City Lights by Mitchell Toews

Erich is invited by his boss to a cocktail party, and fears he's being made a fool; by Mitchell Toews.

Working out of Winnipeg, I was an aufsteiger - an up and coming employee for a big U.S. company. I reported to a woman named Teresa Jarvis and the proof for my conceit came when she brought me to the Canadian headquarters in Toronto for a special training course.

"Back in a week." I kissed my wife goodbye at the airport. Seven months pregnant and she still turns heads, I thought, appropriating her good looks for my own vanity.

I was a valuable corporate resource, in my mind, anyway. A greater certainty was Teresa, who was without debate a rising leader in the company. She had been summoned several times to San Francisco and New York City to meet with the CEO and it was widely believed that she would soon become the Western Canadian Director.

"I don't control that," she'd say. Always deflecting, but like a veteran goalie, directing her rebounds strategically into the rounded corners.

Teresa was from a wealthy family in Toronto. One day during my training, she suggested I go with her to a casual cocktail party she was attending that evening. "I'll introduce you to a few old friends and we'll have a drink and leave after an hour or so," she said to me over lunch.

I was reluctant, but she pressed me. "Wear that new blazer - the tailored one," she suggested.

The guests were chums from a stone fence neighbourhood in the heart of exclusive Rosedale. Cars parked along a curving driveway gave away the house as Teresa and I approached. I followed her through the dark as we circled around and entered by the crowded patio at the back. The interior was lit up like a ship at sea.

An outlier in this clique - I was a cheerful, earnest rustic from a backwater somewhere out west - may as well have been "Upper Rubber Boot". As the evening wore on, and the case of beer I had insisted on bringing was consumed, they began to play by Sheffield Rules. "How adorable - look, everyone, Labatt's! Guess they were out of Bud. Ha-ha!"

My many small social miscues accumulated, and I felt like Tarzan in London - a mildly interesting, but predictable, alien distraction.

At some point, I decided that if I was going to be belittled, it would take more than this soft-handed crew. They had the advantage, but they couldn't even be bothered to do a good job of disrespecting me. The evening turned ugly. In the end, I challenged the whole living room to a fight. I wasn't big or tough, so I played the cards I had - I bluffed. They may have read it but lacked the energy or the interest to call me. Or maybe there was greater sport in just watching me - a rolling puck - while Leonard Cohen recited filthy poems in the dim, tinkling background.

"Well, this is fun," I heard a tall blonde say to a twinnish brunette woman as they stood, shoulders touching. "Tere has brought such an entertaining guest." She caught my eye a second later and squinted, a friendly façade displacing her look of conspiratorial delight.

Teresa watched me from the kitchen while she caught up with her friends. Her nervous hands spun a wine glass on the table in front of her as I challenged all comers. There were no takers, but some guffaws.

When the gathering ended, I was not surprised to learn that Teresa had left. I was given a ride by a quiet young woman named Meghan who was driving by my hotel on her way home. I got in the car expecting it to be a silent journey - at most, some meaningless small talk to gloss over the several awkward situations that had arisen. It began that way. "Nice jacket," she said, accelerating towards a vertical stand of luminous buildings in the distance. "Where'd you pick that up?"

"E-bay," I said, dead pan. Teresa gave it to me, I could have told her.

"Har! E-bay, are they even, you know, in business?" she said, pulling back on the lapel to see the brand stitched over my heart. "Not E-bay," she said, letting it drop back in place.

"You know," she said after we had driven for a few miles, "you completely misread the circumstances."

I sniffed with disdain and looked out at the buildings ahead. Like poplars, on a hill by the lake in the moonlight. A confederacy of poplars, someone had written, I thought I remembered. Their roots all interwoven, under the surface.

"Seriously," she continued. "No one wanted to give you a hard time. We were just teasing Teresa because she had warned us not to make you feel uncomfortable."

I glanced over at her and could see she was agitated; upset. The colour was up around her neck and bare shoulders. The shade of a Provence rosé, as Teresa might say - a sophisticated but imprecise descriptor relying on my lack of oenophile knowledge. I hated wine. Too sweet.

"We would've backed off, but the way you took the bait, you can hardly blame us for keeping it up. You asked for it, and it doesn't matter that you are rather good-looking," she said, giving her wrist a flick to reposition her glinty bracelet. The jewellery caught the glare of the street lights as the car sped beneath them. A long row of goosenecked standards stretched out like an honour guard before us.

Opening the window, I listened to the crickets and frogs calling from the valley below as the beautiful silver sedan crossed the Don River Bridge. Inhaling, I expected to smell fresh summertime vegetation - ferns and flowering trees. Instead, there was the stench of hog rendering, the heavy synthetic odour of chemical discharge and the cloying, amylic reek of fermentation. I pushed the button and the glass hummed up and nested in the rubber rim.

"Teresa is my oldest and best friend. She is an open book. No pretensions. We all love her for it. Her family is old money, but you would never know it, right? Teresa is a substantial person," Meghan said, putting emphasis on the last words. She twisted slightly in her seat as she spoke, turning her long body towards me for a second.

No pretensions, eh, I mused. Maybe one or two. I thought of meeting her father at the Portuguese Men's Club earlier that day, a slope-shouldered building beside a railyard. "What are you doing here?" she said, stamping her high heel on the concrete floor. "This is my spot!" Foreign soccer commentators rolled out alveolar trills from big screen televisions behind her, their words spewing out over the midweek lunch landscape of Italian silk and Swiss time. "This is Erich, one of my best and brightest in Winnipeg," she introduced me, steering me with a pinch of my blazer sleeve. Faint pressure pushed my shoulder back. "Stand like Superman - chest out, hands on your hips. It completely changes your brain chemistry. Try it!" she had insisted, more than once.

My eyes followed as the streetlights strobed bright on the smooth dash and the sloped hood with our passing. I agreed with Meghan - Teresa was a substantial person, to be sure. I thought of how she had brought me along at work. I could see the small pile of reports on my hotel room desk, manila folders. Teresa wanted those done by noon the next day. "We can work on them together, if you'd like," she had said. "Good idea," I replied, afternoon sun filling the bland room. Dust motes hung in the still air, watching.

I wet my lips and unbuttoned my collar button. "Go on," I said, studying Meghan's profile. That's a low-cut dress. You've a nice figure, Ms Rosedale, I thought. I looked and let her catch me. I looked again.

She adjusted the AC with a perfect nail, it was painted the faint peach of a Provence rosé, "No one in that crowd tonight - except Teresa - is going to give a second thought about what went on. It's no big deal to us," Meghan said, glancing over at me, the city lights putting highlights in her eyes, like a Japanese cartoon character. "But you should apologize to her. She didn't deserve the dumpster fire you turned into."

Downtown now, she pulled over under a bluish streetlamp that hung from the arm atop a tapered concrete pillar. Several dozen beetles were collected in the circular pool of light beneath it. The insects crawled towards the bright centre, clicking like plastic toys as they advanced in slow-motion unison. Some paused to consume the squashed remainders of their kin; victims to passing cars.

Meghan shut off the radio and the muted contrabass of the idling engine was the only sound.

"I'm turning off at the traffic light. Your hotel is three blocks straight up the street," she said. Then she added, "I'm not saying we're not snobs. But you are too."

"How's that?" I replied, my forehead wrinkling.

"People like you, Erich," she said, with a light brush of my arm, "give yourself credit for your depth of character and the whole 'salt of the earth' public relations image you seem to favour. Meanwhile, anyone with a little money is nothing but a bunch of shallow posers who are bloody lucky that our fathers were born before us." Tossing her hair, she adjusted the bracelet again, rotating her forearm in a regal wave to slip the silvery loop down.

She flicked the wipers on, batting a winged beetle off the windshield. "Admit it," she said. "People are mostly good. I believe that. But each of us given our own dose of bad. Wealth alone doesn't change that. At least, it needn't."

I tested the door handle, then forced my shoulders back into the leather seat. It resisted like hard butter pressed by the flat of a knife. "See you sometime," I said, trying the door again.

It was quiet for a moment and when I said nothing more, she toggled a button on her armrest to unlock my door. "Careful. They're slippery," she said as I got out, backing into the spotlight on the street and splitting a beetle open with my shoe.


  1. The clashing and misreading of the class species! Meghan got it right with her comment that people are mostly good but each with a dash of the ignoble. You captured beautifully the suspicion with which the different social classes regard one another and how our own behaviour worstens when we feel inferior. An interesting approach, Mitchell.

  2. Home truths shipped with notable phrases, palpable description, and accomplished dialogue.
    B r o o k e

  3. Erich exhibits a little social paranoia and imagines too much separation between himself and others, as most people probably do from time to time. But our roots are “all interwoven, under the surface.” An affirmative message, well delivered.

  4. A story about different perceptions and consequent struggles to bridge chasms of understanding Many thanks

  5. Thx for the comments, DH & CH. So much complexity and so many cross purposes even in social situations that seem simple and mundane. We're a complicated pack.

  6. Enjoyed the story. Great descriptions. Especially liked "Always deflecting, but like a veteran goalie, directing her rebounds strategically into the rounded corners."