We All Need to Eat (Book*hug, 2018) is a collection of linked stories from award-winning author Alex Leslie that revolves around Soma, a young queer woman in Vancouver. Through thoughtful and probing narratives, each story chronicles a sea change in Soma’s life. Lyrical, gritty, and atmospheric, Soma’s stories refuse to shy away from the contradictions inherent to human experience, exploring one young person’s journey through mourning, escapism, and the search for nourishment. The following excerpt is taken from the short story “Self Help Liturgy.”
The strangest thing about Elijah’s memorial party is that he’s here. The way he holds his glass – limp, loose, like he’s about to let it slip and go crashing down. He always finds a wall to stand beside and he holds his glass just this way. Sometimes, looking at him, I can tell that he’s forgotten where he is. Surrounded by people, a veil comes over him, a quietness between him and everyone else. When people speak to him and he’s unplugged, he smiles with fond disinterest. Everybody should stop trying so hard, that smile says to me. It’s such a shame we have to try so hard with each other. I remember feeling that way when I was seventeen, nineteen, a sense that it was all a charade, we were all just going through the motions of becoming humans. It takes a while to grow a person. But at some point, we all outgrow that charade feeling, don’t we? Or pretend to. But you can tell Elijah never lost it – you can see it on him. He wears it. It makes people wary. He isn’t the kind of person you can say that to, though.
We hadn’t talked in a few weeks when I heard the news. I would never say this out loud, but when I heard he jumped from the Lion’s Gate bridge I wasn’t surprised. Kendra called me to break the news. I couldn’t have predicted. A part of me knew that he wasn’t in it for the long haul. He looked at all of us as if we were optional.
I can’t tell you the colour of his eyes. I think of him, hold him right here in my mind, and I think of his watchfulness, a gaze with no colour. Light laid on shallow water. Barely perceptible movement. Just passing through.
At his party, I watch him. He witnesses the whole thing. He’s there, standing in the corner, in the shelter of the wall, watching all the people he’s known over the course of his twenties drain the black and copper bottles that crowd the counters and tables. Bored, he watches me fade in and out of a dozen conversations with people I’ve forgotten, people who knew me only as Elijah’s friend, the one people always assumed would pick Elijah up from the hospital when things got sketchy and he dropped out of the world for periods of time. He watches me drink and drink and drink, argue with Kendra, he watches the young men in black suits from his home arrive and reduce the room to silence, he still hates them, but all our bodies together in the same room praying and drinking, there is something in that worth hanging around for, and he watches me go home with a woman at dawn.
At some point in the ageless pale hours of early morning, someone reprises the game. The leader is a friend of Elijah’s from the comic book festival he worked at for two summers. Misha, with a stop-start way of speaking, a head of red leaves. They fucked for a while, on and off. Elijah cared less. The top and bottom buttons of his shiny purple dress shirt undone. Elijah had a talent for collecting people. One time I told him he was the most non-judgmental person I’d ever known. He looked at me archly and answered, “It isn’t that I don’t judge, it’s that I don’t care.” He looked disappointed in me, as if I’d missed some very obvious point.
Misha raises his glass.
“Long,” he says.
Kendra, still moderating through the monocle of an amber glass. “Why long?”
Misha sweeps an arm out, as if clearing a great, invisible cluttered table. “I’m thirty-three. I could live to be one hundred. That means I’ve lived one third of my life.”
“Solid math.” I turn and look for Elijah but he isn’t there; just some guy eating a slice of green quiche off his left knee.
“One third and think about it – how much of the first ten years do you remember? This is the part of our lives we’ll remember all of. All of it.”
“What a horrifying thought.” Elijah?
“I mean, when you really think about it” – two sets of arms and legs in the corner unfurl from each other – “your twenties are just, like, preparation, getting ready. I mean” – most people are listening to now, or too drunk to resist – “I mean who here owns anything. Not a car. That doesn’t count.” I don’t own a car. “Who has a kid? We are a fucked generation. None of us will ever own anything.” True – the recession set in the year I finished undergrad and the economy won’t change anything soon. The damage has been done. We’ll live in tents like our ancestors. I pour water into my whiskey.
“Misha…” Kendra’s voice drifts up nervously.
“I’m not saying he was right.”
“Misha, thanks. Game’s over.” Kendra scans the room nervously – she doesn’t want this mess to dishonour his memory.
“I’m not saying that. I’m saying. I’m saying life is long because there’s always more time. A lot more.”
A few people applaud as Misha staggers a bit, raises both his arms.
“It’s your Jesus year,” Kendra says.
“Thirty-three. Your Jesus year.”
Misha laughed. “I’m Jewish.”
“So was Jesus,” I mumble.
“Isn’t the whole point of Jesus that every year is your Jesus year?” A girl in the corner stares at us, her eyes conjoined in angry focus. No matter where you are and what you’re doing, someone will be mad if you bring up Jesus.
“I don’t know.”
Misha points at Kendra. “What happens in your Jesus year?”
Misha points at me. “My child,” he says. “Life is short.”
Elijah was a year older than me. He was twenty-one the first time he got really sick. I visited him in the hospital. I remember very little of that visit. The white noise from the hidden machinery in neighbouring rooms irradiated the ventricles of the afternoons I spent there. His father hunched in the area for families, seafoam green upholstered benches jammed together and a rubber plant with a Santa hat on one branch. Elijah mumbled to me about the ocean, how it was full of people. He wanted me to understand that water is made of people, and that he had swum with them. That is why there is so much water, because that’s where all the people go. Past and future people, he told me. We’re all in there. I promised him that I understood, so that he would let me leave. His father only came that first time. They’d been back in touch for just a few years at that point.
“Jesus year – is that like the fundamentalist version of Saturn’s return?” Misha says.
“It’s different,” Kendra says. I always forget she was raised Catholic. Somewhere in her is a streak of do-the-right-thing conservatism, the yellow stripe down the middle of the highway that bisects her hometown.
Someone I don’t recognize pipes up helpfully: “I read a thing on Facebook recently that horoscopes are really popular with millenials because we have nothing stable to live for anymore.”
“That’s a reason to live, Soma,” Misha says to me. “Your Jesus year.”
Kendra stepped forward, surprised me with her burst of anger. She’s getting tired, wants everyone out of her place. “Soma,” she says, “has many reasons to live.”
A girl I recognize, sort of, from university – we had a couple classes together, probably, or maybe I just knew her from parties – turns to me at some point in the kitchen and says, “The skyline is ruined for me now.”
“What?” I say.
“The view of the bridge. It’s ruined now. I mean, I know that’s selfish, but, it’s true. It was my favourite view in the city. That bridge is on every Vancouver postcard.”
Outside, in the faint rain, a small cluster of bodies in the sweet smoke, a bit rancid, a bit potpourri. “Ah, cloves,” someone says, and laughter is passed from hand to hand, pressed between wet burning fingers. Water seeps into the cracks in my boots again. Illuminated eyes float like bathyspheres. My mind plummets into a familiar well. The smoke does its old familiar work on me.
“– and when his dad stood up and said that stuff about compassion – fucking hypocrite – ”
” – yeah – like, everyone knows, man – ”
” – only came here once or twice – not that far – prairies – ”
” – the whole time – so sick – Elijah – ”
” – sorry your kid’s a faggot – and you – ”
” – that whole thing – ”
” – Elijah would have hated – ”
My skull aches, stretches, sections of bone drift and reassemble. Smokes enters and leaves, enters and leaves.
” – good to get some air – ”
” – this is good stuff – ”
” – things were chill until Kendra brought it down – ”
” – that fucking game – ”
” – fucking heavy – ”
I watch a cloud of smoke take the form of a white fish and soar across the empty circle and into the night. Elijah was right about a lot of things.
” – fuck this – ”
” – sweet guy – ”
” – sweetheart – ”
” – fucking waste – ”
” – not a mean bone in – ”
Inside, a restrained roar. The party is kicking into its third life. People who went home or out to eat or to spend time alone after the church service have circled back. Kendra told me she invited some guys from Elijah’s hometown over the lemonade and coffee cake at the reception. “You invited them?“ I’d asked her, disbelieving. Now, four tall guys in black suit jackets, white shirts, like an amateur Beatles cover band, are coming down the path. Hair combed to the side, eyes sober. I feel like a hyena caught in headlights on the side of the road, leering at them.
“Is this the thing for Elijah?” one of them asks, a guy with a hawkish nose, hands pushed deep into his pockets. Once, I asked Elijah about his friends from where he grew up. He blew smoke smoothly: Who cares? Robots.
A broken circle of coughs. “Yeah.”
Phantom touch of judgment says don’t smoke more. It’s a heavy wheel turning, slumping forward, completing a final turn into stillness, a silence that presses all the way down, into the floor of my mind. More, more, more. Elijah lying next to me on his bed, a cloud of our shared smoke drifting around us. Staring at the ceiling, he tells me about the Greyhound station in the middle of nowhere where he first cruised for men. The blue light in the tiny bathroom to make it harder for people to shoot up. He left young, but not young enough. His silence when I answer, “I slept outside when I was young too.” When he says nothing, I turn my head and check to see if he’s fallen asleep. His eyes are closed and smoke passes in and out of his mouth. His eyelids flutter. “Tell me the story,” he says. Instead I tell him about how when I was in elementary school I got obsessed with a lamp that was supposed to treat seasonal depression, how I stole another girl’s dad’s credit card, a girl I had a crush on but didn’t know what that was yet, a girl so mean-eyed and aloof I loved her for it, and I thought the lamp would cure my mother’s severe chronic mental illness – here Elijah squeezes his eyelids shut, his mouth tenses into a rippling seam of restrained laughter – and then the girl and her friends jumped me in the hallway, and then when the lamp arrived it was a piece of shit, a blue glass light bulb in a white blobby stand like a knock-off Lego starship and I knew it was a fake, I knew it like I knew the second I slipped that credit card out of that girl’s back pocket that I was gay, but I used the lamp anyway, I coveted it, I prayed over it. I was too ashamed to show it to my father or even to Josiah, I kept that lamp to myself and I would turn it on and sit in front of it for hours at night, bathing in its cold, sugary radiance.
“How poignant,” Elijah says, and we lie on our back and laugh, push smoke from our empty pipes and watch it invent shapes against the ceiling and window, we laugh at all the creatures we have been and the weird joy of telling it to each other.
◊ ◊ ◊
“We All Need to Eat is a stunning inquiry into the sharpness of the world as it collides with the fragility – the ambiguities and possibilities – of the self. Alex Leslie a tremendously gifted and compassionate writer. This bold and searing collection is a wonder.” —Madeleine Thien, Scotiabank Giller Prize winning author of Do Not Say We Have Nothing
“There’s plenty to say about We All Need To Eat, all of it good. In her second story collection Vancouver’s Alex Leslie has created a thematically rich and sophisticated portrait of an individual and her entwined networks — family, friends, lovers.” —Brett Josef Grubisic, Toronto Star
Alex Leslie was born and lives in Vancouver. She is the author of the short story collection People Who Disappear (2012) which was nominated for the 2013 Lambda Literary Award for Debut Fiction and a 2013 ReLit Award, as well as a collection of prose poems, The things I heard about you (2014), which was shortlisted for the 2014 Robert Kroestch Award for Innovative Poetry. Winner of the 2015 Dayne Ogilvie Prize for LGBTQ Emerging Writers, Alex’s short fiction has been included in the Journey Prize Anthology, The Best of Canadian Poetry in English, and in a special issue of Granta spotlighting Canadian writing, co-edited by Madeleine Thien and Catherine Leroux.