Jezebel and David lie together long after the sun sets, watching the fluorescent bulb above the bed flicker on and off. Even their shadows have one foot out the door and across the equator. David chain-smokes in bed, outing his cigarettes in one of Jezebel’s dollar-store mugs. Listening to Nina Simone while ignoring her best advice. Fruit flies buzz around their heads. Cold pizza grows mouldy in the corner. Laundry piles high in Jezebel’s suitcases. So this is Canada, Jezebel thinks. Rooms that are always too hot or too cold. Dutty underwear worn inside out. Mice appearing and disappearing through the exposed piping. Her mother always told her, “If you don’t have nothing nice to say don’t say nothing at all.” But she ran out of nice things to say to David months ago. She knows she is being difficult, that her complaining does nothing to improve their situation, but she can’t seem to help herself. Her anger is a dull itch behind her eyes which she tries to ignore, but it overwhelms her. A constant, buzzing irritation relieved only when she snaps at David. “Nike footprint all up the bloodclaat sheet. Me buy these with me own money,” she says, kicking his calves with her bare feet. David sucks his teeth. “No one holding you hostage, girl, go,” he says. But who looks back over their shoulder at a sinking ship? The only way out is North. Jezebel knows this. David too. She isn’t going back.
Through the thin walls of their squat she can hear the laboured breathing of their neighbours. She misses the stars. She misses air. She wishes she could poke holes in the ceiling like they were fireflies in a biscuit tin. David seeks an armistice, reaching his hand across the few inches of musty sheets between them, but she rolls away.
“Time for a new tune dat,” he says, turning instead for the stereo. Record scratch and gun shot. He’s shirtless in the corner swaying. His cigarette dangles from his fingers and the ash falls on the carpet. He’s skanking and singing along to the lyrics he remembers. Richie Spice and Beres and Buju and Sizzla. His CD collection is almost a decade out of a date and Jezebel doesn’t have the heart to tell him no one listens to conscious reggae anymore. David talks about home like it’s a place he knows. Like home is a patch of cool sand or a plate of ackee and saltfish served at his mother’s kitchen table or a pretty girl who spread her legs for him beneath a tamarind tree, once, so many years ago. A place where he is still the golden boy, the one with the scholarship to study at fancy school in Canada. First person from their parish church to dip big toe in the Pacific.
David talks about home like it still exists. Like he never left to come live in Babylon country with snowy mountains on one side and cold sea on the other. Jezebel thinks this city feels like living in a deep, dark pit. The sun hangs in the sky like a window decoration, its light never reaching. She’s never seen so many white people on the street. She says, “What chance we got living in a place where even the white people sleeping outside?” David just turns the music up on the stereo, picking at the scabs on his forearms. He thinks she doesn’t know what he spends her money on but she does. All he wanted from her was a taste of home. As if she were a care package. Something sweet and salty just like he remembers it.
The Freshslice where Jezebel works is owned by a moustachioed Chinese man who also works the till and occasionally mans the oven at the same time. He opens the store each morning and closes it every night. Jezebel is one of only three employees. She works six days each week, thirteen hours a day. She gets paid six dollars an hour, under the table, more money than she has ever earned in her life. On her breaks she likes to sit on a bench in Victoria Square and eat stale pepperoni pizza in the weak spring sunlight. There’s no one to cover her breaks so she knows the longer she sits on that bench the more dishes she will have to wash when she gets back. But she can never seem to make herself rush. Maybe it’s the weak sunshine, the sliver of it that cuts diagonal across the park bench that pins her where she is. Maybe it’s the music coming from the centre of the park, where three dreadlocked white boys bang on drums. She stays as long as she can, tilting her head up to peer at the sky behind the leafless branches of the trees. She had never seen a bare tree before moving to Canada but she decides she likes them. There’s something open and honest about their spindly branches.
Most days after work, she goes to the Vancouver Public Library. She sits at a computer and types in the ten-digit barcode at the back of her library card. The card actually belongs to Ashima, one of the other three employees at Freshslice. Ashima’s student visa does not allow her to work more than twenty hours per week so she works at Freshslice to make up the difference in rent for the basement apartment in East Van she shares with four other students. She sold Jezebel her VPL card for $50. Jezebel logs onto Facebook. Her profile picture is still that of her and her secondary school friends. Their khaki uniforms are scrawled with names and hearts, an annual tradition of the graduating class. Their arms are around each other’s shoulders and Jezebel can’t believe this picture was taken less than a year ago. Her cheeks are round like a baby’s and her hair glistens in the sunlight, slicked back with a dozen pink barrettes.
She was so excited to come to Canada, to post pictures of herself all bundled up in the snow. She wanted to wear a scarf, one of those ones that wrap around the neck right up to the ears. She wanted Ugg boots and tights and those grey socks with stripes. She wanted to look like the women she saw in SUV commercials, hiking up mountains and playing with fluffy dogs in parks. But it doesn’t even snow in Vancouver and she’s still wearing the same jeans and knock-off Adidas she bought for the plane ride. She can’t even update her profile picture because David sold her camera phone a week after she arrived. Not that she’d want anyone from home to see her now. Smelling like pizza grease most nights, her skin ashen, her nails cracked from the dry air, the hours spent elbow deep in muck.
She has a message from Asia on Facebook. Asia moved to Canada a few years before. She lives in a place called Scarborough, near Toronto. Asia says Jezebel would like it better out there. She says there are loads of Jamaicans and all the clubs play dancehall music and you can buy jerk seasoning that is imported straight from Kingston. Jezebel is sceptical. She doesn’t want to live in an imitation city. She worries that Jamaicans in Scarborough are just like sunshine in Vancouver: pretending. But still she reaches into the secret lining of her purse, the one place David has not thought to rummage for drug money, and fingers the thick wad of bills his mother gave to her. Her own mother had refused to drive her to the airport and in the end it was David’s mother who saw her off, pressing this wad of American bills into her hand, clasping her tightly at the wrist. “Tell him we love him. Tell him we’re still here.” Jezebel could hear the warning in her voice even then, but it hadn’t been enough to stop her from getting on the plane.
When Jezebel gets home David is sleeping. Beside the bed is a small stack of books. She picks one up, glancing at the cover. It’s an old physics textbook, even the title so convoluted she cannot decipher it. It’s earmarked and lined, with David’s handwriting scribbled on nearly every page. She sits on the bed beside him and he stirs, rolling onto his back and reaching his arms out towards her like a small child. She crawls on top of him, burrowing her face into the pillow beside his head.
“You smell like sunshine,” he says, cupping her behind and pulling her closer.
“You smell like cigarettes,” she replies, wiggling out of his grasp. But he keeps her pinned there.
“Kiss me, nuh,” he says. His eyes are wide and expectant and he looks like the David beneath the tamarind tree then, looking up at her, knowing she will jump. She kisses him and lets his hands roam her body. Soon her moans join the carnival of sounds in their building. Their bodies moving together make a noise like a cooing pigeon.
That night, Jezebel dreams that she forgot her purse on the bus. She chases the bus on foot from stop to stop, always a few feet behind, until it disappears around a bend. She wakes up aching. She feels like she has shed a layer of skin. She turns to David in half-sleep and when she speaks her voice cracks in the dark like static on wool. David pulls her closer to his chest. She says, “I’m always dreaming of losing things. I leave bits of myself behind wherever I go.”
“Shh. Try and sleep,” David says. Jezebel nods in the dark but she’s not present. She’s a million miles away. She thinks that she has misplaced herself somehow, like a spare sock. She’s lost somewhere between the couch cushions. She has been swallowed whole by the floor. She wonders why she dreams such small dreams. Why she isn’t fleeing monsters or jumping off tall buildings. Why it isn’t some big idea she chases from city block to city block. Instead she thinks maybe it’s something she once knew to be true of herself that she has forgotten.
JASMINE SEALY is a Barbadian-Canadian writer. Her work has been published in The New Quarterly, Adda Stories, Geist Magazine and in anthologies by Caitlin Press and Véhicule Press. She is the current prose editor at PRISM international.