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BEN STARED IN WONDER at the number of people, at the swollen crowds that stretched the length of Toronto's China Town on either side of the street. It was mid-afternoon and the people were quietly going about their business. The only exception being the occasional heated haggling among the street vendors and their customers. Even though it was the usual crowd after a holiday period, it was somewhat sullen and inclined to an unusual silence. Sort of like a cat that you expect to be excited when you dangle some string in front of it, but instead it just lays there and looks at you as though to say, 'Who is this brainless fool with the string and the sing-songy voice? Can he not see we would rather not be bothered?' As he made his way down the sidewalk, dodging elderly ladies with their shopping carts, people had a tendency to move aside for him as he was considerably taller than most of the other people moving up and down Spadina Avenue. The sights and sounds fascinated him, along with the interesting smells, and the curious items for sale. Business had not been sufficiently brisk enough that day for all of the best bargains in fruits and vegetables to be thoroughly picked over. A faint excitement ran through him; his lips parted, his eyes darted here and there. He stopped and began looking over a stand of Oriental fruits and vegetables, stopping every now and again to examine some exotic edible that piqued his curiosity. After a few minutes, he found a curious fruit that looked interesting. Small and round with a loose kind of hairiness, they were in bunches looking like they must have been cut from a tree or a bush. He picked up a bunch of the strange fruit and felt it's soft feel in his hand. His mouth began to water a bit when he brought the fruit up to his nose for a couple of quick sniffs. He asked the man tending the stand what this odd fruit was called. "Rambutan," said the man. "Is good for eating after meal. Help with digestion," the man said with an obvious Chinese accent.
That was Ben's guess, anyway. It could have been some other language that the man spoke, but this being China Town, Chinese was the most obvious guess. The man took one of the small fruits and cut one open and then handed it to Ben. He took a cautious taste, not knowing what to expect. He thought it tasted kind of like a grape, but not as sweet. As he ate the rest of the sampling, he decided to buy a bunch to take home. He figured it would be something to show off to his roommate after dinner, peeled and covered with some whipped sweet cream. He paid the man and then put his purchase into the black daypack he had on his back and then slung the pack over his shoulder before putting his other arm through the other strap. Then he went on looking around the rest of the offerings for sale before selecting some fruits he was familiar with. He decided on some plums and oranges to go along with the rambutan. When he had secured them in his pack, he gave an involuntary shiver. His teeth chattered for a couple of seconds and he brought the back of his hand to his nose, which was slightly runny due to the cold. His nose was colder than his hand. His body twisted and wriggled inside his clothes searching for warmth. But his eyes were on the other stands that stretched down the street. He still had some more grocery shopping to do.
Farther down Spadina Avenue in either direction, once the shops of China Town ended, the crowds were very sparse and not many people were about. As he continued going about his business, he could hear his footfalls on the pavement. The relative silence was broken by the sound of a passing street-train. The noise rose up and roared over his ears like a wave. For just a moment, no life was to be seen. There was no movement but the passing tram. Ben felt a momentary loneliness overtake him, but it was quickly relieved by the sound of an approaching group of girls from one of the nearby private schools. From the looks of their uniforms, it was most likely an all-girls Catholic school. 'St. Michaels?,' Ben's mind offered. He continued along the street until he came to a bakery that had a wide selection of treats that made his sweet-tooth kick in and start begging for a fix. When he entered the bakery, he immediately spotted some tasty looking chocolate confections. But, resisting temptation, he opted for a loaf of fresh baked bread and some dinner rolls. After paying the woman behind the counter, he quickly left the shop so as not to linger and risk succumbing to another bout of temptation. He didn't think he could successfully resist the case full of sweets that were calling his name. 'Ben…Ben…I bring you tidings of sweet chocolaty goodness. I won't make you gain any weight. I promise!' 'Yeah, sure!,' he thought. 'I think we can put that promise in the same category as Trust me, The check is in the mail, and, I won't cum in your mouth'.
As Ben headed down Spadina towards College Street, he was listening to the popcorn sound of people's shoes and thinking about what he was going to do for dinner later that evening. His intention was to eat in with his roommate Mitch. It was Ben's turn to make dinner, but depending on what kind of mood the two of them were in would determine whether they would eat in or out. They were prone to eating out, more often than not, because when they got hungry they wanted to eat right away rather than wait for a meal to be prepared. Mitch had said that to Ben just the night before. He had a loud voice that would go suddenly serious. Perhaps because he was the facilitator for the support group that he and Ben belonged to and was always giving the news of people who were ill or had had some misfortune.
Really he had three voices; a poking, joking voice, a sensible, masculine voice, and a serious voice (which always made you notice his eyes, because they grew serious too, although they were not that expressive). It was in the manly voice that he had said, "I always get impatient whenever I get hungry", adding, of course, "When I feel like eating, I want something now, not half an hour or an hour from now". But when you looked at his face, one thing that was clear was that his skin was without flaw. Not a single blemish, line, wrinkle or pock mark. That was something that people were always remarking on, the fact that Mitch Beauvais looked so good for someone his age. It wasn't that he didn't look his age, because he did. It was that he looked like a forty-something with all the physical characteristics of a twentysomething.
Full head of hair, strong build, strong facial features and perfect skin.
Ben lifted his dark head and looked around as though his thoughts might have been overheard. There was an uncertain defensive smile on his face, which faded immediately after he was sure he was alone in his thoughts. His hands were now bitterly cold. He could not feel his fingers. His nose was still running from the cold, which he slowly rubbed with the back of his hand. At the same time he was pressing the back of his hand hard against his nose as though to warm the point. And then pressing it harder still, till his whole body quivered with the sustained effort to draw heat from inside him. But no heat came, and as he hastened his steps his teeth chattered. Damn, Toronto could be cold. And of course the wind off of Lake Ontario didn't help at all. It would cut through your clothing and freeze you to the bone. He tried blowing heat into his hands and stretching them open and closed to try to warm them up but it wasn't helping much. They were beginning to ache. The cold had now chilled them to the bone and his fingers were growing painful. He tucked them into his jacket and knuckled them against his stomach. He drew them forth again, closed them into squirming fists, cupped and blew on them, and then pressed them against each other. In a sudden frenzy he began pressing them against each other like rubbing sticks together to make a fire, but now in real earnest, not caring for the pain. Gradually the heat began to come. The tingling of it grew. The sharp stabbing in the numbed fingers became unbearable. They began to burn in agony. He looked at the reddened swollen tips, holding them fingertips upward in an utterly helpless gesture. His body twisted and doubled up as he shivered, but he wouldn't dare touch anything with his fingers now. If felt like something inside was trying to force its way through them. The tingling flesh was swollen and wouldn't let the thing pass.
Then suddenly the pain reached a point from which it had to recede or he would have cried out in agony. Finally, he gave up trying to make it home. The cold was becoming too much to bear. He stopped into a coffee shop to get warm and get his hands working again.
After a few minutes he started feeling warm again and, with the throb of pain in his hands dying down, the relief was exquisite. He even pressed his thumbs hard against his fingertips to make the pain sting a little, as though he were catching it up and hurting it before it slipped away altogether. By the time he waited in line and got something hot to drink, his hands were in a glow. Once he got his coffee and took a few sips of the hot liquid, he felt exhilarated. He took his pack off and retrieved one of the rolls which, amazingly, were still a little warm. The roll was nice and soft with a little bit of crunchiness to the crust. Saliva flowed into his mouth, and with wet red lips and sharp teeth he bit off a piece of the roll, moving each bite this way and that until his stretched mouth ached in the effort to give his molars a real chance. But the first bite he had taken was much better than the rest to his palate, and the fresh-baked flavor excited a greater flow of saliva then, so that his mouth moved richly and he swallowed many times. It was a shame that each bite of something this good was never as good as the first, although the memory of it lingers until you are finished eating. Oh well, once you started enjoying something so tasty, you just couldn't stop until there was no more. With a quick glance at his watch, he finished the roll and downed the rest of his coffee. If he didn't hurry it would soon be dark and then he would feel like he had let the best part of the day go to waste. And Mitch would be waiting for him, since he told him he would pick up some cold medicine for him. Mitch had been battling one of those typical lingering colds that just didn't want to go away. And anyway, he could finish his errands later on that day or the next. He was thinking about going back to the bakery and this time he would give in to temptation. He had seen some creme filled confections that he wanted to buy and take to the next group meeting. He was looking forward to the next meeting. Everyone had been discussing the idea of putting together some kind of social group that would meet every week to do something fun like play cards, go to a movie, maybe start an outdoor sports group and play soccer, volleyball or softball. Everyone liked getting together every week. It was just that everyone wanted to get together and do something besides discuss each other's health issues. It would certainly be in everyone's best interests to gather for some kind of pleasure activity, rather than just to piss and moan and vent their spleens.
As he hurried down College toward Yonge, where it then became Carlton, the loneliness of the street suddenly caught him in an odd way. A small shiver went over his back. The sun was just beginning to touch the horizon and the city spread out around him to a horizon so far away that it was vague and lost. What a huge city this was! It could heave up and swallow you whole. Its streets went inland in all directions from the waterfront, seeming to go on forever. He took in the grayish surroundings. There was always that dullness of color during the coldest months of winter due to the lack of rain to wash the city-grime off of everything. A short distance away, a panhandler was sitting up next to one of the buildings. His heart came up into his throat. Yet half his mind knew that it was just another lonely human trying to scratch out a living. He could never quite get over the number of panhandlers in this city. And in the summer time it was even worse. What he really could not get over was how young many of them were. As he passed by the woman, he tried to ignore her plaintive cry of "Can you spare some change?" He had come across this woman before. She was easily recognized by her shrill high-pitched voice that pierced the eardrums like a little tiny needle. She appeared to be of Inuit descent, with dark hair and eyes. He quickened his pace. He wanted to get home before the cold set in again. The pack on his back was beginning to get a little heavy so he took it off and slung it over his other shoulder. Just a couple more blocks and he would be home. Then he would be able to take off his jacket and shoes and get warmed up. As he entered the building, he saw Svetlana the building superintendent vacuuming the lobby. He waved to her and, knowing that she could not hear him, mouthed the words 'how are you?'. In response she gave him a smile and a small wave of her hand. There was an open elevator waiting so he decided not to interrupt her work. The apartment he shared with Mitch was on the third floor and the building was your typical Toronto high-rise with twenty-three floors. Though it was nice, their apartment did not have much of a view of the city. In order to have any kind of a view in Toronto, you had to be above the eighth floor. When he entered the apartment, he heard Mitch call out, "Ben, is that you?". He replied, "yes, its me. I got some cold medicine for you. I hope Sudafed is OK.
You didn't specify what you wanted, so I just picked up what I thought would be the best thing." About that time Mitch's cat, Muffin, came waddling into the kitchen. He had never asked where the name came from. They both called the cat 'Muff'. The name was a source of amusement for the both of them. Ben would often tease Mitch and say things like "Can I play with your muff?" or, sometimes when the cat was curled up in his lap he would pet the cat and say "Look, I'm stroking your muff!'.
They would both laugh at the double-entendre.
"Hi, Muff!" Ben said.
"Rrowr!" the cat replied.
It was odd how sometimes it seemed like he could actually understand you. More often than not, if you looked at the cat and said something, he would make some kind of noise in response.
"How's the world's biggest fur ball?"
"Are you hungry?"
He reached down and scratched the cat behind the ears.
Ben went into the living room where Mitch was sitting in his favorite chair. The living room was a comfortable size, furnished with a big overstuffed couch, glass coffee table and a leather recliner. A video cabinet and stereo cabinet sat on opposite sides of the door leading out onto the balcony. "Is it cold outside?," Mitch asked.
"Is a frog's ass watertight?," Ben responded.
"Well, you're lucky," said Mitch. "At least you're up to going out. I wish I could get rid of this cold and get some of my energy back. Mentally I want to go out, but physically I just don't feel up to it." He said this with no grudge in his voice. It was half a joke. "And my back is feeling cramped from lying around all day." Although he had been sick for the last three days, he did appear to be getting better. His spirits seemed better, anyway. "Did you see Svetlana when you came in?"
"Yes, she was vacuuming the lobby. I was in a hurry to get inside and get warmed up, so I didn't stop to talk with her. Maybe I'll run into her later."
"Did you find anything interesting on your trip over to China Town?" "Yeah. Remember that strange looking fruit we saw when we were in Kensington Market?"
"Yeah. The one that kind of looked like some kind of dried out sea creature?"
"M-hmm. I saw some at one of the outdoor stands and the vendor cut one open and gave me a sample. They taste like unsweetened grapes. By themselves they taste kind of strange. I bought some thinking they could be served with whipped cream, or mixed with some other fruits in a fruit salad. I got some oranges and plums to go with them."
"Mmmmmm. Sounds good. I wish I had your cooking skills. You should see what is involved in putting together a cooking show. You could give Emeril Lagasse and Peter Graham a run for their money." "You think so?"
"I know so. You're cooking is some of the best that I have ever eaten. You're an awesome cook. For a guy, anyway," Mitch said with a sly sideways glance. "Just what are you trying to say?" Ben asked.
"Nothing." Mitch said with a sardonic s**t-eating grin.
"Are you calling me a girlie-fella?," Ben asked with mock indignation.
"I don't know. Are you one?"
"Why do you want to know, Man-whore?"
"Man-whore? Who are you calling man-whore, gigel-'ho?"
They began alternately calling each other names in a quick verbal exchange.
And with that they both roared with laughter. Sometimes, to the untrained observer, they would seem to be bitter enemies. Their exchanges could appear to get quite heated. But in reality it was nothing more than verbal fencing. A sporting match that always ended once one could make the other laugh and lose their train of thought. Ben had a very quick sense of humor, and he was usually the victor. Ben and Mitch had only been roommates for a few months, but they were so much alike it was scary at times. Normally, neither one could stand to be around someone else for very long before they would need to have some time alone. But, they were so similar, being together wasn't much different than being all by themselves, all alone.