Broken Things

I get to Montreal in the afternoon and almost trip over a padded envelope waiting inside the front door of my apartment.


I get to Montreal in the afternoon and almost trip over a padded envelope waiting inside the front door of my apartment. I paid for mail-forwarding to Toronto, but somehow this package from my mother-in-law has found me here.

I walk through the long hallway towards the kitchen, my steps echoing loudly now that the space is almost empty. I’ve moved most of my things to Toronto, but the realtor said it would be harder to sell the apartment empty, so I left a few things to stage it. It’s the right word, I think, looking around. It feels like a set for a play: a bed, a dining room table and two armchairs. None of the clutter of actual life. Now that the sale is final, I’ve come to deal with the rest of the furniture.

In the kitchen, I water the desiccated plants on the windowsill and put away the few groceries I picked up for next day. The fridge looks the same as ever, giant and avocado green with a faux wood handle. When I open it, the air doesn’t blast cold and white but lingers, warm like bad breath. A fuse must have blown. The only things I’d left in there were a few beers and a box of my medication, ruined now. I close the door and go to the back room to check the breaker, find it flipped the wrong way. The contractors who’d been repairing the drywall must have turned it off. I snap it back on and hear the fridge whirr to life. It’s August and there’s no air conditioning, so I open the windows.

Outside, my upstairs neighbours are having a barbecue on their third-floor balcony. I go into the living room to charge my phone and text Marc that I’ve gotten in alright. I scroll through fantasies on Instagram while I wait for him to text back.

The smell of barbecue gets stronger, acrid, until finally I look up from my phone and realize it’s not coming from outside. Dark grey smoke is pouring out of the kitchen. I run in there to find it streaming out from behind the fridge, impossibly opaque, like fabric billowing. I grab either side and try to shimmy it away from the wall, but it’s too heavy, jammed in its nook. I run out to the back yard, shouting upstairs to the neighbours. I fumble my way through (Il y a un feu! mon frigo! How was my French already this bad? I’d only been gone for two months) and Sebastien runs down the fire escape.

He wets two dishtowels to wrap around our faces because we’re both coughing. Sebastien’s slight and a decade older than me, but he grabs the fridge and rocks it, side to side, quickly maneuvering it out enough to see orange flames licking the yellow wall behind it. He tells me to go and get some towels, which he wets in the sink and throws on the smouldering insulation at the back of the fridge. The towels sizzle and the flames go out.

I’m not a superstitious person, but a self-immolating appliance feels like a warning: No one escapes their past that easily.

Sebastien inspects the burnt insulation behind the fridge. “I don’t think we need a fire extinguisher,” he says. That’s good, I say, because I don’t have one.

I thank him profusely in my atrophied French, and he invites me to join his family upstairs. I lie and say I’m busy.

Afterwards, I go sit on the front stoop and drink a warm can of beer. I’m not a superstitious person, but a self-immolating appliance feels like a warning: No one escapes their past that easily.


That ‘70s Fridge: Retro...and super cool (quite literally)!

Our fridge broke down a week earlier, so I clicked the Kijiji link and offered the woman $50. I hired a guy named Guy to pick it up from the suburbs in his truck. He rolled it into our kitchen and fit it into its snug little nook.

“Thanks babe,” Chris said, and kissed the side of my head absently. I beamed with my own thrift and efficiency, more than I could say for the fridge, which would eventually start to drain energy and freeze everything, no matter what setting we put it on.

We were 27 years old and had been living together for two years by then. Even though we were both graduate students working full-time, the replacement of the fridge, like everything apartment-related, fell to me. My parents had bought the place as an investment, both in real estate and in our relationship. I didn’t like to bother them for anything else. I was our slum lord. Besides, I liked the idea of using what I already had, of making something work.


“You’re sure the fire is out? Completely out?” my father keeps asking. “Go pour water on the insulation,” he says.

My father has always been a worrier, but since his cancer diagnosis last year he lives in a land of worst case scenarios. I soak the blackened fluff until a grey puddle runs along on the kitchen floor. I wrap a wet towel around my face to double and triple check that the fire’s out.

“Go to a hotel,” my father says when I call him back.

“I can’t leave now,” I say. “I need to make sure it’s not coming back"; like the fire is a criminal who might return to the scene.

The fumes linger, even with all the doors and windows wide open. Even though the dog is in Toronto with Marc, I keep worrying he’ll escape, part of the muscle memory of this place. I set up the folding camp chair in the backyard and grab another can of beer and the package from Patti.

Patti with one i, Chris’s mother said when I first met her, holding one hand over her eye and laughing. There was something so childlike about her, with her unguarded smile and shock of blond hair, even in her sixties.

She never liked the dogs, but now she sends me whatever she can find with the breed emblazoned on it. It’s sweet, though I wonder how long she can keep this up. It’s been two years.

I open the birthday card first, Hallmark, the words health and happiness underlined for emphasis, to show me that she really does wish me those things. Inside the purple tissue paper is a tote bag with a picture of a Boston Terrier on it. She never liked the dogs, but now she sends me whatever she can find with the breed emblazoned on it. It’s sweet, though I wonder how long she can keep this up. It’s been two years.

When I go back inside, the smell is overwhelming. I consider setting up the air mattress in the unfinished basement, but my dad mentions rats and I decide that maybe I’ll camp in the backyard.

“That sounds dangerous,” Marc says when I tell him, as though we hadn’t just slept in a nylon sack for three nights surrounded by bears in Algonquin Park. Still, I imagine my neighbours looking down from their apartment windows and seeing me—already the weird anglophone of the building—sleeping in the yard, and book a hotel. It feels ridiculous to spend money I don’t have, but I’m so precious about my health now. I throw some stuff in my backpack, grab the last beer, and some food for the morning. Sebastien is still out on his balcony, so I tell him I’m going to stay with friends. He nods, says he understands, and asks me if I have a smoke detector.

“Of course,” I say.

The Uber drops me off in front of the tiny hotel on Saint-Denis. I open my backpack to get my wallet, and the beer and a banana roll out onto the reception desk with a loud clunk. The concierge still calls me ma’am.

“First time in Montreal?”

“No—I’m from here.” A lie, but one that feels true.

The room is clean and quiet. I run the bath and get in, my laptop propped on the toilet so I can distract myself with TV. I realized on the ride here that I lied to Sebastien: I had a smoke detector, but I cancelled the monitoring. It would sound but no one would come. I also cancelled the insurance, thinking the place would sell much faster than it did. All my neighbours will die in their sleep while I swan around in my terrycloth robe. I dunk my head under the water and hold my breath.

Marc FaceTimes, and I try to make the whole thing sound like a funny story. We’ve only been together for a year, and I still worry about scaring him off. He tells me not to worry, and I nod, like that’s a great idea.

When we hang up, I start to think about all the smoke I inhaled, the fumes. We’ve been less careful since I moved in. I count backwards, but I’ve never had a regular cycle so I can’t tell if I’m late or just imagining it.


I was halfway through the cleanse when it started. For 12 days, I avoided sugar, coffee, gluten and dairy, basically anything good, and took handfuls of barnyard-smelling supplements. A friend swore by it, said it made her feel amazing. I wanted to feel amazing. Chris and I had gotten married just over a year earlier, but so far it hadn’t fixed anything. We fought more than ever, mostly about his drinking, my nagging, a thousand kaleidoscopic permutations thereof.

One day, I woke up with pins and needles in my right hand. I shook it and stretched it and waited, but it didn’t go away. After a couple of days, the tingling moved down along my arm, until my entire right side was buzzing with it. “It feels like I’m swimming in Perrier,” I’d said to Chris the night before, trying to conjure the not-unpleasant sensation of it. The doctor at the hospital that morning said it was probably carpal tunnel and to come back if it interfered with my life.

I was making dinner and when I went to open the freezer door, it was frozen shut. I tugged harder, my numb hand flying back with the handle and clocking myself in the face. My nose bled, and I started to cry.

Chris dropped me off at the hospital an hour later. He couldn’t wait with me because we didn’t want the dogs to be afraid on their own.


When I get back to the apartment the next morning from the hotel, I’m relieved to see it’s not a smoking ruin. It still stinks but not as badly. The fridge is unplugged, a charred ruin in the middle of the kitchen, but I still worry about fires I can’t see, smouldering behind the wall. That’s what they call it, the damage you can’t measure with an MRI: smouldering MS. It sounds sexier than it is.

I didn’t know anything about multiple sclerosis when I was diagnosed the next day at the hospital. I vaguely remembered telethons on TV, a fundraiser in elementary school. In my mind, MS was jumbled with all the other diseases that other people who were not me could get, the ones with acronyms I’d never bothered to learn. The only thing I could picture clearly was a wheelchair.

My dad phones from Ottawa. He and my mother are supposed to be in St. Louis visiting his brother, who’s also dying. But my father started coughing up blood at the airport, so they went to the ER. He was laughing as he told me about it, how he used his connections to get seen quickly. He tries to spin it like it’s nothing to worry about, funny even, a romp. I laugh in the right places, try to mirror his forced levity. Don’t worry, he keeps saying.

I open the fridge and take out the medication. I’d have to bring the two syringes back to Toronto to dispose of in my sharps container, a giant yellow box with a biohazard symbol, discretely tucked behind the recycling bin so as not to remind Marc that I’m broken too.

We’d met a year earlier when I was in Toronto working on my dissertation, matching on Tinder three days before I was due back in Montreal to teach. We met at a bar with no name and drank too many Southern Comforts, which neither of us particularly liked but thought the other did. Afterwards, we hugged goodnight and I thought, well that was nice, too bad I’m leaving.

Feeling low-grade, constant terror that my body was about to betray me? No prob!

When he suggested coming to visit me, I panicked. I felt like I had to tell him about the MS before he booked his ticket, certain it would scare him off. I’d never had to tell anyone new before. After Chris, I’d only dated a couple of people, either exes or friends, people who already knew. We were sitting on a park bench, and I told him in a rush before I could chicken out. He didn’t seem fazed, even later, after he’d looked it up, which made me feel lucky, but also guilty, like I was tricking him. Since then, I’d instinctively made everything about managing the disease seem like no big deal, easy-peasy. This little auto-inject needle that I almost have a heart attack trying to deploy into my thigh every week? Totally fine! Feeling low-grade, constant terror that my body was about to betray me? No prob!


We lasted five months after my diagnosis. Here’s what he said: “We’re not happy. I don’t want to have a kid right now with our relationship like this.”

Here’s what I said, or thought anyway: “You have to stay. I’m broken and no one else will ever want me.” The desire to have a baby was like an intrusive thought that had started that day in the hospital room. It was as though my genes, threatened with the spectre of their own mortality, immediately plotted to outlast me, a lifeboat pushing off the side of a sinking ship. My brain felt hijacked by the idea of the baby, even as I knew rationally it would be the worst thing we could do with our relationship the way it was.

We had a big fight, and he moved out that night. I only saw him twice after that. We barely spoke. After nearly a decade, it was over in one night.

For weeks, I stared at the celeriac in the fridge I’d bought for an Ottolenghi recipe I was going to make for us, until eventually it withered, and I threw it out.


A friend gave me the number of a guy who collects old appliances for metal, and I leave him a message with my address. The people who were going to buy the ping pong table text to say they can’t because it won’t fit in their car. I guess they thought it was a mini ping pong table. I roll it back on to the street where Chris found it years earlier. Later, a woman shows up to buy the coffee table and the armchairs. We’d agreed on a price, but she arrives with less cash, offering to buy just one, a shake down.

“Just take them,” I say, reaching for the money.

The doorbell rings after they’ve left. An older man in coveralls stands outside with a blue dolly.

Le frigo?” he says, looking past me into the apartment.

I show him through to the kitchen, and he lets out a long, low whistle when he sees the mess. The fridge is still stranded in the middle of the room, surrounded by charred towels and drag marks on the hardwood floor.

C’est compliqué,” I say, one of my current stock phrases. The stupidity of this situation seems like something only I could have created, a distinctly me-shaped mess.

He levers the dolly under the bottom of the fridge, tips it carefully towards him. I follow him as he wheels it back through the apartment and out the front door. He is so quick, so efficient, that my paltry merci feels inadequate to the gratitude I feel.

When I come back into the apartment, the whole place feels bigger, lighter, though the kitchen still looks like a crime scene. I grab the broom to sweep up the debris: burnt insulation, an old bottle opener, charred paper, and dump them in a garbage bag along with the towels. I take the bag out to the street.

My train doesn’t leave for another hour, so I sit on the floor of the living room, legs crossed, and close my eyes. Even with the fridge gone, I worry about fires I can’t see, conflagrations in the walls that will take over if I’m not careful. Faulty wiring, that’s how MS was explained to me: the immune system attacking the myelin, the protective sheath that insulates the electrical impulses of the nerves in your brain and nervous system. Myself attacking myself. I need to stay vigilant, watchful, so that nothing can progress. I try to scan my body, but it’s unfathomable. I sit for a while longer, waiting to feel something, but I can’t shake the feeling that I’m performing, like it’s the final episode of some beloved sitcom. I stand up and grab my bag, turn off the lights, lock up for the last time.

I take the test a week later. Marc’s at work and I’m alone in the bathroom. It’s probably too early, I think, as I pee on the stick. It’s probably stupid to even think about this, as I put the transparent cap back on the absorbent tip. It feels dangerous to be hopeful about anything. After a couple of minutes, the second line shows up, faint but unmistakable.

I watch myself in the mirror to see how I will react. My eyes are wide, a caricature of surprise. I’m shocked my body has done this most predictable of things. My own laugh startles me: a broken thing, whirring to life.

About the author

Morgan Charles’s work has appeared in The Fiddlehead, EVENT, The Malahat Review, and Reader’s Digest. Her essay “Plagued” won the Fiddlehead’s 2020 CNF contest, and was nominated for a National Magazine Award 2021 for Best Essay. She holds a PhD in Communications and is currently completing an MFA in UBC’s Optional Residency Program. Morgan lives in Ottawa with her family