I have one rule on party nights- don’t take off your fanny-pack. Everything of immediate importance, money, chapstick, gum, ID, credit card, cigarettes, a handful of condoms stuffed in there by a friend, a to do-list for the next morning, go into the fanny-pack. Your pants can come off, there can be a topless dance party at the bar, you can get lost in a swamp and sit on the side of the Trans Canada wringing out your socks or walk your dog using a pair of bikini bottoms as a leash because you’ve lost the real one, but you may not take off the fanny pack. I empty out the fanny-pack on the table at the diner the next morning, hands shaking with hangover and exertion. The to-do list is gone but I have at least five condoms. “What the fuck was I planning on doing last night?” I address the table. “I put those there!” my friend declares. “Better safe than sorry.”
We’re sitting and smoking in the back of a sketchy van and there’s an accordion and a rocking chair and its all rather confusing yet familiar. We came in here to find a cigarette and found a handful that we’ve chain smoked. I’m unclear as to the amount of time that has passed. I keep getting distracted by narrating along to the accordion music, nonsense about taking the children on a country retreat and something about springs in Somerset. I have gone to take a drag off a smoke just to find I’ve forgotten to light it- ten times in a row.
“You’re in charge of leaving,” somebody tells me. Just ten minutes away there’s a neon-lit bar bustling with familiar faces, a dance floor, cold, cheap beer. These nights are a race for me, trying to incorporate all of the best aspects of the party. There are innumerable separate small parties moving in circles that intersect to form the large one- the van, the trap dance party in the parking lot, the harsh lit inside of the warehouse, the bar, the hotel, the knots of people on the bar patio, the top of the van. I want to circulate through all of them, composing some weird sort of harmony and experience. “When I die,” I think, incoherently, “it’ll be like being able to be at all of the small parties at the same time.” Turning around in a tight circle reveals all of the on-goings in the periphery. 180 degrees behind me is an entire new world, drawing me in with the fear of missing out.
I realize, abruptly, that I’m ashing on the matted carpet of the van, rocking gently back and forth in the chair. When the owners of the van rolled into town on fumes, using their last bit of accordion busking change to buy McDouble’s and over-salted french fries, I rode down the highway clinging to the arms of the chair as it rocked ferociously over every bump and divot. “I don’t think I should be smoking in here,” I say, stomping out the small fire that has spring up from the ash of my smoke. “Nah man,” the van driver replies, ashing nonchalantly onto the upholstery. “We smoke all sorts of stuff in here, all the time.”
We finally manage to leave, moving through the dark streets in a loose gaggle. The trap party that had been occurring in the parking lot has dispersed- everyone must be at the bar. I have no idea what time it is, but the sun has sunk over the horizon, and this far north, it must mean it’s late. We lose some of our numbers along the way. “Don’t leave Canada!” I advise the Australian backpacker. I must not take off the fanny-pack and she must not leave the country accidentally, lest she not be allowed back in. Familiar faces peel out of the shadows in the dead residential streets and join the parade that cuts through the large lot filled with piles of gravel and sand and heavy equipment, quiet for the night. It’s a hive mind feeling and a small town. No matter where we go, there will be friends. There’s no need to text or confirm or plan, it will happen organically. In the dark, I miss the footpath across the traintracks and lead us through a swamp, stumbling out the far side to meet another gaggle of planters. Hip deep in pond scum and swampy murk we carry on.
More cigarettes are a priority, but a girl with a curly blond perm pops out of the shadows, chattering with enthusiasm and makes us sit on the grass verge by the war memorial. “You know when cats are like, making muffins?” she keeps repeating, vaguely gesturing in the air with her hands. I feel nothing but confusion. “Cats don’t make muffins,” I insist. “No, no, no, you know when they’re like, makin’ muffins in your belly with their paws? Like, kneading dough!” and I finally understand. “You don’t knead muffin dough, though,” I say, finally carrying on toward the Esso to fulfill the promise of cigarettes.
It is preternaturally quiet and bright within, the door announcing our incoming with an ominous “BING!” Late night Esso shops have often been the harbinger of public drinking tickets and calls to the police about vagrant planters with open bottles of tequila, wrapped in hotel room blankets. We pause for a moment to compose ourselves but lose it at the rack of fidget spinners at the cashier’s desk. “These are just great,” I say, almost weeping. “They’re just great.” A well dressed woman materializes out of nowhere, picks one up, makes it perform all sorts of distracting magic tricks in her hands. What the fuck is she doing at an Esso in Hearst early in the morning, playing with fidget spinners? There must be a conspiracy to sell the fuckers or something. “They are pretty nifty, aren’t they?” she says, winking conspiratorially.
The fluorescent lights hum in a manner almost friendly to me, so faintly quiet that the sound becomes pervasive. My companion and I compose ourselves. It is hushed. The entire night has been like a movie scene; I keep glancing behind me to see where the set lighting is coming from, illuminating whatever scene we are currently acting out. Here we switch to a sitcom. “Yes,” I say, affecting a casual manner by leaning one elbow on the counter top containing the Bingo scratch cards and lottery tickets. “Cigarettes, please.”
The attendant, weary and unimpressed, asks, “What are you smoking?” and I make eye contact with my companion, wide eyed and mildly panicked. We have rehearsed how to buy cigarettes over and over again and this has not come up in the potential scenarios we’ve imagined in the lifetime between the van, the swamp, the muffin making cats and here. “We’re smoking something!” he says cheerfully to the attendant, shrugging apologetically, and I dissolve into helpless laughter, arms crossed and head down on the counter top, crying and pounding my fist on the plastic.
Somehow we end up with a pack of something cheap and red and I know I’m a long way from my Toronto Belmonts. We fiddle intently at the cellophane wrapper and finally get inside, plundering the treasure within. Holding our prizes, we look around and realize we do not have a lighter. “Compose yourself!” I urge, handing my credit card to my companion. He walks in, straight faced, beelines to the counter and wordlessly throws a lighter toward the clerk, taps my credit card and reemerges, lighting his cigarette before he’s even clear of the door.
“Makin’ muffins,” I mutter. We walk on toward the bar.