Uncle Bernie's House

Uncle Bernie’s House

I stepped into the living room of my Uncle Bernie’s modest bungalow near Islington and Bloor.   The banana yellow walls of the quaint room gave me such joy as a child.  I would run around the room chasing my brother and sister, only stopping to marvel at the big screen JVC television in the corner.  The crystal clear screen with cable made our television with the rabbit-ear antennae seem primitive.  I remember thinking if such a great television could be created, then anything was possible.    Now, the faded paint and dusty television just remind me of the inevitability of time.

Along the walls were stacked boxes of old VHS tapes and books.  They were always stockpiled somewhere in the house, but were recently re-arranged to make room for the hospital bed now occupying most of the space.  I didn’t know much about hospital beds but this one seemed to be high-end, with shiny metal railings around the perimeter and a remote control to adjust height and pitch.  On the ground beside the bed was an oxygen tank and breathing apparatus.

Seeing the bed empty meant that uncle must be in his bedroom.  It had been at least a month since he had been anywhere other than the living room, bedroom, or the bathroom in between.  I had to pass through the dining room in order to make my way towards him but first paused to look around.  I suddenly realized it had been at least a decade since I’d spent any significant time in this house.  The dining room table was now covered in hand scribbled notes, prescriptions, medical documents and reference books.    The wooden shelf where he once displayed his proper dinnerware and ornaments from travels abroad now stored various pills, vials, and injections.

I clenched my jaw and silently glided towards the bedroom at the back of the house.  At the foot of the bed sat my grandmother.  She looked up but barely raised her hand off her knee to say hello.  Her eyes were dry but red and swollen.  As if afraid she would start crying if she spoke aloud, she instead rubbed uncle’s foot to wake him up.

Only then did I dare look at uncle’s gaunt face.  It wasn’t seeing a sick uncle that made me afraid.  The fear came from seeing him as a skeleton compared to the imposing former solider that I grew up with.  For years he had no longer been the playful Bernie that met all challenges head on with a smirk on his face.  But seeing him in this condition, it finally became clear that the uncle from my childhood was never coming back.

His eyelids slowly retracted as if his consciousness was returning from a far away land.

In my previous visits, Uncle Bernie would at least sit up and offer a cookie or refreshment as a token act of hospitality.   This time, it was all he could do to force a smile.  With monumental effort, he managed to mutter, “Thank you for coming.  I must go back to sleep.  I’m so tired… I’m sorry.”

That was the moment I knew this was the last time I would see him.  I couldn’t help but think about how hard such rapid decline must be on the mind.  Despite his strong will to live, he must have realized in the past few days that every time he did something, it might be the last.  The last time taking a trip.  The last time driving a car.  The last time eating a steak.  The last time going outside.  The last time cooking a meal.  The last time lying on the mechanical bed in the living room.

I could only whisper back, as if speaking loudly would startle him into cardiac arrest.  “No problem, I’ll visit again soon.” I’m not sure why I said those words even though I didn’t believe them at all.  In retrospect, I suppose it would have been nearly impossible to say what I really meant.  I just had to say something that seemed appropriate at the time.  In the end, it wouldn’t matter anyways.

He nodded and closed his eyes.

I felt antsy after returning home. I looked outside my apartment window at nameless people walking on the street and had the urge to go out and join them.  But having nowhere to go, I instead cracked open the window and paced the room.  I wouldn’t be able to sleep with this nervous energy so I dusted off the dumbbells that sat in the corner of my living room and worked out.  I did push-ups, bicep curls, and shoulder flys until I ached, only interrupting the silence with heavy breathing.  I took a shower and lay down in bed.

Despite my physical fatigue, I knew that I would not fall asleep.  It was only ten thirty so I called up my best friend Allen.  He had just finished up a disappointing dinner date on Ossington.

“I don’t feel like going home just yet,” he said.  “Come meet me at Reposado.  I’ll save you a seat at the bar.”

By the time I got to the darkly lit tequila bar, Allen was already one flight (of three shots) deep.

“Hurry up bro, you gotta catch up!”

I don’t remember how many flights or shots we consumed that night, but I do remember that the tab came out to $400 between us when I finally settled up.

We stumbled into the street.   It rained as we made our way up Ossington.   Each cool rain drop infused into my skin a microscopic dose of sobriety that would undoubtedly help me endure the long drive back to Etobicoke.  If I was lucky, I could snatch four hours of sleep before work.

I trudged behind Allen who had turned right onto College St.  I looked at the road ahead and exhaled.  After the events of the day, this final half-kilometer would surely be my final challenge before earning much needed sleep.

I heard voices behind us.  Allen wheeled around and responded with “What are you yelling about?  Shut the fuck up!”  Alcohol injects brevity into conversations.  Next time I’m in the office, I should remember to serve up efficiency drinks before conference calls.

Curiosity overcame apathy and I turned back.  A man with a stocky build and shaved head was being restrained by his lanky friend.  A combination of the distance, alcohol consumption, and general disinterest made Stocky’s words incomprehensible.  His face was red with exertion.   Spittle accompanied every insult lobbed in our direction.  Lanky looked simultaneously irritated and distracted, as if going through the motions of an unsavoury routine.

I smirked at the cliché unfolding before me.  “Luckily you held me back, man, because I sooooo would have kicked that loser’s ass yesterday,” is what I imagined Stocky would say to Lanky the next morning.  I had no doubt Stocky would calm down and back off as he probably had time and time again.

Instead, Stocky pushed Lanky out of the way and charged towards Allen.  Maybe seeing my uncle near his end sparked a new courage in me.  Maybe I always had some fight in me but never knew it.  Maybe I was just really drunk.  Either way, I intercepted Stocky with a leg tackle.  Stocky was rattled but got up to continue towards Allen.  By this time, Allen was ready and they began to scrap in earnest.

I pulled myself off the ground to stand face-to-face with Lanky.  He sighed and nodded apologetically.  His look confirmed that neither of us wanted to fight, but an unspoken code bound us to back up our friends.  That neither of us knew the purpose of this fight was irrelevant.  I acknowledged this with a shrug.

He threw a right hook at me.  I ducked but lost my balance on the incline and fell on my back.  Exploiting my position and total lack of fighting technique, he straddled my chest and landed several sharp blows to the side of my head.  I was able to push him off to the left.  With my adrenalin pumping, I got up quickly and kicked him in the face.  I closed in on him while he staggered away to reorient himself.  I readied a right hook which I was sure would end this fight.

But this was more than just a punch.  It was my warning that never starting a fight is not the same as not being able to.  It was my statement that working a desk job isn’t just for the meek.  It was my rallying cry that nerds could rise up against jocks.  It was my Rocky vs. Apollo.   My shot fired at the Battle of Lexington.  It was my declaration that tomorrow would be different than yesterday.

With my newfound conviction, I threw a right-handed haymaker.   Lanky glimpsed up and weaved out of the way.  Instead of a skull, my fist crashed into a brick wall.  The soft thud did not adequately convey the moment when true justice failed.  Blood gushed out of my knuckles and my wrist inflated like a skin balloon.  My hand trembled with pain that even my impaired sensory system could not disguise.

I yelled out into the street.  “Allen!  Where you at?”

“Over here!  Look to your left.”

I turned my head and saw him about a block away resting against a wall.  I stumbled over to him and asked if he was alright.  He said he was fine and asked if I was hungry.

With the adrenaline that had been flowing through us, I realized now I was far more hungry than tired. We decided to go to RolSan for some late night Chinese food.   Against our better judgment, we drove to the 24-hour restaurant, sat down, and ordered dumplings and noodles.  During the day, RolSan was a typical family Chinatown restaurant but at night, it became a spot to facilitate a soft landing from party to sleep.  The place was noisy, with pop music playing on over-burdened speakers and the clanging of cutlery and dishes.  Struggling to slow back down to real life, the clubbers around us all talked a little too loudly with hoarse voices, like drivers who drive too quickly after exiting a freeway.

As I looked around at the multi-racial crowd all enjoying the cheap and greasy Chinese food that had become a post-party staple, I thought back to my childhood when being different wasn’t cool or exotic.

It wasn’t like being one of only a handful of Chinese students at a public school in an Eastern European neighborhood meant I got bullied or picked on.  However, there was always a sense that I had to learn two distinct sets of social norms.   To my mother’s credit, she had always told me that I would appreciate that diversity of perspectives one day but that didn’t help until at least my teenage years.

On one particular day in fifth grade, I had looked up at the clock as kids always do when enduring the drudgery of a mandatory education.  11:58.

I had put my hands in my pocket for what must have been the fifth time to check on my precious five-dollar bill.  For the other kids in my class, the ones that got allowance, five dollars wasn’t a big deal.  But my mother had never believed in giving me that much, which angered me.  She always told me that stealing is wrong, but why did I get less than the others?  Why did they always have new toys and baseball cards when I never got anything?  Why did being different always mean having it worse?

I had looked up again to see that the minute hand moved only once.  11:59.

The teacher told Russell and Garvin to stop fidgeting and wait for the bell before getting up.  We must have been tying up a math lesson, which meant I didn’t need to pay attention.

I hadn’t been fidgeting, at least not outwardly.  The only part of my body that was moving was my hand as I rubbed the bill, feeling its rough texture.  If I continued to grip the bill, I knew there was no way it could disappear.  I had been tempted to look down and check that it was indeed the same five-dollar bill but resisted.  I had to make it look like that day was just another day.  Sweat began to form on my fingertips as I waited for the second hand to continue crawling around the clock face.

Brrrrrrrrrrrrrrrring! Brrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrring!

I had subconsciously looked towards the door, from the opposite corner where I was seated.  All of my classmates were already lined up to go out.  I groaned under my breath as I thought about the protracted wait to get my lunch.

That’s when I saw Queenie near the back of the line too.  I slowed down hoping she wouldn’t turn around.  All the other kids thought I had a crush on her just because she was Chinese too.  Of course it wasn’t true.  I barely even knew her.  The worst part was that she always tried to be nice to me and say hi.  Although she couldn’t really say hi to anyone else I appreciate the gesture in retrospect.  However, at the time I wished she would just learn English quickly so she could tell the other kids herself that I did not indeed have a crush on her.

“Mrs. Anderson, I have to go to the washroom!”

“Ok Raymond, please come straight to the lunch room after.”

“I will.”

The coast was clear.  My feet moved faster despite my mental instructions to the contrary.  I couldn’t let anyone know what I was about to do or my whole plan would backfire.  I eventually get to the boys washroom and waited for the door behind me to close.

I ducked down to check that no one was here with me.  My hands shook as I unzipped my backpack and pulled out a paper bag.  I peered inside and saw my favorite pork and chive dumplings inside.   That familiar smell seeped out afterwards which tempted me to abort my plan and eat them right there.  But I had to hold firm.

I looked away as I held the nondescript bag above the garbage can.  Then I let go.

The sound of my lunch hitting the bottom of the pail echoed around the washroom.  I looked around to make sure no one heard me.  That sound immediately reminded me of home and how angry my mother would be with me for wasting food.  But she wouldn’t understand that it was her fault for making me do this.

But she would never know.  After several frantic seconds, I decided to unroll some toilet paper to cover my lunch in the garbage so no one else would ever know also.  I’m the only one, other than Queenie, to ever bring dumplings to school

I exited the washroom and took a deep breath.  Then, I began skipping towards the lunch room.  My body felt light as if inflated by the helium.  Just outside the blue lunch room door, I had to remind myself to slow down and walk in as if everything was normal.  I fought against the very laws of gravity to navigate my buoyant body behind the other kids in the lunch line.

That day, I bought a grilled ham and cheese sandwich with orange juice.  That sandwich didn’t make the violin lessons, Chinese language school, and strict rules at home go away.  But at least for an hour, I felt like I belonged.

Looking around the restaurant again, I felt strange.  After being bloodied and bruised, I am now trying to recover with comfort food from a culture I had once tried to throw away, only to be amongst others who know nothing of this culture but are nevertheless doing the same thing.  When the night finally ended and I was back in my own bed, I couldn’t stop thinking about what it means to belong somewhere.

Later that morning, I awoke in a drone-like state.  I went to the sink and splashed water on my face to refresh.  I winced as the pain registered.  I looked in the mirror and saw that I had a black eye.  My hand was swollen.

I saw the open bottle of Advil on the counter and realized that was the only reason I didn’t feel even worse.  My skull felt like it was stuffed with the cotton swab from that pill container, dulling noise and thought processes alike.

I got ready for work and commuted in a mechanical state, ignoring sounds and sights along the way.  I navigated the office and turned on the computer in my grey cubicle, beginning another day of gazing at financial models in an attempt to optimize manufacturing processes I’ve never seen nor understood. Even though I had gone into the office hundreds of times before, I felt totally displaced.

I felt my mobile phone vibrate and reflexively answered it.  The voice of my girlfriend Mercedes came through the receiver and I sighed.  Wasting no time with formalities or breathing, she immediately began to complain incessantly about her co-worker or car or something.   Despite not following the conversation in its entirety, it was clear by her squirrel-like intonation that she was not in a good mood and the source of this unfortunate set of circumstances would require an extended amount of time for her to properly convey.  Mixed with her Spanish accent, her speaking took on a machine-gun like cadence that agitated me.

I tried to remain calm by letting my mouth go into auto-pilot, inserting the odd “yes”, “totally agree”, or “no way!” into the conversation when out of the corner of my eye, I saw a voluptuous woman in a bright red, skintight miniskirt stepping out of her luxury convertible.  The contrast of her beauty against the endless concrete, grey skies, and utilitarian Mississauga industrial park jolted my body into action.

My blood began pumping violently and my extremities regained sensitivity.  My skin heated up and I could feel beads of sweat starting to form and prickle through my skin.  Next, my mind became lucid.  It was as if my mind was forever staring at a novelty poster, but only now could perceive the hidden three-dimensional image embedded inside. I could finally see that even though my life was routine and comfortable, this was not where I belonged.

My eyes shot around the modular partitions around my desk at the various reports, acronym reference charts, and product codes.  I pulled the jabbering phone away from my ear and stared at it in disbelief.  It occurred to me then that if this was the last time I ever set foot in this godforsaken industrial park, looked at another incomprehensible spreadsheet, or saw my pretty but uninspiring girlfriend, I would be happy about it.

I sprung out of my seat and escaped into the outside world, pausing only to hang up the phone and delete Mercedes’ contact info.  The only thought in my mind was that tomorrow had to be better.  After all this time, I still didn’t know where I truly belonged but I know I didn’t belong there.