Register Saturday | July 13 | 2024
Awake Image by Frenchfold; source: Wellcome Collective

Awake

I had been going through a stretch of insomnia so I’d taken to sitting up during the night, smoking cigarettes by the window and flipping through old photo albums. I actually quit smoking many years ago but I bought a pack after the third night. And they weren’t my photo albums, they were my parents’—heavy books with plastic surfaces on the hard pages. The photos started as yellowed black-and-whites but later had a faded colour, like from the seventies. I had no idea why I had them, but I’d helped my parents move twice—the albums must have made their way here by accident. When I found them I didn’t give them back.

I didn’t start with the photo albums. I started with art books from university—beautiful, heavy, richly coloured volumes that were hard to throw away after school. I looked at Gauguin, Rouault, Matisse, Dufy and others. I must have studied French art, though I remembered nothing. The colours were intriguing, even when they looked rough or poorly assembled. Sitting up through the late hours that turned into early hours, the scenes were otherworldly. And what strange lives—painters standing by rivers, studying light, studying women, models or lovers or sex workers, sometimes maids or young girls, poverty and disease all around them. Giants of an era, dying early of pathetic illnesses. Sometimes alcoholism or madness, or TB. Some lived longer, but can you imagine the browned teeth and greasy dishes forgotten throughout the flat, the stained linens. Fine art. Yet all their work was beautiful, sometimes in odd or misleading ways. A chair sitting next to an open window—meaningless scenes made beloved because someone was willing to look for a long time.

The big books had other pleasures. Their weight and smell, the soft gloss of the thick pages. The collected efforts of so many others who made such books and how much we paid to own them, the earnest belief that we had to eternalize the art. Everybody in here was long dead. Not only the artists—the girls too, the women and figures in each frame. Disappeared lives lost to time; generations later, I lingered over their outlines on canvas. But I did not worship artists. I already saw too much in life to wait for art to reveal it.

After the art books I started on the photo albums, bringing a thick stack up the stairs with me and going through them slowly. I smoked cigarettes and turned the big pages. My parents’ world was otherworldly, too, though perfectly ordinary—sitting in heavy books, faded and decolourized, as if someone had already decided what their lives meant and was curating the emotions. Late in the albums, I appeared in pictures with a head of curls, and I studied these images closely. But then I went back to the beginning and started again.

My father, moustached, snug pants. His round face was not handsome. Later, a beard, then clean-shaven for a long time. He had a favourite sweater for a significant stretch of his youth—it was brown, with a rounded collar and ribbed hem at the wrist and bottom. Exceptionally dull, actually, but there it was, in so many photos. Even after the moustache was gone, and through the beard phase. The pants varied, but it seemed he preferred slacks over denim. In shorts his legs were thin and sensitive-looking, and his right foot would turn in slightly. He was self-conscious. He wore glasses but did not change the frames over several decades.

There he was: standing in front of cars during road trips, sitting on a rock in a forest, sitting on a rock near a river, wearing sunglasses, sometimes looking at the camera and sometimes not. Born Samuel but called Sam his whole life.

And separately, parallel, my mother growing up. She was the one with the mischief in her eyes, the wry mouth. She wore snug skirts and billowy blouses, and in her pose it seemed she was a little overly aware of her figure, although it wasn’t bad at all, perhaps just a bit wider than most of her friends’. But young women want to be just like their friends—no more, no less. Still, her lively face, I thought, made her interesting. She had a stubbornness in her eyes, good-humoured and unafraid.

Her hair started light brown but darkened as she got older, before the abrupt turn to grey. She didn’t follow trends—once her skirts turned to slacks, that was that. Her slacks were slim and her sweaters were long, tunics down to the upper thigh, small brown or black shoes. She was not flashy, but those scrunched eyes and the wry mouth—she stood apart.

Then the photos began of them together. Posing and smiling. She felt the moment of having a camera turned on them was silly but worth humouring; he was shy and seemed to feel undeserving. A moment, a click—in the book forever.

I admit they looked happy together. 

And they were still together, actually. They lived in a condo on the second floor of a mid-rise building about forty minutes away from my place. They moved to an area where there was a large nursing home—overall, it was a retirement community. It was quiet and there were amenities around. Almost the whole community was older people and their adult children who visited them on Sundays. There was no crime—people were dying regularly, of course, but from old age. In fact, more people probably died in that neighbourhood than anywhere else in the city.

That’s where I met Ed. 

I got over the insomnia after about a month. It wouldn’t last all night anyway, only most of it, and there would be some time when I slept deeply for two or three hours. I wasn’t so tired the next day.

It was an episode. They were not so common, but their cause or purpose was unclear. My life was uncomplicated; I had structured it that way after an awkward, self-conscious youth. I usually spent the first few nights just wondering why I couldn’t sleep, but eventually I would get out of bed to spend time with the books. It is odd what can come out of slowness, looking around, thinking about what to think about.

He owned the convenience store in the area. I didn’t know his name, but I decided to call him Ed because his head was squarish and his hair was grey-white, like that actor, even though he didn’t look much like him otherwise. 

Ed didn’t pay attention to you in the store. He picked up and studied the newspaper when you walked in—not out of arrogance, necessarily. It could have been shyness, although he did not betray that either. He was attentive when you came to the counter, brisk and smiling easily. He often wore plain white t-shirts. They were kept bright and clean.

Ed wasn’t fully real to me at first. He never offered himself for consideration in our small exchanges; he was a private man. Whenever I visited my parents, one of my mother’s favourite things was to ask me to go to the convenience store and pick up some gum for her. She loved peppermint and chewed enthusiastically, grinning, daring me to admit that my dad was going deaf—and that now she could do this whenever she wanted. She had quit smoking decades ago, then quit chewing gum because it had annoyed him. But this was her world now—that’s what the gum and the grinning meant. So I would see Ed every so often, as I bought a pack of peppermint. 

I had never given him much thought until the day I walked in to buy some gum and his face—the eyes and the mouth—was bruised. The skin was broken and split in one area, a red line of dried blood. I was taken aback and did not look him in the eye. He was already familiar with this, standing very upright, his back hard, all of his movements around the cash register hard and fast as he got change—get it out, get it out. I left quickly. For the rest of the afternoon I sat in front of my mother, in a bright mood and chatting freely, circling around their living room and dusting little shelf objects with a disposable cloth, picking them up and turning them, enjoying their shapes. 

“What happened to the guy who owns the convenience store?” I asked.

“I don’t know, what do you mean?” she asked.

“Have you been recently?”

“No, I guess not. Not since, maybe, a week ago? Right?” She turned to look at my father.

My father was in the kitchen, crouched down and watching a piece of bread toast in the oven. They did not own a toaster—he said they were fire hazards. He had obliterated fire hazards from their condo years ago. He did not answer, did not register the question directed at him.

My mother turned back to me. “Why? What happened?”

I realized if I said his face was bruised and disfigured, she would go there the next day, and she would walk in the store with purpose but also hesitation, self-conscious, and actively look for him, and then abruptly look away, having taken in the scene and catalogued a few small details that would later be relayed to several people. The sort of thing any curious and slightly bored person would do. I remembered him working the cash register. I felt the movement of his arms and knew that the air around him was now coloured by something he could not bear—but it was not his choice, it was his circumstance, and so he would bear it with the minimum that was required. But absolutely nothing more.

“I don’t know, probably nothing,” I said. I knew I’d already lost the chance to spare him. She would go tomorrow.

The bouts of insomnia did not necessarily surprise me. 

At first, I spent some time trying to figure them out, thinking they were clues to a larger understanding of myself. But I never felt shocked, or unprepared. I think I had sensed that at some point in my life, my thoughts would crowd inward until sleep did not come easily. It was a reality that approached slowly and without disturbance.

I must have gone through the photo albums three times each. But more slowly on the subsequent reviews, lingering over the pages. I especially scrutinized the photos in which I appeared, always looking for my own face, seeing my parents in me and myself in them. I looked for eyes, mouths, expressions. Was I a happy child? I only remembered myself as blank and watching. Growing up I didn’t know who I was; I felt that for a long time. I mixed in with other children, moved in circles of friends, waiting to know. Once, I saw a video of myself in high school, laughing loudly and slapping a friend’s arm—I didn’t recognize that person at all.

Ed’s bruised face—which my mother never explained, and which I never brought up again—seemed the most alive and unspoken thing at that time, during the insomnia. Someone had attacked him and hurt him. His face would heal but I would not be able to forget that stiff self-consciousness, the shame, almost, of being seen that way—hurt. Some did not enjoy being seen at all.

The Shopkeeper. 1938. Oil on canvas. Someone could have painted Ed sitting among the bright colours of chips and candy bars. An upright man in a white shirt and dark bruises on his face. Or later, after the bruises, a gentle scar around his mouth. In southern Europe, there would be deep Mediterranean sun slanting through the window, broken by flickers of shadow from the leaves of a tree outside. The painter would find order in line and colour among the stacks and shelves, and labour over the hand resting on the counter, the big-knuckled fingers.

Paid—attention is paid. We pay attention. That was how we phrased it; I wondered how it translated into other languages, the subtler meaning beneath the words. The artists pay attention to their objects, their scenes or women; the artists spend the time—spend, because time is currency too—and we have these art books, while millionaires buy and sell the originals. My mother built books of her own life and I sat with them, with an excess of time and attention, spending it and paying it, perhaps the last and only person to do so. And what were the pictures themselves? So much of the same. Histories of disappearing moments. But I was no artist, I did not claim their lives or beauty or fleeting revelations under my name; I was only alone in the night, thinking. 

Ed did not ask for attention. He spoke with an accent, so he was probably not born here; he must have spent a lot of money to move and open a store. I thought about leaving the country where I was born to go live and work in another place—what those first years would be like, and then the later years, growing older, when there was time to reflect. I wondered what all those years were like. 

He was a compact man; his height was middling and he had that squarish head. His forearms were bulky—maybe he had been in the military as a younger man, or maybe he was an athlete. Maybe he liked to work out, although that is sometimes accompanied by a personality he did not seem to have. I remember feeling that he was politely distant, always professional, but that somehow he was watching and taking care of you. I imagined that other people felt that as well. Ed would snap that newspaper briskly when he saw you approaching the cash register; despite how casual he looked, he had been waiting for you. He was dutiful, silent, proud. 

And then one day it had happened. Maybe some person or people entered the store, they had bad intentions, there was a plan—or they were very drunk and there was a quick grab, an altercation where everybody was confused and it happened very fast. Or it had happened at home. It didn’t matter where it had been, or who; someone, or some people, had hurt him. And I knew he was not the type for whom being hurt meant nothing.

I would have looked at anyone’s photo albums. A permanent book of anyone’s life. I would spend my life thinking about people that never thought about me. That was one thing I realized while I couldn’t sleep.

I would be around, staring from corners, understanding, struggling to, absorbing people’s experiences as my own. That time at a party I saw a man actively ignoring his wife. The mother ignoring her child. The unloved dog in the neighbourhood that sat in the backyard all the time, never indoors. A girl at school born with a deformity in her arms, her presence at school, on the periphery of our lives but never in them. All of those things happened to me as well, somehow. The first time I saw a fight. An accident. A squirrel dragging its hind legs, broken. My mother angry and crying. Memories—most of them were about other people. And somehow the collective assembly of those memories was who I was. It would not have occurred to me if I didn’t have the insomnia. When I was younger I had wandered overseas, and my thoughts still stayed with the man who sold fruit to the tourists, all day, all year, the sun-leathered skin of his life.

What happened to Ed? He looked poorer and poorer as time went on. It seemed he was not recovering from the burglary or assault, whatever it had been. Over the following few months, and then as winter started, he seemed to be losing weight. Sometimes he still read the newspaper, but sometimes he didn’t—there were times when you entered the store and he was merely standing there, behind the counter, rigid and odd. 

I wondered how the pity would have felt to him, a proud man. Like missing skin and having a bright light shone on you. I pitied him, as anyone would have, but I pitied him as much for the attack as I did for the pity itself that everyone poured on him—a sickly tar. Everyone had seen the violence right there on his face, busted and startling for weeks, then remembered for years. Pity destroys the proud. It’s cloying, and ruthless.

Ed was still thin after the winter, into spring. His face had healed but he hadn’t regained the weight—and his demeanour didn’t change, still blank and rigid. He was never talkative before, nor had he smiled very often, but he had moved with purpose. Official in his small interactions. Ed was still injured, somehow. And it was going to last.

He was there for another year, and then he closed the store. Someone else opened another one in its place; it was much newer. The new guy behind the counter wore a nametag and had a different accent and he was very cheerful, a tall and lean man with a closely cropped goatee. He enjoyed chit-chat. 

My parents lived for almost eighteen years in that community, and I saw the new convenience store owner probably once or twice a month. He was always very bright, and nothing bad ever happened to him. I still knew Ed. I never stopped knowing anybody; I kept everything, like the books did. I knew already that some people heal and some people don’t, and I had my respect for both. I wondered if he had opened a new store somewhere else, or retired early, financially unwell—I wondered whether he had an alright place to live. I hoped he had a family that would take care of him. 

Oil on canvas. What do artists have besides so much time? They have us, asking to see our own worlds anew, or past worlds alive. And what did they think of those they painted? Did they love them, or pity them, or forget them even as they stood there in the room, waiting in the light? I admired their colours but I saw everything already, and I had the time. I was awake. Smoking cigarettes in the night, sometimes for hours, I remembered the racks of smokes behind Ed as he sat in his store, reading the paper, before he had been hurt. Looking up sometimes, then looking down. ⁂

Nina Dunic’s debut novel The Clarion was longlisted for the 2023 Scotiabank Giller Prize, and received “Best of 2023” nods from the Globe and Mail, Apple Books and the CBC. Her collection of stories with Invisible Publishing will be released in 2025. She is a two-time winner of the Toronto Star Short Story Contest, has been longlisted for the CBC Short Story Prize four times and was nominated for the Journey Prize. Nina lives in Scarborough. More at ninadunic.com, or on X and Instagram @dunicnina.