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first person

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Illustration by Erick M. Ramos

Some people got pets during the pandemic. My partner and I got a $317 Eufy Robo Vac 11S, a robotic vacuum cleaner. Round and erratic with little whiskers poking out one side, it had a pet-like quality. The Robo Vac beeped and whirred and made clumsy progress throughout our Toronto apartment. My partner named it Bumpy. She delighted in small pleasures like this. She hated vacuuming (too loud) but was more than happy to supervise Bumpy’s labour: coaching him out of tight corners, coaxing a sock from his mouth, lavishing praise.

A pet may have been a welcome distraction during the pandemic but our landlord was against them and, frankly, taking care of ourselves was a tall enough order. We focused on small improvements instead. We had a song – ”Making small improvements to improve our lifestyle,” it went; it wasn’t a very good song – that we’d sing when we solved an irritant or acquired something useful. A modem upgrade. A Billy bookcase. An ottoman that took nine months to arrive. A Robo Vac 11S. My partner initiated most of these improvements. The apartment felt increasingly lived in, at times oppressively so, and Bumpy contributed in his small way to a more orderly life.

Eventually, my partner and I drifted apart. We managed this while rarely being more than a few metres from each other. In the end, the small improvements weren’t enough. The creeping malaise, the tiny accumulations of coupledom couldn’t be swept away. I stayed at a friend’s vacant house while we negotiated the next steps. There were traces of pets and babies everywhere. I sought simple comforts. I watched Chungking Express, a 1994 movie about lovesick cops in Hong Kong. I vacuumed with a noisy machine before I left.

When I returned to our apartment, it was cleaner and emptier than it had been in years. The Billy bookcase was shockingly bare. The ottoman and its matching couch felt as though they didn’t belong any more. Bumpy was in the hallway. I thought my partner should have taken him with her.

That night my feelings were confirmed. I had started waking in the middle of the night. I hoped this was a temporary symptom, associated with a difficult period, a strange house. But I woke at 2 a.m. that first night back at the apartment. It was hot and I had a fan blasting but I could still hear something outside, something erratic, more than the streetcars and motorcycles and people talking outside the bars on College Street. I got up. You never know what you’ll find in these situations.

When I stepped into the hallway, Bumpy was at work. This had happened before. He would turn on in the middle of the night, hours after being used, as if haunted by a spot he’d missed. Neither of us could figure out why. This time he was at the top of the stairs, agitated. The sound I heard was him bumping into the banister over and over. His sensor prevented him from going any further. He was trying to leave the apartment and find my ex, I thought, or he was trying to kill himself.

I turned him off and tried to go back to sleep but couldn’t. I felt like Tony Leung’s police officer in Chungking Express. After his girlfriend leaves, everything in the apartment is sad and needs lulling to sleep. A bar of soap has lost a lot of weight. A wrinkled shirt is cold and lonely. “You have to stop crying, you know,” he tells a ragged dishcloth. “You have to be strong. Look at you, you’re so shabby these days. I’ll help you.” He wrings it out. “Isn’t that better?”

The next morning I told Bumpy that we both missed her but these things happen sometimes. And besides, it was for the best. It’s nobody’s fault, least of all yours.

I went to the office one day and my ex retrieved more things. I left her a note about Bumpy’s apparent despair, but he was still at the top of the stairs when I got home.

That night was even hotter. I fell asleep with the bedroom door open but I woke again in the middle of the night – this time with a terrified jolt. Bumpy had managed to navigate the narrow strip of floor between the wall and my bed. He was right below my face, whirring and bumping back and forth between my bedside table’s legs. I reached down, turned him off. I took a photo to prove I wasn’t going crazy.

Once I’d recovered from the shock I felt oddly moved. It was as if, after negotiating his own despair the previous night, Bumpy had sought me out to offer his jarring consolation. I stopped short of lifting him into bed with me.

The next morning I texted the photo to my ex. She laughed and told me there was a master switch on his underside to disable him. She was much smarter about these things.

It was garbage night. She had left several bags in the hallway, one-half of the refuse of five years together. I drank a beer and took the bags out to the street. I drank another beer and made a minor effort to repopulate the Billy bookcase, to reposition the couch and ottoman. Small improvements. Before going to bed, I picked Bumpy up. I thanked him and told him I didn’t need any more disruptions at night. A good night’s sleep is important at times like these, I said. I found the red-and-white on/off switch on his underside and flicked it. It took me a long time to fall asleep, but I didn’t wake until morning.

Mark Burgess lives in Toronto.