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Witness

Club 41 on King Street West

“What's going on with you lately?”

Monica's question - out of the blue though it is - is not unexpected. Her hand, gently draped across my left forearm, tugs gently and, then, playfully, she bumps me with her hip. I feign surprise and, when I turn to look at her, smiling, she is scrutinising me as would a scientist a curious, new specimen, although, not without the concern shown by the downward flex of her eyebrows and her dark eyes made more intense by the lids drawn taut and widening her gaze upward toward my face.

“What do you mean?”

My response mimics innocence but, in reality, I already know what the discussion is about; she raised it, tangentially, over dinner at Antonio's.

“I don't know. You've seemed distracted – like there's something going on in your head. Maybe there's something bothering you?”

“You'll be the first to know when I figure it out,” I respond, acknowledging the nut of truth but, at the same, rejecting further perusal of the point. For emphasis, I smile and wink at her but, in myself, I know that the smile is vapid, empty and, to recover, if only slightly, my free hand nestles over hers against the severe, black fabric of my suit jacket.

This is the context of our relaxed, walking pace up King Street West toward the place that, normally, we end up when in the mood for some drinks, maybe some dancing and, definitely, some pleasant conversation with friends, close and other: Club 41. The club is named, in a surprising feat of lack of originality, for its street address on King, residing at only a short distance from Yonge Street which, like an arrow shot, divides the city into east and west.

It is said that Yonge Street is the longest street in the world, stretching some 1100 kilometres from where it emerges on the north shore of Lake Ontario. I have never had the opportunity – or the energy – to verify this personally although the idea of such a journey intrigues me. It would be fascinating to document the changing vista from the vibrant, chaotic core of Toronto, traversing, to the north, some of the larger, satellite towns and, further on, delving into what is truly the heart of Canada – the sparse villages that dot the Canadian shield and its endless expanses of boreal forest that make up the majority of the country's near north.

A trolley bell clangs loudly nearby, rolling heavily on steel and iron and precipitating me from my reflections to land, unexpectedly, before the ornate, stained-glass accented doors of Club 41 and the ornate, cast plaque that proclaims the location. Monica disengages from my arm and takes my hand. She makes me pivot toward her, squinting upward to me in the fading, early evening light.

“You'll talk to me if you need to, right?”

“Yeah,” I say, flatly. “Of course I will.” I try to smile again but quickly discard the notion.

“You'd better, buster,” she retorts and pokes me with a knuckle in the habitual point on my ribs where, I am certain, a dent is gradually forming.

This time, my laughter is sincere as I rub my side and, smiling, good-naturedly, I pull open one of the heavy doors and, guiding Monica, my hand curved over her waist, we enter Club 41.

It is inside that I am faced with the real crux of what has been bothering me. At the front desk, the owner – a sandy haired and goatee'd, good looking fellow in his thirties – is his usual, congenial self, exiting from his position to greet us with hand-shakes and warm welcomes. His smile is broad, infectious and effusive. We react, returning his greetings in kind but, I am aware that, in my own responses, there is little of substance, only, as it were, a fictional representation of the interaction but without any personal involvement, as though, witnessed through someone else's eyes.

The question, when it forms in my head, is stark, betraying little wiggle-room for half-answers or avoidance behaviour: Have I become a non-participant observer – an impartial, emotionless witness – to the progress of my own existence?

My first reaction is the shock of realisation as, having completed our exchange with the owner, we gradually weave our way, Monica leading me by the hand, to our usual places at the spacious, oval bar. I try, frantically in my mind, to locate items of meaning and significance to me, quickly finding little or nothing to settle upon.

On the heels of the first, succeeds panic – thick, tenacious and overpowering – for my relationship with Monica. There is no doubt in my mind that my, at first, friendship, and, then, in time, involvement with her had significant effects upon my outlook and perspective; bringing me from the broody, closed-off and non-communicative fellow I was before to someone no less closed-off but, somehow, expressing less of that closure and making tentative attempts to match the gregarious and life-embracing qualities of her character. I know, however, that, the intelligent woman she is will broach no lack of emotional involvement. I am grateful when, with a gentle touch to the back of my neck, she excuses herself to freshen up.

Left alone, my hands, mirroring my thoughts, entangled and warring on the bar in front of me, I am startled – my body jerking visibly, withdrawing – when Jack appears in front of me. He extends a hand and begins to speak.

“I didn't mean to startle you, my friend,” he offers and I take his hand, shaking briefly.

“I guess I was being self-involved again,” I suggest wryly and he laughs.

“It's a beautiful evening to be out,” he begins.

I hadn't noticed.

“It is,” I respond mechanically. “I think this is my favourite time of year. How is Astrid?” I run over my usual list of small-talk.

“She's doing great but not too happy about putting the baby in daycare and heading back to work.”

“I guess not,” is my reaction. “She's been enjoying being a new mom!”

“We're both enjoying it,” he affirms to me. I nod when he offers up our usual drinks and then busies himself preparing them.

“Gonna have to get some help back here soon,” he observes, setting the shimmering, reflective glasses on coasters on the highly polished wood surface.

“It does seem to be getting busier,” I concur and look around at, what seems, a thicker than usual throng of patrons. His hand settles heavily on my forearm and I fight the urge to pull away.

“Give my best to Monica,” he says, smiling. “I'll catch up with you later,” and he immediately slides away to serve impatient clients waiting further up the bar.

There is, I reason to myself, a strong visual component to this uninvolved state that I am experiencing. It is, strangely, like watching a film or, perhaps, a news byte which is abstractly uninteresting but, nevertheless, one continues to watch the images – impassively observing. Another metaphor arises in my mind and I imagine looking at the world through a long tube whereby the view is vastly restricted, almost stripped of any context or connexion to what may be happening around. I turn slightly, scanning the patrons, and see little to draw my attention – only repeated, oft rehearsed speeches, poses and gestures. I cast off this impression and turn back to the bar as Monica returns and slides onto the seat beside me.

“Did you miss me?” She looks at me expectantly while her hand slides out to take her glass.

No. I was thinking.

“Every second,” I answer. At the same time, my hands give up on tearing the stir-stick to shreds and I put my arm around her, searching, in some way, for the security of her presence. My display is, evidently, good enough and I get a kiss to the side of my neck. I smile weakly in response.

We are surprised, so early in the evening, by the sudden appearance of Naomi, statuesque and sapphire clad and she slips, perfectly positioned, onto the seat to my left, no doubt drawing the attention of every man in the club. Monica and I wear similar expressions of disbelief.

“You wouldn't believe,” she emphasises with a wave of her jeweled fingers, “what happened to me today.”

I look at Monica and she is grinning, preparing herself for a good story.

“But, first,” Naomi fixes us, “tell me how you two are doing.” She grins mischievously and waggles a sapphire painted nail between us.

Inwardly, I cringe, not knowing and reach, attempting to deflect attention, to retrieve my glass from the bar, holding it in my lap and studying the sparkles of light reflected from the ice-cubes.

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