When I was a teenager I was in love with a girl called Morgan Rosenblum. Our gang had a clubhouse on the Lachine Canal: a battered old bright orange container that was never used or carted away, and we hung out there after school and on weekends. It was the place to be.
Morgan’s 16th birthday party was in May, and Montréal was beginning to get warm at last. Nine of us arrived early to set up. We had loads of munchies, plenty of beer and wine and weed, but it was bigshot me who brought the supply of Oxy. I had access through my dad who used the pills for pain relief after his near-fatal trucking accident. There were stashes here and there in his apartment and I stocked up, cagey, little by little, until I had a whole mess of them.
The party was the night I was going to get next to Morgan. I had plenty of friends, but she barely noticed me, maybe because I wasn’t artsy enough. At first, I hated that she called me Jean-François because no one else did, but later I liked that she used my formal name – the only person who chose to – a sign signifying, well, something.
Morgan was a talented artist who drew cartoon stories, and hers were in colour, all the bright yummy hues of hard candies. Because of Morgan, I immersed myself in graphic novels, which I’d known nothing about. I heard her mention Art Spiegelman and Alison Bechdel, Aislin and Jillian Tamaki, and I immediately got hold of their books, so I’d have conversation-starters. Morgan loved Indian food which I’d never tried, but when my Dad planned an evening out for the two of us, I told him I wanted to go to an Indian place, “Darbar,” Morgan’s favourite.
I thought long and hard about what to get Morgan for her Sweet Sixteen and decided on a set of drawing pens I’d overheard her talking about with Collier, her best friend. I saved for weeks and made a trip downtown to Omer DeSerres to buy them, and couldn’t wait to surprise her at the party.
In short order, bottles of red and white wine were poured, beers popped open – Louise brought some Makers Mark – and that went around our circle and kicked off a lifelong love of bourbon and its smoky warmth.
Tony, who played five instruments and had his own band, was in charge of the music. Collier put out gummy bears, and Morgan lit a joint and passed it around. Penny had baked a lemon-filled cake with indigo blue icing – Morgan’s favourite colour – and soon everyone was high, attacking the chips and peanut M&Ms, the gummies, and the licorice Twizzlers, as the munchies set in.
“Ready for birthday cake?” Penny asked, a friendly redhead who got us all involved in a weekly game night like a bunch of seniors, and who took great trouble to hide her ample breasts and belly under baggy tops.
“Tributes!” Collier said. “Tributes first, why we love the lady of the hour.”
“I’ll start,” said Penny, tugging at her sweatshirt. “I love you Morgan because you’re fucking kick-ass. You remind me never to take any shit, from anybody. Still working on it.”
The group cheered, and when the hubbub quieted, Tony spoke up. “You’re hot, Morgan. You’re fucking hot.”
“Oh, shut up, you dick,” Collier hissed.
“Well, it’s true,” chimed in Louise, looking around at the rest of us from behind her thick, black-framed glasses. “Morgan is a hot beverage, to quote Starbucks.”
“You’re incredible, the most talented person I know,” said Katie, the brightest girl in our class, tops in science; she spent all of her vacations in St. Johns, Newfoundland, where her dad lived and worked as an oceanographer. “I would trade both feet for half your talent,” Katie added, pulling back her pale hair and twisting it up on top of her head, her long, willowy arms bare and graceful in a white tank top. Funny that Katie would envy Morgan, as Katie went on to become a noted conservationist – famous enough that I read about her in the paper – working to save sea turtles.
Morgan leaned in and kissed Katie on the mouth to hoots and hollers.
“You saved my life,” Collier said. “Again. I’m a cat, with nine. And lots of near-misses.”
Collier was born a boy, but when I knew him in high school, he called himself two-spirit, fluid. Fluid was milk and orange juice, not people. That made most of the boys and mean girls go off over his fluid, two-spirit business. Thank God he had Morgan, and they went way back.
Everyone was quiet after he spoke. Of course Collier had to be at the party, but except for Morgan, none of us were really close to him, though he had my respect for being who he was despite the fact that it earned him mostly grief and abuse.
I watched Morgan kiss Collier, a long deep dance of lips and tongues and mouths that radiated through their bodies and into ours as we all got lost, and I wondered if I had it wrong about the two of them being just friends. The others must have been having similar thoughts because no one hooted, hollered or cheered them on. We just went quiet.
When they drew apart, I drank Morgan in. She had a startling beauty, not a classic or conventional type of look. She was a tall, curvy girl with athletic shoulders and thick dark hair that flowed all the way down to the small of her back. Her skin was a creamy olive and her eyes, almond shaped and heavy-lashed, were a pale sea-foam green that took you by surprise because you expected them to be brown. Her lips were full, and she had a strong prominent nose, which only added to the character of her face. I overheard her talking one day in the hall with Collier, “I love my big schnoz,” she said, “It’s the only thing I got from my dad.”
I would’ve liked to hear more of their conversation, but Collier shot me a look, pure poison.
The tributes to Morgan went on. When my turn came, I kept it simple. “I love you Morgan.” I was too drunk and high to worry, and the words just tumbled out.
She looked at me for a brief moment with those pale green eyes, then tilted her head back, as Collier cooed, “Aww.”
Penny lit 17 candles on the blue cake, one for luck, and Morgan covered her eyes like a little girl before making her wish. Collier’s eyes were shut at the same time wishing right along with her. I wish I knew her wish, I can only imagine. And what did I imagine? I know now what I wished I had wished for her. And for myself.
Most of us had brought gifts. I didn’t see Collier give her anything unless he did so when the two of them were alone together.
Penny gave her a giant white vibrator called The Magic Wand. “You will never need man, woman, or anyone in between – again.” Katie presented Morgan with a package of vintage issues of Raw, and Tony, a year’s supply of Dentyne Fire, her favourite gum. Now it was my turn. I handed her the package I’d carefully wrapped in shiny midnight blue gift paper and silver ribbon. When she opened it, Morgan sighed and touched her heart. She came over and held my face between both hands and gave me butterfly kisses on my cheeks, lips, eyes and neck. I didn’t want the moment to end.
The dancing started after midnight. I passed around the Oxy feeling pretty full of myself, and swallowed mine fast without thinking, watching as my more experienced friends crushed and bit and chewed the pills to get the biggest buzz. I was feeling no pain but the effects weren’t as intense as I’d expected or hoped. Morgan and Collier got up together to dance, and everyone fell away to the sidelines to watch the two of them move together. They danced down to the floor and their heads swivelled and bounced, their arms undulating like plants beneath the sea. And then as Percy Sledge’s When a Man Loves a Woman came on, they slow danced, holding each other, Morgan dipping and Collier dancing up into her, bending deeply at the knee so his lanky leg was between hers to be closer still. Morgan and Collier. How could I have missed this?
After a while, Morgan slipped outside – I had these antennae always knowing where she was – without having to look. Everyone else was still dancing like crazy. All at once, there was a deafening beat on the ceiling of the container, and I heard Collier shout out something.
I rushed outside with a few of the others. There was Morgan atop the container dancing, drunk and high and wild. Others crushed out of the clubhouse as Collier tried to soothe Morgan, to talk her down, literally and figuratively. Who knows what she was seeing and hearing and feeling?
I later learned that Morgan, even cold sober, saw things that were not there, but hid it from others except Collier. She also heard voices speaking inside her head. That explained the earphones she rarely took off because they helped drown out the internal noise.
I came to understand a bit of that noise myself.
Tony and I boosted Collier up so he could climb on top of the container. Up on the roof, he put both of his arms around Morgan enveloping her as she cried and laughed and laughed and cried, something I’d seen Collier doing, too. We could hear the murmur of his voice and her painful cries.
Collier crouched behind Morgan and hooked his arms beneath her knees, helping her scooch her bum to the edge of the container, and when she let go, a net of arms and hands were ready to break her fall and get her back inside.
We barely had time to breathe a collective sigh of relief because not long after, a crew of boys, a year or two older than us, showed up at the party and crowded into our clubhouse. Word had gotten out. After they’d helped themselves to our provisions, their leader Luke insisted we play Truth or Dare and everyone was game, except for Collier.
“Not playing,” he said.
“Then piss off,” Luke ordered.
“Not going anywhere,” Collier sing-songed.
“Come on Coll,” urged Morgan. “Don’t be a party pooper.”
He shook his head, his long platinum hair swinging around his pale, thin face.
“Bro, if you aren’t playing you need to get out of here.”
“Don’t call me Bro.”
Luke gave Collier a dismissive shrug and muttered under his breath, “Freak.”
More beer, wine and bourbon were passed around, and Luke had brought more weed, boasting that it was laced with cocaine, and a second batch mixed with LSD. As he passed around a rainbow joint, a light rain began to fall on the roof with a soothing sound that reminded me of the ocean which I’d only visited once in my entire life. People settled into a circle along the edges of the space, Luke and Collier on either side of Morgan with me opposite her, as the game started with Louise. She asked Tony, “Truth or dare?”
“Truth.” He slugged down his beer.
“What do you hate about yourself?” Everybody laughed, though it really wasn’t a funny question.
“I’m a shitty musician.”
“No way,” said Penny. “No truth there.”
Tony turned to Louise. “Truth or dare?”
“Kiss Collier in their most private place.”
The pronoun was considerate, the dare cruel.
“Collier’s observing,” said Morgan, pulling them into her hip so they were sitting as close as possible.
But before things could escalate, Louise leaned over and kissed Collier lightly on his forehead. It was a great move, his brain – thoughts, sense of himself – his most private place. Even Collier smiled, a saddish, secret smile.
Everyone looked at Collier, waiting.
“Okay. Morgan, truth or dare?”
I looked at Collier, and we both felt a rush of relief because he would never dare her to do anything humiliating or dangerous.
“Who’s the love of your life?”
“Tu es l’amour de ma vie.”
“Shit,” said Katie. “Tell us something we don’t know.”
The game went on and on deep into the night going around the circle many times.
Luke turned to Morgan. “Truth or dare?”
“Dare,” she said.
“I dare you, Beautiful, to let me make you feel better than you ever knew you could. Or would.”
“Fucking poet and doesn’t know it,” Collier murmured.
It was quiet, the rain had stopped. Everything then happened too fast. Luke hustled Morgan outside while three of his friends held Collier down. Some of us tried to free Collier. In a druggy, delayed reaction, the rest of us surged out of the container, looking for Morgan, so we could stop Luke from whatever he was doing to her. We searched the canal, ducking into other containers and old, stranded train cars, but there was no sign of either of them anywhere. In desperation, we ran up and down the tracks. Still no luck.
Finally, Katie called 9-1-1.
I dream of this night again and again. Some nights, I am the rat, squeaking, as he feasts on crumbs with ash caught in spills of blood-red wine and stinking beer. Other nights, I’m the police, arriving at the wrecked bright orange container, empty of kids, smelling of booze and beer and sweat and weed. Some nights, I am Morgan, terrified, unsure what is inside and what is not, hoping the voices inside my head would shut the hell up. Other nights, I’m Collier, loving Morgan as I already do, knowing that I couldn’t save or protect her, as hard as it was to save and protect myself, having to live with that – or deciding not to – spending months on the psych ward, a padded, protective prison, wondering if I could go on in this world that is cruel and ugly with few glimmers of light.
It was close to dawn when the police found Morgan alone in an abandoned shoe factory along the canal, near the town of Lachine. She was not breathing, and medics rushed her to the hospital where she was pronounced dead.
The cause of death was opioid overdose. There was evidence of sexual intercourse though no one will ever know if it was consensual or rape.
We all went to the funeral, and later, Collier organized a small memorial service for her closest friends. Somehow I got invited.
It was cold and bright on the May afternoon of the service with a sharp wind off the water, and the sun making gleaming fish scales on its surface.
We all gathered on the rocks descending to the waterfront beach on the Lachine Canal, one of her favourite spots, where you could still glimpse the sculpture, which looks like upraised flames or hands reaching for the skies. Apparently, it was Morgan and Collier’s special place, this beach, and they liked to shimmy down from the rocks and swim in the chilly water, kite surfers in the distance. They are the only two people I’ve known who actually swam in that rocky, restless, filthy Canal.
We each had a chance to share a memory of Morgan. And then while her mom held the oak urn, one-by-one, we reached in for a handful of her ashes and tossed them into the foamy water.
Morgan’s mother tolerated my presence at the funeral and at the memorial service, but she was cold, dipped in Plexiglass. Maybe it was simple, pure grief and had nothing to do with me and my part in Morgan’s death. I’ll never know.
I intended to go and see her, to ask for forgiveness. In fact, I planned it all out in my head and on paper, but by the time I got up my guts to go to her home, she had moved out west. I did write her a letter some years later, but she never responded.
After Morgan’s death, I hid my smarts in high school though I managed to do all right. I loved biology, anatomy, understanding life and death, health and illness. I had a secret dream of becoming a doctor, but never pursued it. Not because I wasn’t bright and tenacious enough, but because deep down inside, I felt rotten to the core, hardly a healer who first and foremost would do no harm.
I managed to squeak out an acceptance from McGill, but broke down during my freshman year and had to take a whole year off. The shrink I saw tried to convince me that what had happened at the party would have most likely have happened anyway. Even if there was a grain of truth in that notion, it didn’t help. Nothing did.
I became a recluse, cut off my family, my friends. For a few years, I didn’t go to school and was out of work. I drifted, stayed in shelters and grabbed meals at food banks. I thought I spotted Luke at the Men’s Mission one night, but he was so dishevelled and broken and dirty, I wasn’t sure it was the same guy. Whoever he was, he took no notice of me.
My life was no longer my own.
In The Book of Numbers, God tells Moses that the Israelites must designate six cities of refuge so that anyone who kills someone by accident can flee there. The murderers will be protected from the wrath of the “blood avenger,” a family member of the deceased. The roads were to be well marked, free of obstacles, and wider than regular roads, so that those who have killed someone unwittingly could go there easily and without delay.
I never found my city of refuge. I remained in place.
I ran into Collier one more time, much later on. We were well into our thirties by then, and I stopped into a café near the McGill campus. Collier greeted me more warmly than I expected and we sat down for a chat. He told me that he had taken over Isolatoes after the original owner died… the man who had taken Collier in when he was orphaned and homeless had been like a father to him.
Collier asked me to stop calling him “him” and “he,” and to use they, awkward and confounding as I found this pronoun. I tried to make myself conscious and respect their wishes. They looked well, their platinum hair twisted up into a bun, decked out in high-waisted jeans, heeled boots, and a billowy white-ruffled blouse. Collier no longer sported the ironic smirk that was like a hand covering their face during the painful years of high school.
We both had the speciality of the house, an Isolatoe, a scrumptious coffee drink with cocoa, coconut milk, Kahlua syrup and cream. I needed some sweetness in my life.
Collier filled me in on the past twenty years of their life. They had gotten a degree in set design from Concordia and worked for some years in local theatre. Then when Paulie got sick with kidney cancer, Collier took time off to care for him. After Paulie’s death, Collier decided to take over the café. One of Collier’s dreams was to host a reading and performance art series at the café, and I could feel their excitement about this future creative venture.
We talked a bit about that night.
“You know, Morgan was expecting a baby,” Collier said. “Ours.”
I felt an electric shock pass through me. Though so much time had passed, I said, “I’m so sorry.”
Collier nodded. “But I’m thinking of adopting a kid, a girl. I’m making a trip to an orphanage in China this spring with my partner, Cole.”
“Wow, that’s wonderful,” I said. My own life at the time was still stuck, and sucked. I liked my work as a biology teacher at Park View High, the same high school I’d attended, hoping to ‘make a difference’ and all that, but I was terribly lonely and haunted by ghosts. My penance.
Collier told me that every year they went back to the beach on the Canal and sat for a while honouring Morgan and feeding bread crumbs to the seagulls, as they’d done together.
“I still talk to Morgan in my head,” Collier said. “I dream of her, and she’s alive. With me. Again.”
We started a tradition that afternoon where I joined Collier at the Lachine Canal beach on the anniversary of Morgan’s death, and we thought of her and spoke of her, and remembered her life and how it had touched ours. It helped a little.
And that’s when a woman came over to our table to talk to Collier. Her name was Andrea Boise and we all got to chatting. Turns out she was training to be a Physician’s Assistant.
I have Collier to thank for connecting me with the love of my life, only myself to blame that I could not hold onto her. But that’s a different story. No, maybe not, perhaps I just have this one story and that’s enough.