Spawning Upstream

Why is the subway so expensive?

Why is the subway so expensive? The thought of spending $3.25 to save myself 40 minutes of walking, rather than two hours, repulsed me. Couldn’t Scout have chosen a more distant location? Or even a slightly closer one? They wanted to check on a community garden, apparently. We used to hang out in our geographical middle-point: Christie Pits. Today, Dufferin Grove. I resented the implication that they would only meet me on their turf. And yet this thought was over-sensitive. Every little thing is fine. Trust Scout, Rachel. They know you’re sorry. They were serious. They wanted to make good.

I had waited so long to follow up on that promise, in place, in flesh and blood, where Scout’s tone and tenor would not be lost in a digital blur. Yes, I’m doing things right. Two weeks was enough to go without contacting them. 13 days would be totally inappropriate. 12? Even worse. The lockdown created greater space between us and delayed our seeing each other, which was probably a blessing in disguise. This meeting is long overdue. It has to be.

A dog walker tells me to watch out for a cop car lurking at Dufferin Park Avenue and Havelock Street. He would have a perfect view of the park’s rear. Would I be fined just for being outside? Was my letter of employment enough to save me? Did I forget my ID at home? One moment, I’d be searching my pockets and the next I’d be hearing a siren flare up from down the road. The strictness of the stay-at-home order was limited but the idea of such close surveillance was undeniably intimidating. This was exactly the kind of worry that Scout would balk at: “Rachel, do you seriously think you’re the kind of person who gets randomly stopped by the police?” Of course, I’m more self-aware than that.

I understand completely that much of my anxiety in public space is, as Scout would put it, ‘white femme bullshit,' but, nonetheless, it’s not as if I’m in no danger.

One difference between me and Scout is that I feel no need to make a show of how fully I comprehend my place in the world. My goal has always been to project a quiet self-knowledge rather than to state that knowledge so bluntly. I understand completely that much of my anxiety in public space is, as Scout would put it, ‘white femme bullshit,' but, nonetheless, it’s not as if I’m in no danger. I am very, very relieved that we had planned to meet at the other side of the park.

Oversized jean jacket with leather elbow patches. Too-big boots from the army surplus store. Scout, sitting on a park bench, wrapped in their clothes like a bleach-blonde pearl in its shell. Their hands are busy tying blades of grass into a chain.


“Scout. You know what we’re doing here is illegal.”

“It feels safe enough. Just, you know, keep some distance.”

What type of distance?! Do I look like I’m hovering already, as if I’m tensing to strike? Scout’s skittishness has always set me off, whether or not they have public health in mind. My role is good ex. I have no intentions to pounce on them again, that’s done. Buried and done. They pipe up in the face of my contorted expression.

“Uhm, I already gave the garden a look, got here early. It’s closed, could use some weeding.”

We begin a conversation of a type that’s become unbearably common. Scout misses the kids they taught Tae Kwon Do to, but they’ve been exercising more than ever, shadowboxing. Their body leans lean and so they don’t really have much mass to show for it. Shame. Without their daily exercise, Scout’s sure their mind and body would both fall apart. Me? I don’t know how I go on without the poetry nights at the Drake Hotel. I reminisce about sulking in the shadows of that scene. The familiar voices comforted me: Thunderclaw, Sulva, D the Poet—and the unfamiliar too! Good or bad, I miss the poems, the chill of the basement, the crowd snapping their fingers.

Scout is trying to improve their miso soup recipe. I am rewatching Arrested Development. Scout started embroidering the silhouette of a horse on a tote bag. I am calling my mom in Port Rowan every other day. In future, I will be keeping our conversations to half-an-hour at maximum, 45 minutes if dad joins. Scout’s roommate has adopted a cat named Tooth-Fairy. One of his eyes is missing and he’s a monster. I tell Scout that I love Tooth-Fairy already. It’s pretty funny. Love. The word love. Do I tell Scout how many times I’ve lain hunched beneath the covers in the shadow of mass death? I dream of crematories and exploding body bags. Not actually. I wish my nightmares were that interesting. The emptiness of my sleep disturbs me. I slingshot inside my apartment–crouching on the staircase, sitting on the kitchen counter, splayed across and barely fitting the tiny common-room rug as night’s stomach churns. Melatonin helps. No, I am too busy reading Scout for any sign of restraint to let loose. Their brow is too furrowed. Shoulders too hunched, the inward facing posture of the untrusting. Scout hates it if I let loose. Win-win.

All they’d given me was a sheer wall to climb. I would have to carve my own handholds.

Above all, we go no further than the surface. Yes, the cake I baked last week looks delicious! The bite Scout got from Tooth-Fairy is healing nicely. How lovely! The most Scout divulges is in an off-hand comment, “My family gave me a lot of food recently. I don’t know how to feel about that,” which they refuse to elaborate on. The sense of being alone is crushing. It persists even at the Drake, even when I imagine that the smokers and I outside are sharing our isolation. I remember when Scout allowed themselves to be coaxed open. The energy it required to make them talk about a bad mark, a co-worker’s insulting comment or a frustration with their garden was excruciating. But the rewards of the effort were overwhelming. Who else knew that Scout was full of so much emotion, so much conflict? What’s behind their quiet resolve today? The pleasantries leave no room for me to lay grip on their inner life. All they’d given me was a sheer wall to climb. I would have to carve my own handholds.

Scout’s attention is caught by a creature hopping along the tree roots: an avian shape with a head that sparkles blue.

“Who are you?” they murmur.

The bird’s bright yellow irises shine with intelligence. The way its eyes move, quickly glancing or steadying with concentration, imply the workings of its mind. Thoughts, judgments and guesses must be ticking through its skull.

“So, who is it? A type of corvid, maybe?”

“He’s a grackle. Not a corvid at all. They can sense the earth’s magnetism. It’s like having a compass built into their eyes.”

Scout knows not just birds but insects, animals, plants. Dragonflies are a favourite. Their most cherished summer, years ago, was spent catching the greatest hunters of the bug kingdom and cooling them down in the fridge. Under low temperatures, the specimens could be more easily identified. Clubtails, Darners, Meadowhawks, Cruisers, Skimmers. Many species populate these groupings, all with different flight seasons and habitats. Scout insists that their specialty is flora but I’ve yet to see them fail to name fauna that looks unfamiliar to me. Scout continues as the grackle hops around:

“So inquisitive! It’s good to be reminded that most forms of life aren’t human. Birds have their bird-problems; we make our own people ones.”

“I got something for you,” I blurt.

My gift: a wire bent into the shape of a dragonfly on a brass chain. It was homemade, simple, affordable—all things Scout. They unwrap the tissue paper and frown.

“Rachel, I can’t take this.”

“I think it’ll look good on you.”

“The gesture is appreciated, but I just can’t.”

Panic in Scout’s face?

“Ok. I’ll wear it if you won’t.” 

In the following weeks, I try to keep occupied, but it’s a wasteland out there: all the doors locked and shuttered. When my heart was last broken, I took so many dance classes. Contemporary. Jazz. Waacking. Whatever. Absolute beginner. A dancer’s confidence is full-body. It was most impressive when the experienced students went totally limp, their loss of control all part of the plan. My limbs felt like they were missing a range of motion. All these years they’d never been extended so far! Even as I awkwardly learned the steps and missed the beats and failed to extend this arm fully or arch that foot correctly, I was incensed. My desire to perfect any movement, violent or soft, fought with my urge to let loose with all I had. What if I didn’t have potential as a dancer? What if my true calling was whirlwind? Twister? Thunderstorm.

Without my wayward ex-girlfriend, I had so much free time to practice and so many questions to answer. When she maneuvered her skateboard through traffic effortlessly, a spike of envy shot through my heart. Then, she’d mount the curb, with her Metallica t-shirt or her silver chains or her always–salt–stained converse or her corduroy pants and I’d be falling in love again. Her chill set me on fire. I mean she infuriated me. She said we were a bad fit. It felt like an excuse. Folks ask if I can dance all the time. Now, I can always answer yes. Fuck yes, I can dance.

I text Scout infrequently. A picture or two of insects I see while out walking (a Hermit Flower Beetle and a Northern Broken-Dash, it turns out), an article on making kombucha at home. I rearrange my room, dusting under the bed for the first time since moving in, packing away the humidifier to make the space feel larger. More circumference for the circles I pace in too. I tape postcards above my desk: one with a sketch of a greyhound, one depicting a chunk of the Canadian Shield in photograph. I should get a tapestry or something, make the walls feel less bare. It couldn’t be too gaudy, just a few colours. Perhaps a simple landscape? Anything to push back stasis. Nothing changes in here without my doing it. Action, Rachel. Action is everything. Sweep the floor perfectly. Clean the kitchen with grim determination. Pull a tendon and curse this disjointed world. Spend my government cheque—order pizza, stickers for my bullet journal, anything. Breathe like I’m trying to swallow the ozone layer. Strangely calming. Spot Sam tucked among my other pillows.

Sam, my constant companion, is in his spawning colours permanently. Irresistible, that rich red jacket and seaweed green mask. Only so much detail can be captured in fabric and stuffing. The male Sockeye’s beak-like maw, his sumptuously exaggerated dorsal hump are absent from Sam’s construction. Boneless, soft, emasculated from his salmon’s masculinity but always in heat. A Sockeye of any sex spawns only once before dying. As they rush from salt to fresh water in fabulous attire, their flesh turns to mush under their skin.

There is competition, drama, exercise, but little that deserves being called erotic or even romantic. And yet what act could approach the potency of a massive, frantic death orgy?

The mechanics of salmon sex are quite unappealing. The fish barely touch, either spewing eggs or spraying sperm, sometimes jostling against each other. There is competition, drama, exercise, but little that deserves being called erotic or even romantic. And yet what act could approach the potency of a massive, frantic death orgy? The idea is horrifyingly kinky. Each bit of context magnifies the intensity: the length of the salmon run, the deadly obstacles (bears, birds, fishermen!), the prodigal return to the original spawning ground or exploration of unseen territories! The steps of the journey, so full of tension and significance, pales to the actual act the fish perform once they reach their destination. No wonder the Sockeye needs to lead such an extreme sexual life.

Why am I still satisfied by something so juvenile? I feel not an ounce of real affection for Sam, even if his colour scheme is well orchestrated. As a gift from a friend, he has a sentimental value. He’s just a fancy pillow beyond that. I could rub myself against anything, but I choose Sam. His consistency is delicious. His foamy body is as giving as it is firm. Easy to straddle. More likely, I fit him up against myself with my face already immersed in my comforter. While clinging to the mattress, I push my hips down and forward and back. And I imagine how appetizing I must look with my blouse unbuttoned and my body peaking from the tangled sheets as I draw myself up and down Sam’s length. The thigh exposed, a window to my waist open, my hair a spiderweb-halo. I don’t mind that Sam has never made me cum. There are depths to pleasure far beyond orgasm. An afternoon nap and time spent with Sam lazily slide together as I lose and gain interest in my varying rhythm.

I ponder whether we are entering a new, exciting era in the history of masturbation. There are live-in couples and throuples that are collapsing. Even they will be tempted to return to the self-serve model. I’ve begun to doubt Ocean Vuong’s belief in the virtue of jacking off, that self-pleasure restores our resolve to make meaning in a world become a void with hurt. Can our own hands lift us up? Will our own wetness ever satisfy our thirst? How about folks with tiny fingers that don’t do anything for them? When I squish into Sam I feel the bedding and the frame under me, the floors of the building, the earth rising up and pushing against the pressure I exert. The breeze caresses my bare skin. The sun grazes my back from the open curtain. I am not as independent as I seem, and neither is pleasure. Turn out, not in.

Sam used to sit snuggled between my tits and Scout’s, a link in the chain of pleasurable objects connecting me to everything. That I can get so engaged by fish and sex speaks to what a positive influence Scout had on me. The sense of brokenness doesn’t leave. All my mistakes fill the absence. Overstaying my welcome on the 3rd date. Not asking enough questions. Badly timed gifts (a habit, I’m working on it). My useless, stupid freak-outs. At the bottom of it all: my inability to trust. I find it difficult to fathom how painful it must have been for them to tolerate me, to be always on edge, at the mercy of my temper. And, oh god, the last time we almost had sex. They understood the intention of my hand on their thigh. I remember the tone of fear, of disappointment. Their impregnable expression:

“Really, Rachel? In that washroom?”

Devastating. If only I had told them how cute I found their restless hands, the knots they were tying in the loose threads of their ripped shorts. I wanted to be back home, where Scout would endlessly run their digits down my back or absent-mindedly braid my hair. It was as if their stamina for touch was infinite. Always sloshing the wine in their glass, clicking the point of a pen in and out, rubbing dead skin from their shoulders, their wrists. I missed my chance, each one I had.

The end of the strict lockdown comes like an exhale. I hit up old friends, go thrifting, and get tipsy in the park. Finally, my first sunburn of the summer—a hickey from the sky! Yet Scout sits uncomfortably in the web of my relationships. Their texts remain more curt than normal. I look at their insta the moment they post but make sure to like their pictures only after 24 hours have passed. Their tote bag turns out great. The orange-brown outline on the black canvas is striking. The curves of the horse flow pleasingly. When we split, they returned a skirt I’d asked them to re-hem. I couldn’t help but wallow in the symbol of a broken promise. This summer, in my mind, was supposed to be ours. I am still puzzling out why it wasn’t. It would take time, but eventually we'd feel close again.

The hail mary I need comes. A text from Scout (They texted first!): Do you want to get souvlaki with me? Of course. The Greek place by Trinity Bellwoods? Of course! When the eventful evening comes, I pull on a pair of off-cream canvas pants and a lime-green knitted crop top. A tweet of Scout’s from months ago, about liking girls who dress a bit masculine, is bouncing around in my head. A splash of lipstick for warmth? A tiny bit of eyeliner? Nah. Keep it natural. Flannel? The black and yellow one? Yes, absolutely. My pink bucket hat pulls the look together. 

My wants are simple: one good, honest conversation.

My heart beats a happy note on the streetcar ride over, and not just because I dodged the fare. With white wine in a thermos and my best picnic blanket, everything is set. My wants are simple: one good, honest conversation. I arrive first and the rest is rote, getting food, finding a place to sit. Scout carries their jacket under one arm, an olive tank top resting comfortably over their tight sports bra. They’ve buzzed their hair back down to nothing.

“It was either this or get a new tattoo.”

They rub their scalp as they speak. The drop of ease hits my tongue like ambrosia. All these mortal cells recall what it was like being divine, as in double. But my attempts to keep the juice flowing are rebuffed.

“You got plans for more tats?” I ask.

“Haven’t actually given it much thought.”

“I want a honeybee on my wrist.”


“Listening to any new music?”

“Not really.”

No fun facts about the genus apis? Or honey gathering? I’m getting the sense that we’re right where we left off. Me, anxiety bursting from my pours. Scout? Hiding their suspicion of my motives in the folds of their denim attire. Why speak to me if you’re reluctant? Why look at me if you’re still afraid? The contradiction was the truth. Scout doesn’t know whether to keep me close or totally cut me off. They pipe up.

“I’ve been thinking about next steps. Uni is hell, but I think it’s worth it if I can work with animals. I loved actually handling the snakes when I was a research assistant. They have so much personality. I heard about these ecology programs in the States. I think that’s where I’m going.”

It’s like my soup’s been spilled all over my favourite dress or like a breeze has blown my manuscript into a lake. I don’t like thinking about next steps. I don’t like thinking about Scout leaving Toronto. And all this vulnerability for nothing, for no effort on my part? Has this dance been totally arbitrary? Scout’s expression is gentle, shy. I sip my wine as contempt begins to boil in my veins.

Do they expect me to play along, tell them about my five year plan? At the age of 26, I’ll be struck by a bolt of rage so sudden and intense that my skull will explode. My grey matter will splatter on my hot veterinarian girlfriend’s button-down shirt and her leather jacket and her blue hair. Chunks of bone will lodge themselves in the upholstery of the couch in our cool apartment, where she stays because I’ve trapped her in a lease. I probably freelance.

“That sounds like it would work for you. Big risk, international living,” I say, betraying nothing.

“I’ll handle it. Fresh start might be nice.”

Sure would, asshole. They’re ripping their souvlaki wrapper into tiny shreds. “You spacing out there, Rachel?”

“I’m starting to think you have OCD. You’re always antsy. You can’t keep your hands still. You have to touch everything, pick it apart.”

“Excuse me?”

“I’m not one to trust psychologists, but you should get it checked out. You know, it might get worse from the stress of immigrating—especially with racism ramping up in the states. It could end up being debilitating.”

Too far.

“You might need help is all I’m saying.”

“Rachel! I have no clue what this is about, but it’s pathetic. As if it’s any better in Canada. Do you hear how unhinged you sound? Maybe it’s you who needs to see a psychologist.”

Holy shit! How could Scout say something so mean to me? Kicked, I feel like they’ve knocked the air out of me with their stupid boots. On the verge of tears, I stop myself from begging them to stay. And my outfit is so fucking confused. Finally I see the truth, that all the pieces are put together wrong. Scout throws their jacket on and leaves, probably forever.

I feel the moment when sorrow turns to hate—it was months ago. I crushed the bitterness with sweet, trading impotent anger for self-improving guilt. Had Scout never considered that they owed me something? Each time they "didn’t want to talk about their feelings" drove us further apart. Is Scout self-assured or self-denying? Maybe if they’d actually tried to make it work, tried to make being friends work, I wouldn’t never have been in this position. They hadn’t asked for an apology, but I provided one anyway. I’d wanted so badly to make good.

Will they feel abandoned, however temporarily? Do they despise each other as much as me and my lovers do?

Swallowing every bruised emotion, I clean up the trash, fold my picnic blanket and bring the garbage to the nearest bin, already overflowing with takeout containers and beer cans. Looking up, I spy a familiar blue and black bird feeding its chicks. Momma Grackle stares at her brood, as if she can’t choose which hungry mouth to attend to first. The babies keen louder and louder, but their parent flies away, landing back on the ground to pick at all the trash we’ve left behind. Was she ashamed of herself, for failing to withstand so much neediness? How about the hatchlings? Will they feel abandoned, however temporarily? Do they despise each other as much as me and my lovers do?

The new apology that I write the next day? I delete it. The photos of me and Scout at the aquarium, their arm around my waist? The chats where we talked about the history of the microscope, our shared love of spoken word, and sometimes communicated solely in our emoji (the two autumn leaves falling)? Annihilated. The memory I could not erase, of our tearful break-up conversation:

“You’re miserable with me” they said, with a limp hand resting on my shoulder. “I’d be miserable with anybody.”

“That’s messed up.”

I realized there had never been a fight for me to win. This was Scout’s decision. Another epiphany. I’d wanted this drama to finally end at the picnic. That’s why I acted so poorly. It was the only way I knew to draw away.

About the author

T Williams is an activist, writer, game designer, and DIY fanatic from Toronto. Their primary interests are femme jealousy and the messes we make with our bodies. Ask them about their upcoming zines. Find them anywhere @dreamsandfevers.