Today is rebelling in every possible way from my formulated plan. That I power walk in the opposite direction of my comfortable hobbit hole in the sky, with toilet paper wedged between silk blouse and stress pits, is proof of my unwavering commitment to Zadie—the one person I will ever allow this much cortisol to spike through my body for.
Homeostasis is my happy place. Maintaining a stable approach to all life situations by adjusting one small variables at a time, is how I function, and Zadie, my bestie for more years than I’ve been alive, should get this. She’s all about esthetic feng shui, yoga balance poses, including all four food groups in every meal, and knowing Fridays after eight are perpetually reserved for slush and gush gal time. Eighteen years of reserved and respected homeostasis. And then I get the call. Today. A Wednesday at four in the afternoon, when she knows I’ll be in the lab, suited up in full personal protective equipment to do my afternoon specimen wellness checks.
“Astrid, it’s so sparkly!!” she said, and “You will never guess how he proposed.” The rest of her words came out like a centrifuge in full efficiency mode—only the light and fluffy bits reaching my ears.
This was not just my bestie announcing her engagement. This was my single-lady back-up singer, my mid-life crisis cat-lady roommate, spewing about moving forward in life on a Wednesday at four, instead of a Saturday at eight. I wasn’t prepared. I’m still not, despite being a block away from the intended celebratory destination.
With the help of my invasive but admittedly resourceful lab mate Luda, the denser, duller bits of this conversation were jotted down. 146 Bloor Street. Midnight Spirits. Engagement Shindig. Everyone can make it. Squee! Nine tonight. Can you make it?
Tonight. Mid-week, when clothing selections are getting sparse? I always reserve my passable clothing combinations for Saturdays. My humorous antidotes and cheat eats and social risk quotas for Saturdays. Never Wednesdays. Wednesdays are set aside for other things, like my standing date with the autoclave machine at six, followed by my Black Eyed Peas karaoke cleaning party with me, myself, and my rescued lab mice until a respectable bedtime of ten. But I can’t tell Zadie any of this.
“Of course, I can reschedule my plans,” with a sterilizing machine and immunodeficient mice. “I’m all about meeting the rest of the wedding party,” who will all be strangers, and we are well aware of how I feel about strangers. “In three hours?” On the opposite side of town from the safety of my regular home routine—a friendly farewell to the night custodian, number five street car, then a flight of stairs to my uncontaminated, yet IKEA-approved comfort pod? “Absolutely, I’ll be there.”
As I mentioned, Zadie is worth it. Because this relationship, this variable in my life, is the one I’m willing to throw everything else out of equilibrium to protect. Even the lack of three of four food groups in the bagel I just scarfed down. I attempt to swallow the last saliva-sucking bite as I recheck the address for Midnight Spirits on Luda’s sticky note. The address matches the copper numbers affixed to a black brick building with a constellation of twinkle lights spelling out the establishment’s name. Oh, so trendy … and packed.
I’ve arrived. On the threshold of a sea of strangers with a plethora of human variables I have zero control over and with whom I must pretend to enjoy conversing for at least an hour before I can politely excuse myself because it is mid-week, and some of us need a fresh brain to accomplish life-changing research in the morning. This is light years away from squee, as Luda so eloquently noted on my sticky.
For the last ten years of my life, I have carefully crafted my routines to limit the danger of strangers to me and, more importantly, of me to them. It has worked quite well for all of us. But now, from my place on the sidewalk, peering both at and through the tinted glass of the so-called poshest new martini lounge in Toronto, I am reminded that some of us, it seems, are not only the stranger but also a tad strange.
Juxtaposing my reflection on the crowd inside, I claim both these titles. Stranger—to all the people inside who keel over in laughter, imbibing beverages from questionably cleaned receptacles—and strange.
Within the safety of my regular work routine—the number five street car, a jaunt across Cumberland Park, and a stair climb to the fifth-floor laboratory of the Donnelly Centre for Cellular and Biomolecular Research—I rarely encounter either of these “s” words. But the woman reflected back at me—a splotch of taupe and muted coral with a zebra-potted house plant and an oversized L.L. Bean tote containing everything that may be needed for any possible danger—she is very much strange. No need for niceties here.
On the other side of the glass, stylish-looking people with smart phones and smart watches and smart shoes don’t seem to care about any of my “s” concerns. No, they don’t even notice me yet. I take in my ensemble and wince. I should’ve gone home to change. Worn a pair of my mother’s heels. Or anything other than yellow Birkenstocks. But it’s too late for that now. Here we are, ten minutes late and the Astrid Noble with fluffy fringed bangs and zero smart accessories will have to do.
I’ve always been a bit of a speckled egg, but so has Zadie. Never in the past has this been much of an issue. I say much because if I’m honest, we both know speckled eggs are an anomaly, (usually related to a stressful disturbance to the bird during the calcification process), and although rare, are rarely appreciated for their faulty creation. In an era of striving to stand out from the crowd, I should feel quite fine about this, and normally I do. But tonight, as I bob and weave to find the one person who is far from a stranger, and finally locate her through the glass, I realize Zadie is a speckled egg no longer.
The acid in my stomach churns at the sight of Zadie’s uncharacteristic façade. Her trademark streak of blue hair is gone, her black tresses now slicked within an efficient ballerina bun. Her usual jewel-toned palate has been traded for a white mini-dress and black blazer, camouflaging her and her butterfly tattoos within a monochromatic colour code I was not privy to. Rather than slurping a fluorescent Bellini through a cocktail straw, preferably with an umbrella or fruit kabob, she is sipping some clear concoction like a Bond girl with French-manicured nails. What is this bland nonsense?!
My own nails haven’t seen polish in years, nor a nail file, nor anything beyond sterilized clippers, but if they could have colour it would be pineapple yellow or maybe Algerian coral to match my Ikea colour scheme. But clear lacquer with fake cuticles?
I’m staring. But because of the tinted glass and the hubbub of shiny crow-like servers shuttling trays of martinis to the strangers, no one has noticed. I could rethink this. I could hustle back to my apartment, change out of this stress-stained blouse that is more appropriate for high tea with my mother than my best friend’s engagement party and try again. But I don’t own anything black or white, save my lab coats, and I’m already on the tardy side. And then there is this rather sprite potted plant. I glance between Helix (a lovely juvenile specimen of the pachira aquatic species) and the strangers. Luda was kind enough to break from our procedural prep to research the ideal gift for a newly engaged couple. Wealth, unity, and longevity, all braided together in one portable specimen? Done! I procured the plant—which I promptly named Helix—from the small convenience store en route to my destination, along with a toasted bagel from Timmy’s next door, which had surprisingly high health and safety scores.
I can leave Helix outside in the alley two buildings back. Give him to Zadie and Brad afterward. Yes, this is a logical plan to reduce my strange quota. From what I can glean, none of the other strangers brought gifts—certainly not dwarf trees—so a coral blouse, dated bangs, and pineapple Birks will be enough speckle for today. I begin to explain to Helix that I will return for him after the party, but from behind his palm-like leaves, one of the strangers appears to be waving in our direction.
A quick glance over my shoulder at Bloor Street confirms this greeting must be intended for me, as everyone else struts with great purpose and little interest to the posh martini lounge. And now Zadie is singing my name in chorus with the strangers, with such gusto that even the shatter-proof glass can’t contain the noise. Helix, still cradled in my arms, will have to accompany me. Perhaps he will prompt some small talk which, due to my stranger rationing, I fully claim as a lagging skill.
I paste on my ten-year-old, full-tooth performance smile—the one perfected at skating competitions through trialing the proportions of teeth required to earn top artistic marks—and latch my hand around the unnecessarily tall door handle. I would prefer not to blame my inability to open said door on my petite stature, nor my 2020 onward exercise fast, but they may be factors. I wedge Helix into the crook of my still-damp armpit and grasp the handle with my other hand. Just as the door cooperates, the ceramic pot disagrees with the lack of friction in my blouse. I tilt to reposition it and my tote, following the law of gravity, slides off my shoulder. Without warning, the edge of the door thrusts into my forward-bent frame, smacking into my crooked bangs.
“Oya!” My hand reflexes up to my forehead as Helix smashes onto the only part of this establishment with any colour—a royal-red entrance carpet.
“Dimwit?” I say without checking my social nicety card or confirming who smashed a door into my cranium.
“Sorry?” There is a glide to the dimwit’s “r” that is familiar. It’s lower than I remember, but most certainly of the Oceanic ex-pat variety. Perhaps not a stranger?
I squint up at the bearded man in front of me, who is as tall as I remember, but broader and with the same perpetual dimple on his left cheek, still visible through this new man growth. So not a stranger! “Connor?” With the sound of his name from my mouth, my brain retrieves the long-buried high school file on him from my long-term memory. My bagel becomes a stuck bowling ball in my throat.
A swarm of ill-equipped servers swoop in to dispose of Helix and his ceramic pot with bare hands and cocktail napkins. I should remind them of proper glass cleaning protocols, but Connor is smirking at me, eyebrow raised, taking in all my pit-stained, hair-skewed, tote-laden glory. I straighten myself, angle away from the mess, and ask with all the calm I can muster, “What are you doing here?”
He holds my gaze for a second longer than is comfortable, his smile brazen enough now to attract the attention of a skating judge or two. “For Zay-Bra of course.”
I nod. I nod again. I force out my sixteen-year-old smile now, the one Zadie and I practiced on hockey boys before our first and only double date with him and Brad. I nod one more time, adjusting my dress strap, and pulling my tote in front of me before words, blessed words, finally arrive. “Of course. Of course. The love-struck Zay-Bra. Our very own Brangelina, but cuter, and of course way more likely to stick together this time. I mean forever time. Because, well, that’s why we’re here, and why I have…had this zebra plant, I mean zebra pot.” I whisper an apology to the murder of crow servers collectively responding with silent caws at the mess I’ve made. I scatter my gaze between Connor and the strangers inside as I search for something smallish—but distracting enough from the zebra debacle—to say, then the theme of the event hits me. “Oh my goodness, how did I not figure it out until now? This is why everyone is dressed in black and white. If I had known, I would’ve borrowed my mom’s leggings.” I smack my forehead with the heel of my hand, bullseye on the spot from the door’s sucker punch. I see stars. And not the pretty track lighting stars from the lounge, but the misfiring-electrical-pulses-from-my-occipital-lobe kind.
“Easy there.” Connor takes hold of my elbow in an entirely chivalrous attempt to keep me from stepping on the crows and their soiled napkins. “Here. Let me find you some ice.”
“It’s fine. I have an instant cold pack in my bag.” I open my tote wide in search of the first-aid kit I bring with me everywhere, because you never know when the need to save a life might present itself.
“Of course you do, but we are in a bar, with loads of ready-made ice.”
I am not usually one to play damsel in distress, but with the repetitive boom of a stand-up bass, dimmed lighting, and approaching tables of strangers, I am all about Connor’s misguided “r’s” shuttling me toward a ready-made bag of cold cubes.
Plus, Zadie is lunge-bouncing toward me in rhythm with Nina Simone’s “Sinnerman”, and the room is spinning like I’m in the Thomas Crown Affair and everyone has a bowler hat, except with smart watches and fluorescent white sneakers. This is so not squee.
“ASStrid! What took you so long?” Her voice is boisterous, and her eyes can’t seem to fix on me, or maybe it’s my head not stabilizing with her? “Were you pre-drinking at the lab?” she yells through an octave of pitches.
“Of course not.”
“All good.” She winks with great effort. “Martinis are on the house for the wedding party!”
“I must have missed that detail in our conversation,” I yell back as she drags me toward the bar. In reality, I appear to have missed many details about this evening during our conversation. The fluffy bits are still there, mainly Brad’s proposal through the window of her office building alongside the window-washers, but given his prom-posal was a message on our math class window, it honestly seemed a tad uninspired. We won’t tell her that. To be honest, she didn’t give me a squeak of space to say much of anything. And it’s not that I wouldn’t have. I’m elated for her, and we knew this would happen at some point, given their tabloid-worthy romance, but it all seems too soon. Hadn’t we just graduated from high school? Hadn’t we committed to living together with a brood of foster cats once finished our post-secondary pursuits? Was there not a period of time where she would teach me the ways of Sex in the City?
I’ll admit my PhD has taken a few unexpected turns, and neither of us could have predicted I’d develop an affinity for mice over cats, but I haven’t even reached “Kiss in the City,” let alone the more questionable bits that, according to our uber-conservative mothers, really should be saved for post-matrimony. But now? Zadie is very much ready for her post-matrimony and I can’t even remember what goes into a martini and whether I should be concerned about the poor behaviour that could ensue from its high blood alcohol absorption ratio.
“Well, looks like Connor has you taken care of.” She releases me, sliding a pointer finger down my arm with a rather presumptuous look toward Connor. I turn to see a blissful glass filled to the brim with ice in his right hand and one of those dastardly clear beverages in his left. “You remember Connor, right?” Zadie hollers into my ear, likely killing a few inner ear hair cells along the way.
How could I ever forget Connor Wilkes? Or, as he self-proclaimed, Connor Will-keel—as in keel over and pretend to die every time I walked into a room for the rest of my high school experience? “How could I forget Connor?”
“He’s the one who found this place for the engagement party.”
Connor must notice my blank stare as I take in the apothecary-inspired black shelves of liquors, velvet-curtained walls and high-top tables. It’s an attractive establishment for vampires, but far from quintessential Zadie with her artist’s heart for colour, nor Brad, with his need for 360-degree baseball highlights. Connor hands me the ice and drink and signals for me to look out the front window. Directly across the street is a brightly lit sign for Burger King.
I turn back to Zadie, glance over at Brad who is smacking some stranger on the back in that cordial male bonding way, then back to Connor, and finally that memory file from high school returns. I pan the walls of the lounge, and it’s as if ten years and a lot of black paint has been turpentined away. “Remember Waffle Wing?” Connor says.
“Oh, I remember.” The walls had been buttercream, the same benches on the side were covered with red vinyl instead of black velvet, and the bar had chicken cartoons behind it instead of tincture bottles.
“We sat right over there.” Connor signals to a table near the front window. “And remember when…”
His voice becomes a mumble of animated sounds as I choke down an involuntary gulp of air attempting to catapult up from my diaphragm. (Fun Fact: While some people have a more predictable stress response, such as a racing heartbeat or sweaty palms, my body provides me with the debilitating quirk of He-man hiccups).
Connor continues with his recount, grabbing hold of his neck, his mouth wide like a seagull attempting to swallow a sparrow—or more accurately, a chicken wing.
My bag is open, hand reaching for an emergency EpiPen before normal person instincts would recognize this as a bad replay of my past. Hagoop.
I try to swallow the next hiccup with nauseating consequences. It takes a whoop-load of rational internal self-talk to pull out a cherry gloss instead of an adrenaline shot. I purse my lips against the hiccups to apply unnecessary moisture, but more than air is trying to come back up now. I search the broody lounge, a swirl of faces coming with it. Zadie’s wide eyes flash past. She knows something is wrong, but I see a hallway of mirrors that has to lead to what was once a bathroom. I use hand gestures that only Zadie would understand. Points, thumbs jabbing, a final jazz-hand finger explosion, and then I run. Just like Nina’s song. Just like that day in high school.