“So, that’s all for today, you did a great job, see you on Wednesday!” I say, and close Making Connections, the reading textbook. The LINC—Language Instruction for Newcomers to Canada—class that I teach at Lakeshore College has finished. My students, newcomers—permanent residents and refugees—cluster around the desks, grab their binders, say goodbye to each other and me, swing the door open, and step out into the blinding summer sun.

I think about the past lesson. We had talked about phobias. I explained the word phobia to my students, “an irrational fear of something,” and gave examples.

“Agoraphobia,” my voice boomed across the classroom, “is a fear that makes someone afraid of crowded places. Arachnophobia is a fear of spiders. People who have arachnophobia are afraid of spiders.” We talked about students’ phobias, and they wrote sentences with relative clauses. It has been a good lesson, I conclude.

As I stuff my whiteboard markers into the pencil case, I see in the corner of my eye that Aini, blue-eyed, porcelain-white skinned, freckled and black-haired Aini from Turkey, lingers. When I raise my head into her direction, she slips closer to my desk.

“I have a phobia, too, you know,” she says.

“Yes?” I hold the marker between my fingers.

“Once I sat through a 14-hour-flight from Abu Dhabi to Toronto without going to the washroom,” Aini says.

“Why?” I ask. “Was it because of the noise in the washroom or were you afraid of the closed space?”

“No, neither,” she shakes her head. “It’s just that,” she pauses a little, “I can’t use public washrooms. I just can’t.”

“Oh.” My eyes widen. “But that is horrible! How can you survive?” I ask.

“I hold it ‘til I get home,” Aini smiles a crooked smile.

A few other women, who were talking in the back of the classroom, must have overheard the conversation. They shuffle closer, and Camilla, a fifty-year-old mother of four from Colombia chimes in.

“That’s not healthy, Aini,” she says.

“You don’t have to sit on the toilet seat,” Maria Clara, a 25-year-old former university student from Peru, adds.

“That’s right,” Indirpreet, an ex-bank clerk from Pakistan nods.

“You just hover over the seat and do this,” Maria Clara says. She juts out her buttocks in a half-squatting position.

Everybody giggles. Aini’s smile spreads.

“I am so happy I came out with this,” she says at last. “I never even thought about how to use a public washroom.”

“Listen, Aini,” I say, “why don’t you try it out at home, and then, when you’re comfortable, you will do it at school. There’s a separate, all-gender washroom in the M building. You lock the door and have the room all for yourself.”

The others agree. Aini looks around, as if she wanted to take us all in with her eyes.

“Thank you, thank you so much,” she says. And with that, all of them swarm out the door.

During the forty-minute drive from Orangeville back to Toronto, my home, I think about this conversation. I don’t have phobias. I have only dreams and visions and nightmares that wake me up with a jolt, sweaty in the middle of the night. I remember the first ones when I was about three years old. As I was lying under the covers, half-asleep, a contour of something big, something shapeless formed out of the darkness in my room. It was a monster. I could even see—or was that my imagination?—two small eyes, sitting close to each other, gleaming green in the dark. He visited me regularly over the years, always after my parents had fights in the kitchen when they thought I was sleeping. I would hear Mom’s stifled voice.

“Where were you again?” And Dad would slap his gloves onto the counter and mumble something, and Mom’s voice would rise, and then Dad would yell, and I heard the pushing back and forth and Mom’s sobs and smelt the cigarettes that she would smoke after these fights. Once, I heard chuckles between Mom’s muzzled screams that seemed to last forever. Mom wore her yellow-and-cream turtleneck for a week after that, but as I peered up to her from my four-year-old height, I could still spot, right below her jawline, the bluish fingerprints: Dad’s.

The monster showed up every night in those days. He would hover closer and closer to my bed. I pulled the duvet over my head and prayed to fall asleep. But when I did, I would wake up with a start at 3AM, needing to use the washroom. I imagined that if I tried to go, the bedroom door would open only halfway. A body spread out in the hallway would block it, Mom’s or sometimes Dad’s, and as the moon shot through the bathroom window out into the hallway, it would seem that I saw something dark on the carpet at the back of their heads: blood pooled slowly into a puddle, and the stripy carpet soaked it up. On those nights, I never dared to venture out into the washroom. I would listen to my younger sister’s soft, rhythmic breathing until I fell back into sleep with the monster by the bed, or until the morning sun swept the room and the hallway clean and freed my way out.

The monster shrank with the years from the size of the wardrobe to that of a chair, the shirt on the chair, the stuffed teddy bear on the shelf, and one night, when I was 19-years-old, it puffed into nothingness.

I thought I had escaped. But the university years brought dreams instead. Before exams, it was always the same one: an oversized, red truck chased me down the street. The parts shone silvery grey in the hot sun, the motor hissed and rumbled, and someone honked the horn, though I had never seen a face in the cabin. I tried in vain to run in front of it. My knees would buckle or float in the air without moving forward, my hand would pull at the air, and I would scream in horror until I would wake up howling, the sheets soaked with my sweat. When the exams finished and I graduated from university, the truck vanished. I thought I was done with nightmares.

I had already worked for Lakeshore College for five years when one day my manager, John Pickleton, asked me to have a meeting with him. It was my third semester at the college after I had gone back from maternity leave and completed my master’s in education at the University of Toronto. My sons, three- and one-years-old, attended daycare full time.

My manager, a short American man with a thin voice, a high forehead, and a strict Chinese wife who, according to gossip, banished him to the basement lest he would spread germs to their newborn son, was the only man among the all-female team of teachers and office staff at Broken Hill Campus in Orangeville. He liked to pop up at the office unexpectedly and vanish just as unannounced. Once, when I was working on one of the computers assigned to faculty, I discovered a hand-written note with teachers’ names and numbers: the number of pages each of us photocopied for the students the previous semester with our unrestricted Lakeshore Go Cards.

“So, Susanna,” John said as we entered the small conference room at campus, “I wanted to discuss your evaluations. I noticed,” he glanced at me before returning to his notes, “that your student evaluations have gone down from 92 percent to 65 percent. Do you have any explanations for that?” He asked and pushed the sheets under my nose.

My heart beat in my stomach. What should I tell him? That I breastfed my younger son Paul ‘til he was 14 months old, and he still woke up three times at night? That I had to take two children to two different daycares in the morning, then drive to Orangeville from Toronto, and even making it to class on time felt like an achievement? Or that my husband turned away in disgust from my floppy, shapeless, post-partum body, and I went to sleep alone every night? Or that Peter, my three-year-old, was diagnosed with autism a few months ago and I was still mourning, mourning my expectations as a mother about him? He will never go to university, never have a girlfriend, might never be potty-trained, and he will never ever act like a “normal” kid, the doctors told.

“I…I don’t know what happened,” I muttered to John. My eyes slid down the pages trying to grab onto something positive. The black lines showing the percentage seemed shorter than on my evaluations pre-maternity leave.

“So, Susanna,” John said unfazed, “my suggestion would be that I come and observe your class. And then we’ll talk again.” He slapped the binder with my evaluations shut.

In the days before John’s observation was due, someone new paid a visit in my dreams. I was standing in a house with white walls, big windows, and open wooden doors. Then I strolled from one room to another and watched the setting sun paint orange blocks on the walls. Dust floated in the beams of light, the paintings on the walls flickered, and it looked for a second as if shadows were creeping behind the furniture: or was it just the light moving? Then the sun dived under the horizon. The walls turned grayish green, the sofas softened into big black blobs, and the silver tray on the counter sighed an oval “o.”

Something scratched the floor in the corner. In my dream, I spun around in slow motion and glimpsed a shapeless black shadow materialize out of darkness. It resembled an animal standing up on two hind legs: a dark, furry thing with thick arms, giant wrinkly hands, and a wide mouth that grunted from behind a brown velvet armchair. Our eyes met. It was a gorilla. My blood froze from those tiny, blinking black eyes. My feet shuffled noiselessly backwards, towards the door, as we stared at each other all the while. My shaking hands waved in the air behind my back and found the doorframe. I darted out and pushed the door shut so cautiously that the handle slid into the lock without a click. Frantic, I ran through the house. There were other people in the bedrooms now, all asleep tucked in the beds, faceless, warm family members, limbs thrown carelessly over the covers and pillows. I snuggled in between two bodies and hid under a blanket. The gorilla was trudging through the house, too, and each step sent tremors through the mattress. From time to time I could hear him roam outside, around the house, stopping and peeking through the black windows, but he never reached the bedrooms full of sleeping people.

The gorilla visited me several times before the day of the observation. I prepared a lesson about supporting details for opinion paragraphs, and brought in former students’ writing samples to examine. John showed up on time, ambled alongside me into the classroom, and plopped onto the seat in the last row. When the class started, he peered at the students a few times, glanced at my PowerPoint presentation, then back to something on his desk, and never looked up again. It took me a while to realize that he was texting on his phone. Was my lesson boring? Was it okay? I wondered, as the students checked one activity after another. John caressed his phone for about an hour, then stood up, arranged his jeans, waved to me from the door, and stepped out into the yellow corridor. The curve swallowed him like a giant snake.

Two weeks later, I received an email from him that everything was just fine, but still, he would like to meet me to discuss my lesson and give me further suggestions. That night, the gorilla climbed out of darkness again. His grunts turned louder, he shook the doorknobs in rage, and I knew that soon he would break down the doors and find me.

On our second meeting, John explained that my student examples were not appropriate for the class. “They were too elaborate, too complicated,” he said, “and students could not understand them.” I wondered why he thought that as he had left halfway through the lesson, but I just kept my eyes to the sheet in front of me, nodded, and scribbled notes. In the end, he advised me more observations and meetings.

Neither of us knew that the end was near. Last December, five weeks after our meeting, somebody reported him to the Vice Principal. The college launched an investigation into the matter. John was sent on a paid leave of absence and was forbidden to communicate with any of the teachers or staff members. “What happened?” everyone asked, but nobody knew. I remember the softness of the new snow under my feet on that December morning when I heard the news. I remember the chilly air creeping into my knuckles as I took off my gloves in the parking lot on my way to class, fished out my phone from the bottom of my briefcase, and typed a text message to my husband. It read, “Christmas came early. My manager is gone.” I added a dancing figure to the end, for emphasis.

The gorilla faded away, too, and after a two-month-long investigation, when John stepped down from his position voluntarily, I never saw him or the gorilla again.


We are working on expository paragraphs with my class these days. Students have to choose a topic, a problem to present, and offer solutions to it in their writing.

“Pick something that annoys you, that irks you,” I say, “something you are passionate about and you would like to see change. That’s when extraordinary things can happen in your writing,” I smile.

Paula, a former nurse from Panama with delicate, pencil-thin tattoos on her neck and wrists, raises her hand.

“I’m thinking of writing about the public washrooms. People don’t know how to use them, and they don’t care.” She opens her palms and grimaces. “It makes me angry!”

“Good,” I answer. “Channel that energy into writing some great suggestions to solve this problem.”

I think of Aini and her germophobia, and I wonder how her experiment is going, when her voice interrupts my thoughts. Aini turns towards Paula and says:

“Just don’t use the public washrooms! I never use them!” She shakes her head.

On the way home, I wonder how our different fears shape our lives, constrict us and push us in directions we don’t want to go, and I think of the scary dreams that made me gasp for air in the middle of the night. Then it is time to have lunch, take the kids home, prepare dinner, read a story to the children and tuck them in. And when I fall into bed exhausted, I sink into a sleep so deep that I wake up in the same position at dawn. I let the thin rays of the sun between the blinds fall on my face before I open all the windows and chase the last bits of the shadows out of the house.