Second prize prose winner of the Hart House Literary Contest in 2020 was Mina Ivosev, who studies toward a Master’s in creative writing at U of T.
This is what the judges Antanas Sileika and A.M. Dellamonica said about Ivosev’s short story:
“This is a terrific series of vignettes about Lara learning to navigate the perks and considerable perils of contemporary feminine existence, and discovering more about herself with each boy, guy, and man. The way her life goes forward, as symbolized by her careers’ evolution, tells us she is getting older and wiser and more sure of herself; it works nicely.”
‘LARA’ AS MEN: PART 1
When Lara is twenty-one she sleeps with her boss, Paul, from the café where she works. It happens a total of four times, every Wednesday of September from 3:45 to 4:45 PM, which is when his daughter has piano lessons and Lara’s roommates have class. Paul is sixteen years older than her, married, and looks a little like Big Bird when he’s naked; she tells him this once when they are lying on the floor of her bedroom after sex (Paul insists that the bed can be seen through the window, for which she has never bothered to buy curtains), and although she thinks this is funny, the type of thing lovers say to each other, he frowns and tells her she has no waist. After that, she tries not to talk until he speaks first. This is her first relationship with a man (although the difference between ‘man’ and ‘guy’ is not entirely clear to her yet, she is confident that Paul is not a ‘guy’), but she is still a girl.
Paul is the third person she’s slept with. The second person was a guy she met through a dating app (she had been visibly disappointed when he turned out to be four inches shorter than her, and slept with him to prove it didn’t bother her), and the first person was a boy (not a guy) she met on a cruise when she was seventeen: his name was Andriy and he was from Ukraine and one afternoon when the boat had docked and their parents got off to swim in the beach Lara and Andriy locked themselves in his cabin and lost their virginities to each other. Only afterwards did they realize the condom, which Andriy had stolen from his older brother back home, was expired. A week after she flew back to Toronto and the bleeding didn’t stop, she went to her doctor and cried as she told him everything. He nodded a lot and didn’t smile and spoke to her in a level voice. Just before she left he offered her the jar of lollipops, the first time he had done so in four years. She took the cherry one.
Although she has spent most of her life thinking about it, she did not once consider the question of love with either the boy or the guy. She thinks about it for the first time with Paul, and it seems like an important question, either because the answer should matter to her or because it should matter to him. On the last Wednesday of September, as she is watching him fumble with his clothes (he is always fumbling, tripping, running, in a rush either to come see her or to leave after), she asks him. He stops moving and looks at her for such a long time that Lara’s skin starts to break out in goosebumps. Then his phone rings and he looks at the device as if it’s been delivered to him through divine intervention. After he leaves, Lara decides that a guy becomes a man, like a girl becomes a woman, when they fall in love.
When she comes into work that Friday, Paul calls her into his office in the basement beneath the café and tells her that he’s going to have to let her go. He looks somewhere at her feet when he says this and Lara can’t help shifting her weight. For some reason, he begins to nod slowly, and Lara is reminded of her old family doctor, who is no longer her family doctor because he is dead; her new doctor is a Korean woman who keeps candy canes in her office instead of lollipops.
Lara goes to the bathroom to change back into her t-shirt, leaves her uniform next to the sink, and walks home. A month later, she finds a job at a shoe store.
‘LARA’ AS BOYS: PART 1
In the seventh grade, Lara and her friend Jin make a Dream Boy. They do this by drawing a line down the middle of a piece of paper, the right side of which they leave blank while they fill the left side with a list of traits: hair, smarts, face (subdivided into nose, lips, eyes, and eyebrows), humour, style (subdivided into clothing and attitude), hands, voice, et cetera. Then they discuss the boys in their grade and decide who has what best trait. They choose Liam for his blue-green eyes, Chris for his doll-like nose, and Evan’s messy-with-the-slightest-touch-of-gel dirty blonde hair just barely beats Leon’s Prince Charming-esque brown curls. During recess, the other girls in their class learn about the Dream Boy and they have ideas too: Sean for clothing style; Thom (the only baritone in the entire boys’ choir) for his voice; Peter for his walk, Julie adds, which wasn’t even a category but now that she’s mentioned it everyone agrees it’s important. They spend a week building their ransom note of a Dream Boy and when it is done they tape it to Lara’s locker, wipe their mouths with Cassie’s lip-gloss, and each kiss it. Later that day, when the whole Visual Arts class is tasked with making a diorama of a northern Canadian landscape, Chris jokes and says that Julie’s clay model of a polar bear looks like a rat and immediately Jin tells him to shut up, because all he won was best nose, which isn’t much at all. Julie laughs so hard she accidentally spits all over her polar bear-rat.
Not long after, the list on Lara’s locker is torn down. The girls are sad for a while, and then they forget about the Dream Boy.
In the twelfth grade, they make a new one.
‘LARA’ AS GUYS: PART 1
After Paul, Lara starts going out. She goes out with some girlfriends from her program who help her do her eyeliner and lend her their lacey black bralettes (That is your top, one of the girls tells Lara, rolling her eyes). There are many guys at the clubs and bars they go to and all Lara has to do is look one in the eye. There is a guy who wants her to dance with another girl. There is a guy who doesn’t speak English and when they dance he tries to hold both her hands. There is a guy she doesn’t want to kiss who she kisses anyway because it is easier. There is a guy she goes home with who makes them both grilled cheeses before they go to bed and in the morning, he brings her a plate of bacon and eggs. He walks her home and she wears his zip-up over her bralette and when she gives it back to him at the door of her apartment she feels like crying, because she doesn’t want to let him go.
There is another guy she goes home with who walks her back to her apartment the next morning and asks for her number. His name is Ryan and he is a year younger than her and is getting a degree in Renaissance history. He texts her that day and they meet up the next, which is Sunday, and she stays at his apartment until Tuesday. During that time, they learn the following about each other: he loves Audrey Hepburn and she loves fast food; he’s never tried pumpkin pie and she hates cut flowers; he never wants to leave Toronto and she wishes she had studied architecture; she’s the first person he’s slept with; he’s the closest thing she’s had to a boyfriend.
One day, she tells him about Paul. They are sitting in a park, watching the squirrels run, and she is moved but confused to see how upset Ryan becomes. She touches the center of his wrist with a dandelion and tells him that he is as soft as the yolk of a freshly cracked egg. He tells her that he is in love with her.
‘LARA’ AS BOYS: PART 2
In the eleventh grade, Lara’s class goes on a ski trip. It takes three hours to drive up to the resort and although it is well below freezing, Lara, along with all the other girls, are dressed in slim coats and skinny jeans and try to talk their way out of having to wear a helmet. Everyone’s jacket zippers are clipped with day passes and the students are outfitted with skis, boots, and poles. They trudge to the ski lifts and argue over who will ride with whom.
Lara has a crush on a boy. The boy is Mark, who in the seventh grade was kind of fat and had won the Dream Boy trait for best laugh, and is now eight inches taller and is the first boy to have facial hair that actually looks pretty good. A few months before, they were paired to improvise a skit in drama class (remember the key to improv is ‘yes and,’ Mr. Ettel had stressed) and when Mr. Ettel said ‘go,’ Mark wrapped his arms around her waist and said that this was the best honeymoon a girl like him could ever ask for (Lara was so flustered she missed the key word and replied with, Anything for my beloved daughter). Since then, she has been noticing Mark, and she has been waiting for this trip, which is when (she is sure) something will finally happen. Whenever she is not zipping down the hills, standing frozen on top of her skis from either fear or thrill or cold, she is scanning the faces around her, looking for him.
She doesn’t know when or how he appears behind her on the ski lift to the black diamonds, but suddenly he is there and then they ride in the lift together. Her heart races as they talk and complain about the cold and the expensive food. When they are just past halfway up the hill the lift jerks to a stop and Lara’s gut is thrust into the railing she’s been holding onto. She watches Mark slip his skis, one at a time, out of the foothold. They dangle above the mass of trees below, the out of bounds zone. Try it, he says.
She does. It makes her nervous to feel how heavy her feet are weighed down by the skis and boots, how badly they want the rest of her body to follow gravity. She pushes herself further into the seat, closer to Mark. She accidentally pushes his elbow and so he shoves her back, lightly. This time, she elbows him on purpose and smiles to show that she’s flirting. Touching is electrifying. He shoves her again, harder, and she laughs but feels something slip from her throat to her stomach as their lift sways. Don’t, she says, and he, laughing, grabs her vagina.
They stop shoving each other. They are still smiling, but now whatever has slipped to Lara’s stomach has slipped back up her throat and is threatening to spill out. They sit and Lara stares at the trees below and after another moment the lift starts to move again. Once they reach the top, they glide onto the hill and Mark asks if she wants to try the double black diamond, the one that looks like a giant sheet of white bubble wrap. Without a second thought, she says yes.
‘LARA’ AS GUYS: PART 2
In January, they go to her friend’s place for a party. Lara has a few cups of beer and takes shots with her friend’s friends who she has never met before and will not ever see again. She forgets that he is there, standing by a bookshelf filled with empty beer bottles and studying the jacket of a forgotten paperback for longer than he needs to. He sends her several texts, asking to leave. When they finally do it’s nearly two in the morning and Lara is no longer drunk but feels sick and spends half an hour throwing up in the toilet in his apartment. They get into bed around three and after a moment of lying there on her side, when she is thinking of other things, she hears him say, “You haven’t touched me today.”
Ryan is as soft as a yolk that has broken. The liquid that has spilled from the center is amassing exponentially, and threatens to drown her. He wants to stay in bed for longer, go to sleep earlier; he wants to hold her hand when they eat dinner; he wants her to kiss every part of his face. He wants to smother her, or she to smother him. She starts to think about Paul when Ryan and her make love (they don’t have sex anymore). When he cries it is impossible to feel sympathy and desire at the same time. When he cries the sympathy inside her swells with the fill of his tears and when it shrinks back the space that is left for desire is that much smaller.
A month after the party, Lara collects her toothbrush, spare bra, and a box of tampons into a canvas bag, and moves this small sliver of her life out of Ryan’s apartment and back into her own. She calls those friends from her program, and they go out again.
‘LARA’ AS MEN: PART 2
Many years later, she will think of that party and she will remember things she had forgotten from that night: studying a poster of a sailboat on a lake taped to the front of a door; smelling a bowl of eggplant curry someone had left half-eaten on the kitchen table; kissing the exchange student from Colombia, just once, in the darkened bathroom. She will remember Ryan standing by the bookshelf, the way his brow was furrowed not because he was upset but because he was reading and concentrating, and at that moment Lara will be able to picture him as he would look now (she will not have seen him since she left), his shoulders and gut grown wider, his posture a little worse, sitting in a small yellow house and reading a book on Renaissance history with eyes curious and willing. Lara, all those years later, will gasp a little too loudly, causing those around her to turn (she will be in an audience, watching a musical), and she will choke out sobs just as the actress finishes her song.
‘LARA’ AS AN ENDING: PART 1
Lara becomes a woman a few months after she turns twenty-two, when she is riding the subway home after work (she quit the shoe store and found a job as a receptionist in a dentist’s office). There is a man/guy/boy standing near the doors and staring at her; she can’t be sure which one he is, mainly because she doesn’t look back (she thinks of playing hide-and-seek as a child: if I can’t see you, you can’t see me). She is focusing on a piece of blue gum stuck between the seats when the subway suddenly stops halfway through the tunnel, and as Lara is pushed back into her seat she is reminded of that ski trip in the eleventh grade, how cold it had been, how expensive the food, how serene and terrifying it had felt to ride the ski lift. She thinks of Mark and feels — still — a flush of desire and fear and anger. She is thrown out of the memory when she hears the conductor announce a delay at track level and although she is once again on a subway in Toronto and not on a ski lift in the past and although she is five years too late, the anger that has lain dormant for so long begins, for the first time, to inflate. It inflates until she is so angry that she gets up out of her seat and walks over to the man/guy/boy and shoves him, hard. His arms fly up as he falls backwards and smashes his head on the corner of the seat behind him, and as he collapses onto the subway floor — unconscious, and possibly dead — Lara thinks that he looks exactly like a child, just finished making a snow angel.
‘LARA’ AS AN ENDING: PART 2
But that doesn’t happen.
What happens is that Lara gets so angry that her anger inflates into a balloon, a lovely red balloon, the skin of which is shiny and taut and smells not of rubber, but of burnt toast. After the initial moment of surprise passes, she removes the shoelace of her sneaker, ties the balloon to her right wrist, and carries it home. She brings it to work the next day, and has to gently push it aside whenever it floats between her and the patients who come to her desk to check in for their appointments. The patients, naturally, don’t notice; they stare right through it.
She will bring it to supermarkets and to parties, to funerals and to bed. Although it will grow smaller everyday, everyday it will look the same as it had the day before, until one afternoon Lara will glance up and to her right and it won’t be there. She will feel the spark of panic for just a moment until she turns around and sees it trailing at her feet like a sickly dog, just barely hovering above the broken glass scattered over the sidewalk. Eventually, the balloon will be small enough that she will remove the shoelace and carry it around in her pocket instead. She will wait for it to finally pop, but it won’t. The balloon lasts forever.
There will be hundreds of balloons; she will carry them all. Each time, once the balloon has shrunken to the size of her fist, she will cup it tenderly in her hands and be amazed that so little material could ever fit so much.