cream cones coated with crushed peanuts and candy cane sprinkles. They gorged themselves and ate yet another round of pies, which Ivana insisted were frozen apple turnovers reheated in a microwave oven. Afterwards, they felt so energized and celebratory that they broke into a food fight, which a few other customers happily joined in on, until they were all asked to leave by the manager.
They passed by the Eaton Centre, where crews operating skyjacks and cranes took down the huge Sears sign for the department store. “The Wish Book is dead,” said Ivana. They hiked home through a storm growing into a blizzard. They climbed over drifts downtown, throwing snowballs, laughing, running along the sidewalk, and surprising people with hearty Christmas greetings.
JOHN TAVARES was born & raised in Sioux Lookout, Ontario, and is the son of Portuguese immigrants from the Azores. His education includes graduation from 2-year GAS at Humber College in Etobicoke with a concentration in psychology (1993), 3-year journalism at Centennial College in East York (1996) & the Specialized Honors BA in English from York University in North York (2012). He worked as a research assistant for the Sioux Lookout Public Library & as a research assistant in waste management for the SLKT public works department & regional recycle association. He also worked with the disabled for the Sioux Lookout Association for Community Living. Following a long time fascination with psychology, economics & investments, he successfully completed the Canadian Securities Course (2015).
Copyright © 2018 by John Tavares. All rights reserved.