Falling Through Doors

Nov
20

Double Tank Road

 

img_1415

I’ve only been in India for a week so far but I’m already losing touch with basic things about myself like how I talk to doctors and what I like to eat. When the doctor asks me which cereals I usually consume I’m not sure why I say none, and I don’t even think of it as a weird thing to say until he asks me why and I am unable to answer. He looks at me like I’m insolent and perhaps not very smart and so I play the part and sink down in my chair and say, “I mean, I eat bread and things like bread.”

I’m not entirely sure what I’m doing here, but I’m getting used to this feeling that has been following me for the years I’ve been traveling. I know what I’m doing in Mysore, but not necessarily the clinic. I’m here mostly because I need somewhere to stay, and this is a nice place. From my room on the second floor I can see the sun rising red, and from the common veranda I can sit and watch it in the evening, orange and slipping beneath a horizon of palm fronds and the two reservoir towers on Double Tank Road. I checked myself in yesterday and this is already my third time sitting in this office. The windows are guarded by broad leaves and so the room is dim and seems cool compared to the South Indian scorch that’s surely mounting upon the day beyond them. The doctor’s desk and the arms of the chair I’m sitting in are a dark wood with worn varnish that somehow makes the room familiar. I sit up straight again and the backs of my thighs make a squeaking sound against the vinyl seat. Yesterday he took my pulse and told me I should avoid onion, garlic, chili and hot weather. Today he takes my pulse and asks how I feel. I tell him nauseous and he smiles because that’s normal. He says they’ll bring me food when I feel hungry but not before and that he’ll see me again tomorrow morning. When I stand up to leave I stub my toe on the desk and hurry out of the room like it didn’t hurt.

I came to Mysore to stay with my brother, Michael, for a couple of weeks before travelling around India, which I will do for the next five months. He lives here with his partner, Sanjay, an Australian from the suburbs of Melbourne whom I hadn’t yet met. They moved here to study yoga, and that’s what they do each day. Before I arrived Michael told be they’d bought a small countertop oven and had put on, to an inconclusive level of success, small bake sales outside the studio where they practise. Michael and I haven’t seen much of each other over the past few years. The truth about why I’m no longer staying with them is sensitive, not because of anything embarrassing for me such as needing rehabilitation or being on the run or the fact that I’ve been travelling in search of something only to encounter a perpetual sense of being lost, as in a sense of having lost everything, as in the big things, like myself, all of which are true and not true in varying degrees. It’s sensitive because to my foreign eyes they seem to be unravelling, because my brother seems like a different person, because of a deep sadness, though at this point in time it’s not my place to say.

There are only two others staying here at the clinic. One is a skeletal middle aged man who spends most of his time in his room, or else pacing up and down the upstairs hallway moaning and out of breath. There is also belching. I take this to mean that he is nearing the end of his stay and understand that I have this to look forward to. The other is a female Swami who arrived the day before me. I am shy and have mostly been avoiding her, although we watched the sunset together last night and I have noticed that she likes to read. There is a possibility that she doesn’t like to read all that much, it’s just that the days here are long. I don’t necessarily like to watch television but I’ve been watching the tiny one mounted on the wall above my bed because what else can I do when I’m waiting to get hungry, besides read and ignore my nausea and avoid the Swami so I don’t say anything to embarrass myself, which I’ve already done each morning so far with the doctor. I also wait for Michael to visit, which he said he’ll try and do most days. So I go up to my room from the doctor’s office and sit on my bed. The ghee that I drank this morning before the idols of Hindu gods is heavy in my stomach and I can tell it wants out. The amount will increase daily for the first half of my stay here, and will then be replaced by morning massage and steam treatments, which sound so much better to me, especially because I like ghee, and there’s no way I can know at this point that after I leave here it will be years before I can even smell it again.

My shirodhara treatment is at three. I try to look forward to it because it’s meant to be relaxing, lying swaddled in a linen loin cloth on a table in a warm room, even though I know the smell of hot buttermilk running over my forehead and filling my ears for twenty minutes will make me gag. I know my hair will continue hold its sour scent and when I try to fall asleep I will smell it on my pillow and feel sickish and frustrated. Afterwards, they’ll rub me down with oil and the soles of my feet will be so slick that I will face danger when I stand. Then I will steam in a wooden box with a hole cut in the top from which my neck and head will protrude, and I’ll spend the entire thirty minutes imagining the possibly real spider crawling through the dark quarters within.

*

My first night in India was spent in Bangalore. Michael and Sanjay met me at the airport and we stayed a night in a guesthouse. I rose before dawn covered in itching, weeping welts. In the morning we were served a breakfast of rice and curries on a leaf at a communal table and the boys showed me how to do it, how to scoop with the fingers of my right hand only, to push with my thumb, to not let my fingers into my mouth in the process. We ate a pizza with paneer on it for lunch at a Pizza Hut in a shopping centre. We returned to their apartment in Mysore in a hired car, and it would turn out to be one of very few pleasant transit experiences I would have during my months backpacking around the south. In two weeks’ time I will buy two seats side-by-side on an overnight bus to Ernakulam because I’ve been told this is a good way to avoid violation, and will wake in the night to discover a man in the seat beside me, leaning over me and staring. In ten weeks’ time I will travel in a third-class sleeper car to Mumbai, curled around my backpack on a top bunk, my bag chained and locked to the railing. I will not be able to sleep, and at one point when I turn around in the night I will discover a man leering next to me, his feet on the edge of the lower bunk, his head hovering and glowing somehow in the moonlight that enters through the barred windows. He will sheen from sweat, and I too will be sweaty as I realize that he is attempting to reach up the hem of my cutoffs, and in that moment I will feel exposed and remote, not homesick but homeless, as though it’s been an immeasurable amount of time since I’ve slept somewhere where this hasn’t been a possibility.

They made their spare room for me: plumeria, fresh papaya, a six-mantra chanting box, Nag Champa, and crisp violet bedding folded taut into a pallet on the floor. They were on the second floor of a walkup and had two bedrooms, a narrow kitchen, a wet bathroom, and a large living area decorated with flowers, candles, and cushions tastefully strewn about the floor to make a kind of sitting area. Walking into their house I had the feeling I’d interrupted a long conversation. There was some tension, and my closeness with my brother seemed to drive a wedge into an already forming rift. I felt both welcome and not. I fell asleep to the muted sounds of an argument, words meeting the night with the same dull thud of a boxing glove on a bag.

My first morning with them I woke early and listened to each mantra in the chanting box before rising and going to the living room. It glowed pink from the rising sun, and the air out the window smelled of wood smoke and garbage fires. A cow ambled up the road and when it reached our building it turned toward me and approached the window. A calf hung close to its side, its high pitched moo tentative and heartwarming. The cows and I were watching each other when Michael entered. I saw a man no longer in his early twenties, baby fat given way to angles and sinew, grey hair planting flags in the turf behind his ears. I saw my age in him, too, the small streak forming at my crown, my forearms too tanned and ropey. He asked me if I wanted to feed them and showed me the way they tipped the food waste out the window, how the cow and her calf came moseying over to moo at us and eat the scraps. I asked if he was all right and he shrugged and his glassy blue eyes said he didn’t know, so I asked him to take me to the shop. We bought mangosteen, pomegranate, pineapple, yogurt, badam milk. We sang our songs from childhood. We felt, together, something like home. On the way back to the apartment, crossing Double Tank Road, Michael picked up a terrified puppy and carried it across safely, and the dog was so frightened it tremored in his hands and peed all over the place before Michael put it down again and it scampered away.

We were cutting the fruit for breakfast when Sanjay got up and came into the kitchen, which was barely big enough for two. I saw a look, saw their disappearance into the other room, heard hard whispers. Sanjay came back to the kitchen and told me it was time to go to the market, that it was an amazing market, that I could pick out some new things to try. I covered the fruit plate and put it in the fridge and we hailed a rickshaw to Devaraja. On the way all Sanjay said was, “I feel like getting fresh coconut.”

Walking under the colourful canopies of Devaraja Market I saw mountains of limes and mangoes, starbursts of plantain, spires of spices and incense. I saw hibiscus and lotus and oils and soaps, teas packaged in elegant fabrics. I saw my brother trying to placate a tight-lipped man, I saw his need to please, I saw that somehow my arrival had surfaced something. I said to Sanjay, “I see them.” There was an old man sitting under an umbrella, flanked by mounds of coconuts. When he didn’t respond I said, “Michael, remember that guy at the market in Malacca with the gnarled fingers? Sanjay, did Michael ever tell you about the man at the night market when we were in Malaysia who was trying to prove his healing serum worked by ramming his finger through coconut shells? He asked for a volunteer from the audience and Michael went up there with him and neither of us knew what he was saying and I was so frightened that Michael would have to jam his finger into the coconut, too.” Michael and I laughed, and Sanjay said, “No, he never told me about that,” and Michael said, “Yes I did,” and we all walked right past the coconut vendor and deeper into the market until we were enveloped by the spicy fermenting fug. I stopped and bought some Jasmine and held it close to my face and when Michael looked at me I smiled and held it up to his, long enough for him to take a few breaths.

*

The day after the market Sanjay drove me here to the clinic on the back of his scooter and we said goodbye at the front door. I needed to be somewhere else; it was too much to for me see my brother reduced in a way I’d never seen, to see him bend in ways that made him look like someone else completely. Before driving away, Sanjay told me that a panchakarma cleanse is a great thing to do while in India, that it’s like a rebirth. He warned me that the last day of the cleanse would be spent pacing and moaning and trying not to vomit, and then on the toilet with one of the twenty something bowel movements I’ll have that day. “I’m serious,” he told me. “You shit all day.” Good, I thought. I wondered if this meant I would go home and tell everyone I had found what I was looking for, if this was what people mean when they talk about finding themselves. Just in case, I will check into an ashram in Kerala in about a month from now, earning my room and board by cleaning the rooms and working in the kitchen and, later, tending the vegetable gardens. I will dress in white and meditate in the mornings and evenings under a mango tree. I will stay for weeks until I wake up one day and realize I feel more like a tourist than a disciple, and that the presence of the gift shop grates on my nerves, and will pack my bags, leaving only a note for my roommate, Anat, with whom I will work in the gardens, and who will teach me how most tenderly to relate to the plants. My first night there she and I will be woken by a storm, and we’ll sit up together for hours on the small balcony, sticking our feet through the railing until they are drenched and cool. I will ask why she’s here, and she will tell me she doesn’t know. Anat and I will rescue a baby owl the day before my departure. We will place the owl in a small box with water and an old towel, and leave the box outside our room. In the morning, when I leave, I will find the box is empty, and I will allow myself to feel optimistic.

My room here makes me feel not like a tourist but more like a monk, which somewhere deep down authenticates the whole experience, although the concepts of the authenticity and cultural consumerism will not become a concern I discuss with others for a few years still. The austerity and ascetic lack of comfort make me feel close to the ground and open to anything, but—as will turn out in later conversations with friends about authenticity and travel—these are not conditions that will help my future self feel any more virtuous.

There is a single bed against a single window. A plain brown curtain gathers at one side, waiting to block out the dark once night falls and envelops the coconut palm and elephant ear fronds, the curry tree with its inky gemlike berries. Even when I open the window the sounds of human life outside are obscured by the depth of the foliage and birdsong. There is a desk behind the head of the bed with a simple green desk lamp that is plugged into an outlet on the wall, where I have also plugged in my chanting box so I can listen, each morning and evening, to the gayatri mantra, which has become my favourite. The desk is also where I will begin to discover small silver pinch bowls filled with rock sugar crystals, placed there during my absences. They are for me to suck on to keep at bay the mixture of low energy and nausea that will invariably mount until late in the evenings, when, around nine o’clock, the nausea will subside and I am allowed a meal. The meal will arrive not long after I alert the staff that I am no longer feeling sick, and will consist of plain chapatti, a glass of water and a simple, nourishing dhal. I find the appearance of the crystals to be quaint until I discover how heavily I will come to rely on them.

I only watch the small television when I’m at my most nauseous and therefore in the greatest need of distraction. This applies to all nausea except that of the final day, which will prove too extreme for the television and will drive me out into the common area to pace in agony for the hours before the purge.

Attached to my room is a wet bathroom. I will continue to view it as a luxury rather than a necessity until, again, the final day. There is a toilet with a padded seat, a small basin, and a hand-held shower head hooked high on the wall. Each day two small disposable shampoo packets are replenished, and because of this, and the buttermilk hair, I use them. The shampoo is black, and each morning I wonder what it would do, if anything, to a blonde.

Out my bedroom door is the only indoor common area. There are two tables with four chairs each and an uncomfortable wooden settee with hard worn and faded upholstery up against one of the walls. In the corner near the window is a single cubicle. It is nicked and warped and oddly corporate, a hand-me-down from a local office space perhaps. The chair, too, once ergonomic, is stained and tired, and though it still spins it is stuck in its lowest position and the casters are missing. It is at this desk that I will negotiate the power outages and slow dial-up to email friends, scattered still in different countries, the messages of which will, unbeknownst to me, form the bedrock of the very memories from which I will draw when I think back to this moment, this day, this experience, and write about it.

Every day Michael walks down Double Tank Road to visit me. We sit and read aloud together, and on my last day he will show up with a new book, as if our short time together weren’t about to abruptly end in the following days, as if the time between us were as it was when we were children: endless and yawning around us, always more of it to inhabit together. The book we are reading is by Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything, grown siblings learning the world over again. On my last day, though, we won’t read. He will find me upstairs walking in circles, doing my best to forget the nausea. In the morning I will have eaten a generous helping of herbal laxative paste administered by the doctor, and will be under strict instructions to keep it down, no matter how badly it wants out. Michael will stay with me all day, will help me tally my bathroom trips—twenty-two—and will be there still when I am empty and exhausted and served my final meal: plain rice gruel. After I eat we will sit in the dusk together. I will have decided by then to head south, and will say to him, “You can come. Come with me.” He will only smile and say, “You can’t leave tomorrow. You’ll still be too weak.” I will tell him I plan to leave the day after, by train, that I’ll pass back through on my way north in however many weeks it takes me to return. “I don’t want to go,” I will say. “I’m comfortable here.” And we will sit side by side, looking out at the palm fronds and the two tanks, now twin silhouettes against an inky sky.

 

Nov
06

Crushin’ & Cryin’

img_2873-1

My first real, heart stopping, gut wrenching, nausea inducing crush was on a boy named James. James was a person I hardly knew, and hardly ever came to know. We were in grade eight, thirteen years old. Middle school (in our case, grades six to eight) was an awkward place to be a human.

All of my remaining memories from those years are pretty crap:

  • a girl named Bridget approaching me out of nowhere and berated me for wearing my white Kurt Cobain sunglasses—a pair of which, she informed me, she had procured before me—and that I was pathetic in my attempt to copy her;
  • a popular girl named Samantha holding forth to anyone who would listen about the tingly sensation experienced when she touched herself “down there”;
  • an older boy—admittedly a friend of mine—named Paul hitting me over the head with his tenor saxophone in band class during an uncharacteristic outburst after ‘Mack The Knife’, and the revenge I exacted the next day in which his upper lip made contact with the metal spout of the water fountain and he spun round at me as hissed through a bloody mug, “Fucking Bitch!”, and I fled to Miss Jean’s modern dance class, from which I was promptly extracted by Principal Notte and taken to the office where I had to explain that it was an accident, that I had merely hoped to get his nose wet, and that I was devastated to have hurt my friend;
  • my mind wandering in Miss Morgan’s French class as I idly traced the title of the text book—Horizons—onto my note paper, and her discovering it when I’d only gotten as far as HO, and her losing her shit and demanding I see her for detention while she was on bus duty after school, where I went to talk to her while she stood in front of three lines of kids waiting for busses two, three, and five respectively, and when I got there she asked me if I knew what that word meant, and when I tried to deny any foul play she lifted me off the ground by my jacket in front of three lines of kids waiting for busses two, three, and five respectively;
  • three rounds of hepatitis B shots;
  • the first time changing a pad at school, and making sure to do it during class time to minimize the risk of anyone else being in the bathroom, and coming out of the stall to see my friend Katrina standing there and her saying smugly, “I know what you were doing,” and me feeling embarrassed until she told me that she, too, had her period, and we henceforth became even better friends and strong allies for nearly the duration of our three years in purgatory;
  • the keyboarding teacher’s poisonous coffee-and-cigarette breath which in retrospect, although foul, matched his whole recent-divorcé-oversized-plaid-sportsjacket-and-sneakers-and-drooping-moustache chic (to his credit, he forced me out of my shockingly self-destructive habit of using the caps lock key—a quick double-tap of my pinkie—every time I was in need of a single cap);
  • having to play the second alto saxophone part of ‘Silent Night’ in the Sidney Santa Claus Parade in December, and my fingers nearly freezing, and then going inside expecting relief but instead encountering the crippling pain of thawing extremities, and then the next year thinking I’d figured it out by cutting the fingertips off my gloves only to discover that that, indeed, did not work and all I was left with was frozen fingies a ruined pair of gloves;
  • and a not-very-smart kid named Luke who managed to make my life hell in a number of ways in grade six, so many in fact that he warrants me breaking this list and giving him a few paragraphs of his own.

Luke was a boy blond. He bullied, he acted out in class, he said mean, stupid things to people, and with the bizarre confidence and coolness that is often unfairly bestowed upon the unintelligent—he once made an art project which he hung on the wall of the grade six wing that was a drawing of his Fila-brand high-top, the page emblazoned with the phrase ‘Luke the studly raper’—he was popular and cocky. Much of class time was taken up by his antics, the teacher scolding, negotiating, punishing, ejecting. In seventh grade woodshop each student fashioned a cedar box which, once complete, we varnished, careful—as per the teacher’s suggestion—not to spill any in the interior and ruin the rich deep scent that would be stored in the darkness within forever, or at least until Luke was caught pouring varnish inside each of the drying boxes. He would walk past me saying things like, “Hey Alison, you’re so flat the walls are jealous,” which I of course knew was a ridiculous thing to say, but became tiring nonetheless. I was an easy target, quiet and shy and always on the honour roll, and therefore disliked by—or at least invisible to—many of the school’s cool, masturbating glitterati.

Luke also happened to go the same karate dojo as I did. He was one belt above me (I was yellow with three tips and he was orange) and his class was directly after mine on Wednesday evenings. After class one Wednesday—I can’t recall now if it was the Wednesday that the sensei’s apprentice, Dave, broke wind during an inner thigh stretch, the room full of preteens doing all we could to both remain silent and make sense of an adult doing such a thing in such a public setting, or if it was the Wednesday I finally got to spar with Justin, an overweight child older and larger than I, who would begin giggling each time he was struck and was therefore an ideal opponent—I went downstairs to the coat room and sat down to put my on shoes. I was bent over, tying my laces, when I saw them: Luke’s raper Filas haphazardly flung into a corner. Earlier that day I had been walking beside the school at lunch time when I was clocked in the back of the head by something solid and rough. It was hard enough that it stunned me, and when I turned around I saw Luke running away around the corner of the building. A fist sized rock lay near my feet.

I pulled on my coat, grabbed the sneakers and went out into the night of the parking lot. I made my move right away, knowing my ride would pull up any moment. Beside the dojo was a dense hedge of trees at least ten feet high. One after the other, I lobbed Luke’s shoes into the hedge and trotted down to the curb where my father would be waiting. I felt glib. I felt proud. The entire drive home I relished in imagining the fallout: Luke searching for his shoes, his confusion, his pathetic barefootedness, possible punishment.

At home I changed and ate dinner with my family. Sometime at the end of the meal—in our house this meant the point when everyone had finished eating but me, and I would be sitting alone at the table well beyond the period in which the others could be expected to stay seated and wait—the phone rang. I knew who it would be. I sat and ate a rice grain and waited. After a minute, Mum covered the mouthpiece with her palm and said, “Alison, it’s Luke’s mother. She wants to know if you took Luke’s shoes after karate.” I looked at my mother and said, “Yes, I did. I took them and threw them into the hedge beside the dojo.” I told Mum about the rock at school earlier in the day, and she returned to her call and repeated the information into the phone. That’s all I remember. My parents weren’t angry, and as far as I can recall, from then on the worst was over when it came to that schmo.

Luke, as it happens, was friends with James. One might think that this would have been a deterrent, but it wasn’t and here’s why: James was a hottie. He was tall and, unlike most boys at that age, had developed as quickly as the girls. This meant he was borderline muscular and his voice had dropped (rumour had it that it had broken in grade five but who ever dared confirm such things). I can not remember the first time I saw him, and I while I had many classes, year after year, with the vile Luke, I never had any with James, the very fact of which may have helped fuel my little, barely pubescent fire—the myth of James remained unbroken. The only times I saw him were in passing in the halls or school grounds, or else when I found an inconspicuous vantage point from which to privately observe him capering with his posse. The crush began sometime in grade seven and seemed to last forever. I had no interest in anyone else. In late grade seven a new student joined my class. He’d moved from Ontario with his family and his name was Josh, and during his first weeks I would often look up from my schoolwork to see him look away from me, a deep blush promptly spreading up from the neck of his t-shirt and swallowing his ears, cheeks and forehead. We talked, and then we hung out a few times, but that was all. He eventually became friends with the group of boys that included Luke and James and we didn’t speak much after that.

One of the aforementioned vantage points from which I could observe not only James but also most of the school population and the ways in which their respective dramas unfolded, was in the foyer near the main entrance to the school, where the Lunch Box and the Lunch Box Jr were located. The Lunch Box was a shop run by the student council, of which I was a member. We worked in various shifts throughout the week during lunchtime, and sold vital goods like ice cream sandwiches, skittles, cans of pop, and potato chips. The Lunch Box Jr was on the other side of the foyer. It was a repurposed utility closet whose door had been replaced with a Dutch door and from which we sold cup noodles only. Even with the upper door opened wide, it was a near toxic fuggy hotbox of dehydrated meat smells and MSG, and the rest of the day one’s hair and garments would be infused with a soupy sodium perfume.

It was at the Lunch Box towards the end of grade eight that James and I finally began talking. When I served him, we would exchange a few words, and soon I noticed that he would hang back if I was busy, waiting for me to approach him to take his order for Cool Ranch Doritos or Ketchup chips or whatever. We would talk in snippets about classes, about the Pixies, plans for summer, and once, how underrated the Empire Records soundtrack was. After lunch, I would arrive five or ten minutes late to class—we were permitted time to close up properly—with a pocketful of wine gums or something, and at the earliest opportunity would share my bounty with Katrina and gush to her about the depth of James’ and my having both recently seen Clueless, or whatever else had come up that day.

Nearing the end of grade eight meant finally approaching our liberation from middle school, and the right of passage would be marked with a dance called the Grade Eight Farewell. This in no way meant our cohort would be parting ways; rather, we would all begin the following September at the high school eight hundred and fifty metres up the road, where we would run out our final four years of public education and perhaps to begin seeing each other, for better or worse, in a new light. I vowed to ask James to the Grade Eight Farewell. It was a necessary risk, a move to achieve closure on this ongoing, unrequited crush. My mum bought me a simple, pale green sixties-style shift dress and we found some nail polish to match. I chose a pair of chunky white sandals and the total effect was to my estimation glamorous and adult, a fitting testament to having outgrown the confines of the place. A couple of weeks before the Grade Eight Farewell I heard that James was already going to the Grade Eight Farewell with someone and when, crestfallen, I told Katrina about it, she told me that indeed she was the one with whom James was going to the Grade Eight Farewell.

I don’t really remember much of the Grade Eight Farewell itself, except that I felt good in my dress, and I felt bad when I saw James and Katrina together. She wore a plaid skirt with a baby tee, cardigan and white knee-highs, à la Cher Horowitz. I think I had one dance with James, but that might be a rewritten memory, an intruder that has taken hold within my recollection of the evening in order to help me forget, even a little, the pain of betrayal, the pain of being infatuated with a near stranger, the pain of the senselessness of the prototypical love emotion. In retrospect it seems almost comical, imagining such young children going through such crises.

The following year at high school, the landscape of social relationships continued to mutate, continued to become more and more complicated as we, as awkward humans, learned more about the complexity of our emotions, learned more about what it felt like to hurt and to be hurt. I made new friends in higher grades, learned to deal with future ill-advised crushes, learned to go my own way, and, after falling somewhat deeply for Paul Rudd after multiple rewatchings of Clueless, adopting Cher’s perspective on high school boys and holding it close:

“I don’t want to be a traitor to my generation and all but I don’t get how guys dress today. I mean, come on, it looks like they just fell out of bed and put on some baggy pants and took their greasy hair and covered it up with a backwards cap and like, we’re expected to swoon? I don’t think so.”


[I have tried to recreate events, locales and conversations from my memories of them. In order to maintain their anonymity in some instances I have changed the names of individuals and places, and I may have changed some identifying characteristics and details.]

 

Oct
29

America’s Best BBQ Ribs

img_6448

It is Nick who notices it first, a small sailboat thrashing in the surf about fifty metres from shore. The winds have been mounting slowly throughout the day, the further we drive from Waikoloa in the hills, the further north along the coast toward Hawi, where we have to go to get the pearl bracelet. Gwyneth is in the bush somewhere behind the outhouse, and so he and I stand near the cliff’s edge and watch the boat in silence. It looks like a toy down there. A toy some celestial older sibling is bent on destroying.

“Do you think anyone’s in there?” I say. I picture a lone man pitching around in the cramped cabin below deck, his meagre belongings strewn across the floor, puke in places. The waves are dramatic. I look left and right along the cliffs, slashed, carved and pocked, perfect and imperfect as faces. The waves did this, and now they’ve gone to work on the boat. It rolls so far starboard that it looks like it will flip.

“I hope not,” he says.

“But there could be.”

“Yes,” he says, “I guess there could be.”

Gwyneth comes out from behind the mint green Porta Potty, not quite still pulling up her shorts, but almost still pulling up her shorts. She tugs the hem of her t-shirt down over her hips as she walks towards us. “Those things are disgusting,” she says. “Give me a squat in a bush any day.”

Now that it’s our third day together we’re all a lot more relaxed and therefore able to say things like squat in a bush. She comes and stands beside us. “What do you guys see down there?” she says. And then: “Holy Hanna. Now why on god’s green would he anchor so close to the shore?” As soon as she says it, it becomes clear that of course it didn’t anchor there, but had been dragged in.

The boat’s bow dips under, and a wave crashes down on top of it.

“I’ve never seen him here before,” she says. “We’re gonna have to tell someone.”

*

It wasn’t until our flight landed in Kona three days earlier that I realized I had no idea what she looked like. It was two in the afternoon and there was no one around and Nick looked at me and said, “What does she look like?”

“I don’t really know anymore,” I said, and Nick said, “Oh.”

I attempted to conjure what I could of her in my memory as we waited. There was a blonde fringe, there were worn-through Reebok high tops, there were freckles perhaps. I am old enough to know that these memories can not be trusted. The last time I saw Gwyneth I was eight and she was forty. That was twenty-four years ago. Back then I would have imagined any sixty-four-year-old woman to be a sweet grey-haired granny carrying a crochet-project-in-progress everywhere she went, and the fact that I no longer do so is another testament to the fact that I have officially embraced my thirties.

An old black soft top Cabriolet swerved into view. It lurched to a stop in the middle of the lane and a woman leaned toward the passenger window, her torso jerking with the effort of rolling it down.

“Gwyneth?” I said.

“Alison,” she said. “Mahalo!” And I could see her in there, behind giant sunglasses and khaki shorts, behind the striped cotton t-shirt. The blonde fringe remained, and I had been right about the freckles. Her skin was a rich nut brown.

She got out and we looked at each other, her door wide open and creaking on its hinge. “Look at you,” she said. I introduced Nick and we threw our bags in the back.

A parking attendant came over. “Excuse me, ma’am. Your car is blocking one of the lanes. You have to pull it over.”

Gwyneth stopped and looked at him. “I do?” she said.

“Yes ma’am. Your open door here is also a hazard to other vehicles.” Gwyneth looked around at the deserted roadway and sidewalks. “Someone could hit it,” he said.

“We don’t want that,” said Gwyneth as she looked up at him, shielding her eyes from the afternoon sun. “I just had this sucker detailed.”

*

We abandon the boat and drive on through the wind. The rest of the way to Hawi the road is strewn with fallen trees. Five minutes before we get there, Gwyneth downs the last sip of what she calls cheesy white, wedging the tall empty glass back between her seat and the handbrake, the withered remnants of ice cubes melting miserably in the bottom of the glass. Soon we approach a small strip of tourist shops and Gwyneth pulls off the road. I’m hoping for a restaurant. We haven’t eaten since breakfast, not counting our stop at the macadamia nut factory where tourists could taste, then buy. We tasted at least ten flavours of nuts, as well as shards of brittle and drams of locally grown and roasted coffee, all served in thimble-sized paper cups. We left with a hundred-gram pouch of lightly salted macadamias, three caffeine buzzes and bits of garlic flavoured nuts mashed between our molars.

The reason we are now pulled over on the side of the road in Hawi on a day so windy there’s a charge in the air, is that my mother came here with Gwyneth the last time she visited. She bought a bracelet—a single smoky grey pearl on a thin silver band—which I saw on her wrist and admired, and which she said she’d originally bought for me and then decided to keep. She had asked Gwyneth to take us up here so I could get one of my own with money she’d given me for that purpose.

The shop brims. I pick up a children’s toy made from aloha shirt fabric: a bright orange gecko with jumping marlins all over its back which I find difficult to reconcile. Gwyneth asks the woman behind the counter if she can use the phone to make a call about a stranded boat. The woman’s hair is eighties hair and her eye makeup is blue, but she’s dressed in flowing paisley bamboo-derived fabrics. She stands behind the counter rearranging pearl necklaces in the jewellery case.

“The phones are out,” says the woman. “This wind!” She then asks if she can help us with anything else and Gwyneth tells her that I’m looking for a specific bracelet with a single smoky grey pearl. The woman leads me to a display in the middle of the store and says, “Here you go.” There is an array of them, identical, all lined up and delicately hanging from a small repurposed branch. “As you can see,” she says, “each pearl is different.” As she sashays away, paisley flowing and tea tree wafting in her wake, I run my eyes over the orderly row of identical smoky spheres. The more I look at them, the more I begin to think that maybe the woman is right, maybe they are each unique, and by the time she returns and asks how I’m doing, I’ve narrowed it down to three.

Nick comes over from where he’s been looking at a carved wooden turtle, and by looking I mean absently running his fingers over the grooves of its shell, petting it. I ask him which one he likes best, and he tells me he doesn’t know. He looks at the bracelets, each a copy of its neighbour, and says, “They’re all so different.”

*

That first day as we drove back from the Kona airport, I sat up front and Nick took the back and when the road opened before us I found myself at ease, not like I was in a car with a woman I didn’t know, but rather with a woman I’d always known. She was relaxed, and this relaxed me, even though she had one index finger hooked around six o’clock, the other hand pointing out landmarks and scenery, only coming to the rescue when the car slipped out of third, which happened on the inclines. There was a large drinking glass perilously wedged between the driver’s seat and the handbrake. It was half full of a nearly clear liquid, several much depleted ice cubes still bobbing around at it surface, holding on.

Gwyneth pointed out resorts, hillsides, the directions to the other islands, everything whipping through my vision in a blur as she sped along the highway. She began talking about the volcano, which was nearly directly behind us, and I tried not to let myself be too startled by the fact that she was looking back at it as she described it to us. She sensed each time the car drifted into the oncoming lane and turned around just in time to get us back on track. We passed a roadside memorial: hibiscus, frangipani, a crooked cross. I glanced back at Nick who looked as though he’d stopped breathing.

The landscape was moonlike: black lava rock baked onto the land in all directions, the occasional scraggly tree and tufts of dry grasses created the only breaks in the rolling mineral-scape. The resorts popped up on the horizon, verdant strips of perfect landscaping leading from the highway down the slope to the shoreline, lush palms arcing the entrances, welcoming. Desert mirages. Gwyneth named each one as we passed them, looking out to the left of the car describing to us what was down there.

“Ok so you see those palm trees down near the water? Can you see the one that’s leaning a little more to the left, right near the centre of the second cluster of palm trees from the right? One of the places I landscape is just down there.”

After half an hour we turned left off the long straight road from Kona, and began up the hill towards Waikoloa. Coming out of the turn, her glass slipped from its spot and the contents spilled out into the foot well. The smell of white wine filled the car.

“Holy Hanna,” said Gwyneth. “Now that’s a damn shame.”

The road continued up, cutting through the black land.

*

Outside the police station in Kapaau I want to wander. Gwyneth is trying to get in touch with an officer about the boat, but the door is locked and so she’s talking into a courtesy phone attached to the building. There is a statue of King Kamehameha that I am curious about because I saw some people taking photos of it as we drove in, and also because I need to stretch my legs. Nick recommends we stay where we are, standing beside the Cabriolet in an empty parking lot. I protest but I see he has a point: the path to the statue is strewn with fallen fronds and coconuts. Up above, king palms bend and slash, threatening the ground below, their grip on their branches tenuous and suddenly uncertain. The sky is deep and blue, too swift for clouds to linger. The air is a vessel today, transports the ocean breeze a little further, carries eerie distant sounds out from the forests. In the car from Hawi, after I bought the pearl bracelet, the smell of barbecue had hypnotised us as we drove past a falling down roadside shack with a spray-painted sign claiming America’s Best BBQ Ribs, fragrant smoke twisting from its roof up into the wind. Now, in the parking lot, we’re thinking about it.

“Do you think they just have fries?” Nick says.

“I don’t know,” I say. “Maybe.” My hunger has somehow moved out of my stomach. It has metastasised, colonising the rest of my body, spreading throughout my limbs. It threatens my vegetarianism. It owns me now, which is probably why I say, “You know, we could just get ribs.”

“You could get them, I don’t mind.”

His composure and level thinking in the face of starvation brings me back to my senses. I say, “Let’s go back after and see if they have fries.”

I don’t want this to forever be the day that I ate meat, a day that becomes lore and features in anecdotes that come out at dinner parties and begin with something like, We were so hungry and nothing was open, and Alison just couldn’t help herself. I don’t feel like adding to his arsenal of secret truths that potentially comes out years down the road while in some sad conversation after a fight late into the night, in which couples bargain for happiness. When I say this to Nick he says I’m being crazy, that the hunger is eating my brain, but I tell him he should take it as a compliment that I see us bargaining for happiness in the future. “That’s real intimacy,” I tell him, and he just stares at me until he says, “We need to get you some food.”

*

Forty minutes after Gwyneth picked us up from the airport we pulled into her driveway. When I asked her if she’d like me to lock the car she said, “No just leave it.” I noticed that all the windows were still down and the keys were in the ignition. When we walked in the house it was unlocked as well.

“I figure,” Gwyneth said to us later, “that if you’re good to the universe, the universe will be good to you. I try to give kindness, and I tend to get it back.”

“You two will be sleeping in Lily’s room,” she said as we walked inside. I spent several puzzled moments trying to work this out—I was sure she lived alone—until I realized that Lily was one of the cats. There were fourteen in total, four that lived in the house, and several which came inside for meal times, and a number of other rescues that were still pretty feral and looked mangy and hissed as well. They all ate fresh sushi-grade fish. That night looked like yellow fin tuna.

Lily was by far the largest, and when she was done eating her sushi as well as several of the other cats’ sushi she sauntered out the side door to watch the koi pond. After some time, I noticed her come back in, jump onto the couch and lie down directly on top of another cat and fall asleep there. The cat underneath was named Puhi. Gwyneth told us her name meant freshwater eel, and that she was deaf. I felt nervous to be taking Lily’s room.

Gwyneth cooked us snapper on the grill, wrapped in thick broad leaves. We made an exception. She offered us wine.

“It’s nothing special,” she said, brandishing a litre bottle of generic white I recognized from Costco, “but I like it just fine. I call it my cheesy white.”

She gave each of us a wine glass but poured her own in a glass just like the one in the car. She added ice to her glass, and we toasted.

We ate and filled each other in. She was curious about my life and seemed fascinated by it. She was very complimentary of Nick, telling me I found a real keeper, telling him how handsome he was.

“Nick,” she said, “So you’re a musician.”

“I am,” said Nick. “I play mainly blues.”

“No kidding,” said Gwyneth.

“He brought his harmonicas,” I said, and Gwyneth said she would love to hear him play. She also talked about her ex, Tim, whom she’d been with during my childhood, and about his wife and daughter, both of whom she didn’t seem to care for. She talked about how Tim, too, used to play harmonica. “We still talk a lot,” she said, but I knew that it had been years since she last saw him.

Later, after dinner and well into the second litre of cheesy white, Nick played harmonica in the living room. All the cats fled in the first two bars except for the deaf one, who slept on. He played Delta blues for us, his entire body entering the instrument hidden in his hands, his eyes closed, his breath circular and perplexing. I looked at Gwyneth and her expression was trance-like, the mirth unearthed by the first few minutes replaced gradually by memories. She looked at him as if she had known him forever. She studied him, retreating somewhere as the music moved around her. I had heard this one a million times, so I looked at the cat and stroked her in time with the rhythm. She purred softly from within her silent world.

The phone rang before the song was finished and Gwyneth stood up.

“Hello,” she said into the receiver, and then, “Holy Hannah!” She covered the mouthpiece with her hand and grinned at us, her eyes glassy from joy and wine. “You’ll never believe this,” she said in a not-quite whisper. “It’s Tim!”

*

After finding no one at the police station, we get in the car and head to the fire station. I think of the sailboat in peril, perhaps by now dragged even further in. I imagine the man in the cabin again, by now in hopeless tears, looking at a photo of someone he loves, crossing himself. We pass the barbecue place again and Nick says, “Alison wants ribs.” I shoot him a death stare and he smirks at me, but before I can feign protest Gwyneth pulls over and says, “Me too. We’ll get ’em to go.”

There is a line to get to the counter, which is a flap where the shack opens. We stand in gravel looking at the menu. There are no fries here. When it’s our turn to order, the woman in the shack tells us they’re closed. Her eyes are crazed and I decide she is either affected by the wind or, once I take note of her mullet and missing teeth, a crack pipe. Gwyneth folds her arms on the exposed two-by-four where the transactions happen in this place, and leans in toward the woman.

“Really?” she says. “You just sold some half racks to the group in front of us, and now you’re closed?”

“I meant we’re out of meat,” the woman says, her eyes darting, her face sheening. “There’s nothing else open on account of the wind. Power’s out. We been so busy we sold out.”

A man appears from the section of the shed where the magic must happen.

“What is it y’all are after?” he says to Gwyneth. The smell of the meat is both good and evil, right and wrong. The woman fidgets.

“Some ribs to go,” says Gwyneth, “although we’ve been led to believe you guys are fresh out.”

The man sighs. “Chelsea, you gotta stop telling people we’re out of meat,” he says. “Now pull it together and serve these nice people.” He smiles at us, tells us it’ll just be a few minutes, and retreats back out of sight.

“Sorry,” says Chelsea. “We just been so busy today. We’re the only place open.” She offers the sheepish and holey smile of a toddler. “I guess I just kinda keep losing my shit.” She emits a nervous laugh, takes a deep breath in and out and rolls her shoulders once. “That’ll be twelve fifty.”

In the car, the sweet metallic smell of the meat energizes me and I feel rebellious.

“Mainlanders,” Gwyneth says, disdain creeping around the edges of the word. She puts the car in reverse, slips the shoulder strap of her seatbelt over her left shoulder like she’s putting on a small backpack, like it’s going to fool anyone, and speaks to the rear view mirror. “They think they’ll move to Hawaii and that life will be a certain way, but you know, it isn’t always that way, and that back there?” She indicates with a pointed thumb shaking lazily in the direction of the shack. “That’s how a lot of them end up.”

It’s not clear whether she means a bit crazy, or selling meat on the side of the road, or addicted to drugs, or getting mullet cuts for three bucks in the kitchen of their neighbour’s trailer, draped in an old bed sheet and smoking cigarettes. Maybe she means all of those things, or maybe none of them.

Yesterday Gwyneth took us down into one of the resorts she had pointed out from the speeding Cabriolet on the day of the airport. I think now of the Nintendo and Toyota houses she took us to, the gardens of the inordinately wealthy that Gwyneth keeps perfectly manicured year round, the houses and landscapes sitting picturesque in anticipation of the few weeks a year they’re used. Around the side of the first house I saw a tiny pineapple growing from the centre of a starburst of fronds and thought: If a pineapple grows alone in a garden and there’s no one around to eat it, is it still a pineapple?

I wonder what anyone expects when they move here.

Gwyneth asks me to pass her a Bud, so I unzip the cooler bag next to me in the back seat, open one can of beer and then another, pouring the contents evenly among three brightly coloured plastic juice cups, also from the cooler bag. For the third day in a row we’ve left the house fully stocked with cans of Budweiser, a jar of pineapple juice and a small stack of incognito cups, dubbed thus by Nick. Gwyneth had looked at him with admiration when he first said it, and laughed for nearly a kilometre. When she looks at him it’s like she’s looking at someone else, as if she’s searching him for another man in another place and time. Because of this he is forthcoming and generous with his humour.

We bump along the twisting roads sharing the ribs, drinking the Bud, wiping our sticky hands on our bare thighs. If there’s a way to break vegetarianism, this is the way to do it. Everywhere we go Gwyneth names the flora. We stop when we see a fallen tree up ahead lying across the road, cops redirecting traffic. We hold our incognito cups down near our feet and Gwyneth turns the car around to find a different route.

*

The fire station is open, and when Gwyneth goes inside Nick and I shuffle around outside, full bellies and beer buzzes.

“Regrets?” I say.

“Never,” he says.

Gwyneth comes out with two firemen who are rushing toward their truck. She is still speaking as they climb into the cab and buckle up.

“It’s just so windy down there,” she is saying, “and I guessed it was just some guy who didn’t know what he was doing, or just got swept up in the wind or something. I’ve never seen him there before. You should see the waves. I kept thinking he was going to flip.”

One of the firemen says, “Thanks again, ma’am,” out the window and the truck starts and drives away. I watch them go and wonder what their plan is, how they’re going to get out there and help that poor man, who by now has achieved a state of calm resignation and is meditating on the trajectory of his adult life.

Gwyneth says, “You two ready to head home? By the time we get there it’ll be time to feed my kitties.”

We all get in the car and Nick says, “I’m glad we were able to finally find someone to go help that poor guy.”

Gwyneth loops her seatbelt and starts the car. “No no,” she says. “They’re headed somewhere else. Apparently there’s a small house fire down the way.” Nick and I look at each other in the mirror. When we’re back on the road she says, “Yeah so I guess that boat is just always there. Those guys say it’s been there for ages.”

“Huh,” I say.

Nick says nothing.

“Yeah, exactly, who knew right?”

We head back to Waikoloa a different way, not via the coast road but up into the hills, completing a loop. Nick pours more beer. The air cools as we climb, the poor old Cabriolet keeps dropping third, and the rolling green landscape makes me feel as though we’ve somehow transported somewhere else. That place of black lava, of sporadic palms, tufts of fountain grass, of teal beaches down below, Maui in the distance—it could be somewhere else entirely.

Oct
23

River Mouth

screen-shot-2016-10-23-at-4-21-58-pm

It was the shoes I saw first. It seemed that I saw the shoes even before I heard the thud, the sliding tires, the shatter, smelled the hot rubber. I watched the shoes in their slow-motion trajectory, the height, the arc, the descent, the astonishing distance from the motionless toes pointing to the centre of the sky. My heartbeat became audible in that moment and I stopped my bike. A man of about seventy was on his back in the middle of the road. A car was up on the adjacent sidewalk, its snout contorted and steaming and wrapped around a lamppost. Two black orthopaedic shoes lay on opposite sides of the intersection, and I found myself stopped and staring down at the left one. I hadn’t wanted to watch, yet I couldn’t ride away, as if I were waiting for a moment in which I could do something to help, as if a moment would come that would allow me to process what I’d just seen. Or not quite seen.

I had left for work at two-thirty in the afternoon. The sun that day was sharp and flat against the roof of the sky. The reeds along the river bank were a wheaty gold, the river itself royal and still. Our little house by the Yoshino river was half a kilometre from the river’s mouth, where it gave itself over to the ocean. Usually, when I left early enough, I would enjoy a leisurely detour along the river path, past the sports fields, the aged joggers, the gradual construction of the new bridge out of town. That day, though, I was running late, which is why I took the main road and found myself fifteen minutes later staring at a body that I was pretty sure wasn’t dead, but could have been dead.

When I heard the ambulance’s siren was when I began to pedal again slowly, the rest of the way to English Square, the private language school on the second floor of a bluish brick building in a part of town called Sako, where I worked. I spent the rest of the day in a daze. My low-intermediate students complained that I was being mean. An advanced high-school student told me I seemed distant.

*

The first of the messages came that afternoon from France. I had just finished a lesson with six-year-old Kayo on the difference between producing the voiced v versus the unvoiced f. The class had come to an end with the two of us sitting opposite each other, Kayo with one hand on her own throat, one on mine, a fine slick of saliva covering the desk between us. She wasn’t really getting it. My next class would be with a group of teenagers, their eyebrows shaved, their English intermediate, their testing of words like shit and homo, their apathy fully formed. I wiped down the table with a fistful of tissue and looked at my phone. There was a message from Winnie, an old friend from Montreal. We had not seen each other in years.

Hey. Are you ok?

I read the message several times before responding. Nice to hear from you! I’m great, thanks. And you?

*

When I had woken that morning from dreaming of spring, the remnants of temperate breezes and cherry blossoms fading with each waking breath, I found the room was cold and so stayed where I was. In March it could go either way, but when spring was ready it would happen overnight, the explosion of pink blossoms in the yard, the sunlight suddenly soft and warm and defeating the cold hardness that oppressed winter’s days. I lay in bed listening to the neighbourhood. Tokushima Elementary School was behind our house, and each morning the school greeter, a child who remained anonymous to me but whose voice I had come to detest, would stand at the school’s entrance bellowing Ohayo-gozaimasu (good morning) repeatedly for fifteen minutes before the first bell rang. I always wondered how the other children felt about him, coming to the conclusion that had he gone to my elementary school he would have been the object of relentless teasing and minor assaults.

I had been living in that house for nearly a year, which is remarkable considering that after waking there for the first time, when it was still just Aaron’s house, I looked around his room and asked him if he was squatting. (I recently rediscovered on my old computer a short video I made for a friend back in Canada, which included a guided tour of my house, me moving from room to room. About two minutes in, during an explanation of my closet, which I had DIYed with a metal pole balanced on two door frames across the hallway at the top of the stairs, I interrupt my own narration with laughter, saying aloud, What am I thinking? I can’t send you this, you’ll worry. I’m still laughing when the video cuts off.)

*

The second message came from Montreal around eight o’clock, just before I began my final lesson for the day with the mute fifteen-year-old returnee, Saori. Saori was nearly fluent, but impudent, and each week I was an intentional five minutes late for the lesson. I ate a tuna rice ball outside the classroom and read the message, this one from Gillian in Montreal.

I love you. Send me a message when you can.

I wrote back. Love you, too! Skype tomorrow? I swallowed the rice and entered the room.

“Hello Saori. How are you?”

“Did you do anything interesting this week?”

“How was your rhythmic gymnastics performance last weekend?”

“Ok, what was in the news today?”

“Sendai was in the news.”

“What happened in Sendai?”

“Sendai had an earthquake.”

“Really? Was it a big one?” I recalled the last earthquake we’d had in Tokushima, a few weeks previous. I was in a class of six junior-high girls who vacillated between dying for my approval and not giving a shit about anything that came out of my mouth. They were all smart, all wily, all banded together throughout their various tactics of dissent, and this made them my most frustrating group. They were frequently baited with the promise of Pictionary, and more frequently punished with textbook readings that were slightly above their level. I became a master of ignoring their pleas. The day of the most recent earthquake they all suddenly started shrieking and took cover beneath the table. Later I found out it had been a five-point-four, but I hadn’t felt it at the time and thus scolded the girls for misbehaving.

“I don’t know how big.”

“Okay. Anything else you want to talk about?”

“Please open to page 84.”

*

It was nine-thirty when I locked up the classrooms and the office. It was a Friday night, which meant Aaron wouldn’t be home for another hour. An avid and characteristically obsessed triathlete, he cycled forty kilometres each way to work three days a week along the river path, coming home in a sheen of spandex and sweat, the beam from his high-powered headlamp lighting up the windows as he pulled into the driveway. I didn’t like being the first one home. Without him there it felt to me like a shell, made me feel temporary. We met at a cherry blossom festival just as I had been planning to move away. Instead, a month later he asked me to move in. The rent was cheap and the house—one side of a duplex­—was in disrepair, but there was a garden out the back and all the faucets worked and I had a room to myself on the upper floor for reading and writing and binge-watching downloaded episodes of 30 Rock, as was the style at the time. I eventually learned to look past the torn paper doors, the water-marked Snoopy wallpaper in one of the upstairs rooms, the occasional centipede, the scent of humidity stored in the warped wooden walls. I had found a kind of love there, which made me feel I had found a kind of home.

Riding back, the streets were emptier than usual. There was no traffic, no groups of uniformed teenagers biking home on the sidewalks, four-abreast, from their night schools. I turned off the main road toward the river, and when I got to the river path I found it barricaded. Neon-clad officers waved glowing orange sabres at me, indicating a detour back the way I came. The night was still and wan, the river silent. I asked in Japanese if everything was okay, but the man spoke too quickly for me to understand so I thanked him, turned around, and rode home through the deserted city streets.

*

The third message was waiting when I got home. This one was a voice message from Jon, a friend from my days teaching in South Korea, who now lived in Ottawa.

Alison, hey. Please tell me you’re okay. I’m just watching the news. Call me when you can. I need to hear you’re all right.

It was just after ten o’clock when I opened my laptop. I went to the BBC and clicked on the first video link, which was titled “Earthquake and Tsunami in Japan.” A wave like a wall. Houses afloat. Screaming. Drivers stepping out of doomed vehicles in attempts to escape a crushing fate. I opened another tab and went to the Japan Meteorological Agency website. Tokushima was under extreme tsunami warning. Aftershocks were predicted. The rivers were meant to rise. I called Aaron but he didn’t answer. I tried not to worry; he often didn’t answer when he was riding. I put the kettle on and thought of him speeding through the dark beside that black strip of river, headed home to the point where it fed the ocean.

I waited for the water to boil and looked at a map. We were more than seven-hundred kilometres south of the epicentre off the coast of Miyagi prefecture. Surely, I thought, that’s far enough. I watched another video on YouTube. Homes and cars and cities swirling together like leaves in a gutter. I called Jon.

“Alison, I can not tell you how relieved I am to hear your voice.”

“Thanks for your message. I’m just watching these videos, and—”

“Are you okay?”

I told him we were really far from it all, that I didn’t even know it had happened until I got home from work just then. I told him it was crazy. Sad. Frightening.

He told me about a nuclear plant. “The news here says some reactor’s melting down. They’re talking about Chernobyl.”

I imagined ash, masks, limbless dolls, silence. I thought of Aaron and thanked Jon for calling, told him I had to go. He asked that I email him in the morning, to let him know I was still there.

I dialled Aaron again. There was still no answer. I made tea and didn’t know what to do next. The North American news coverage was sensational, depicting Japan as an island nation under threat, a speck in the blue that could be taken by the sea, toppled from below, choked by clouds of radioactivity the moment the wind changed. The Japanese news was vague and difficult for me to understand. The power was out in Tokyo, the streets gridlocked with vehicles and debris. Bicycle stores were broken into, bicycles stolen by people desperate to get home. I imagined my parents waking up on the west coast in a few hours, switching on the CBC, hearts rocketing to throats. I sent them an email.

I turned off the lights and slid open the back door. This was my favourite spot in the house, the narrow stoop that faced out over our vegetable garden, still a month at least from being planted. I could see up to the lights blinking like stars in a children’s book on top of Mount Bizan. Another high-school student of mine, Kazuya, had been telling me the week before about his emergency backpack. He kept it in his bedroom beside his desk, he told me. It had clothes, food, a multitool, a torch, and a blanket. He would seek elevation, running to the top of Bizan. He had a map with various routes demarcated for all possible contingencies. He said that was where he was most likely to survive.

I sat down on the stoop and drank my tea and listened. I breathed in. The temperature had dropped and the night was silent. I imagined myself stranded by my lack of language, left alone in our riverside suburb, even the neighbours incapable of communication. I looked over at the darkened windows next door. I remembered the day the old lady brought over a pumpkin she’d grown, and the day the old man had not swerved his car from me as I was walking up our narrow street. I’d had to jump out of the way, flattening myself against a chain link fence in order not to be hit.

I slid the door closed again and walked through the darkness, climbed the stairs, pressed my forehead against my upstairs window, rang Aaron again. Seven-hundred kilometres, I told myself, is far enough. I knew he wouldn’t answer. Looking out over the neighbourhood I could make out the boundary where the street lights ended, the strip of emptiness, watery and black. I imagined the houses coming loose from their foundations, water rushing from their first and second floor windows, and drifting towards me. Eventually the houses would collide and the water would push and push and sweep me even further. The convenience store across the street would overflow, the parking lot filling with floating bento boxes, junk food, cigarette cartons, the packaging distended and bloating. I wondered how I would feel, how long until I would leave. I thought of those people up north, huddled in the cold, their cities erased, their homes now figments of the past. I thought of my own home on the other side of the world, waiting there, physically intact. I tried to recall its parameters, its smell, the number of stairs leading up to the front door.

Oct
15

Leaving Young Love

img_2339

In the months before I moved from Vancouver to Montreal I got a little bit fat. Not super fat, not elastic waistbands fat, but fat enough that when I got together with Brooke, an old friend of mine, for coffee, she made a wristy sweeping motion with her hand and said, “Don’t worry, hon. We’ll do something about this.”

I was twenty-one, had been living with my boyfriend, Neil, for three months, and had recently quit smoking. Quitting smoking is something that has accompanied me through most stages in my life. I quit at least ten times before it finally stuck when I was twenty-seven. I don’t think the not smoking was the only reason for the gain. I think it was the first time in my life that I was properly depressed, although I didn’t know it at the time because I was young and didn’t know any depressed people. Actually, I knew one depressed person, and it was my ex who told me he was gay before running into the middle of Main Street, and when I darted after him he ran from me and I ended up chasing him through the east-side streets for ten minutes until his knees gave way beneath his pain and he wept on my shoulder as we sat on a bench in a bus shelter many blocks from where we started, catching our breath. All to say I didn’t recognize the signs in myself, which in retrospect included my job as a supervisor at Starbucks—at which I’m now certain eighty per cent of the customers must have been depressed, especially the one who always ordered a venti non-fat half-sweet two-and-a-half-shot extra-hot white chocolate mocha with extra whip, but I don’t count them because I didn’t know them personally, and only differentiated between them by what they ordered, and having one’s identity reduced to a coffee order can make anyone seem depressed—as well as long stretches of time spent motionless in the living room recliner, crying in the shower indefinitely or until Neil would come home and find me, and a mounting sense of being psychically wedged between two invisible places.

I told Neil I was moving one Tuesday in June when he came home from the docks at Granville Island with a fresh salmon. He was filleting it in the kitchen and singing Wilco to it—Theologians, don’t know nothin’—when I soundlessly rounded the corner and blindsided him.

“I’m moving to Montreal,” is what I said.

“What?” is what he said.

The fish just gaped.

Neil put the knife down, for which I was grateful. “So you got in?”

I nodded.

“When did you find out?”

The truth was that I had known for some time, hence the psychic stuckness, et cetera. I had applied for a transfer to two BA programs: one local, one not so local. I was undecided about my preference, but had chosen to trust that once I was accepted, I’d know which was right. The real truth, now that I’m older and I can see more clearly, was that I knew all along I would choose to move away. I got into both over a month earlier, but hadn’t known how to tell Neil. Now, it seemed, I knew.

“A few days ago, maybe a week?” I said. “I mean, I heard from UBC last month, but wanted to hear from Concordia before I made up my mind.”

“And so now you’ve heard.”

“Now I’ve heard.”

The moment soon became less intense and the betrayal in his face melted. He congratulated me, he hugged me, he took the halved fish out to the balcony and barbecued it.

I knew I had hurt him. I remember coming home from work the following day and seeing fresh scabbing on his knuckles; I remember finding the crushed drywall just inside the bedroom door, beside the photograph of the two of us at Jericho beach, sunglasses and freckles, wrapped in each other’s bare arms.

In the weeks before I left, the early summer built to critical mass and I packed, and as I packed the weight started to slip from me somehow. I was shedding: old clothes, sad face, flailing young love, mystery fat.

*

This rapid and merciless departure of mine, in which I gave my safe-bet boyfriend four weeks’ notice, is the first of the reasons that I found myself, six months later, standing at the front door of his house—their house—Christmas hanging like frostbite in the air. I stood before him weeping, weeping like an infant weeps, weeping until I was breathless and soundless, until strands of drool entered the equation.

I was home for Christmas, my first semester finished, my first six months at a distance of five thousand something kilometres conquered, and for some self destructive and borderline psychotic reason we—Neil and I—decided that this would be a good first stop. I would spend a night at his new place in Vancouver before carrying on to my parents’ home on Vancouver Island.

He watched me cry for a moment before pulling me into the hallway, where he watched me for a moment more. When the door clicked shut I managed to pull myself together enough to wipe my eyes and chin and look back at him. I had assumed he would have wept along with me, that we would have mourned the loss of us in tandem, handing each other tissues and blowing our noses, chasing closure, healing in solidarity with one another. But he was not crying, just looking at me with that horrible pity–concern–fascination gaze reserved for victims of disfiguring accidents and certain species of zoo animal, like the depressed penguins who just stand around on greyish mounds of not-enough snow. The house was dim, and the grey from the winter day outside made it grey inside as well.

I was a depressed penguin.

Distance had disfigured me.

“You’re looking good,” is what Neil said.

“Is she here?” is what I said. When I looked at him I felt like my face was sliding off. I needed a tissue.

“No,” he said. “She’s back tomorrow night.”

“Can I please have a tissue?”

“Yes,” he said, “of course. Come in.”

*

I left Vancouver in mid-July, found Montreal hot and sticky, found a place to live on rue St Marc on the seventeenth floor of a concrete high rise called Le St Marc. It had a dépanneur, a sauna and a pool on the ground floor, and my one-bedroom had a balcony looking across to another apartment block, to the left the mountain, to the right a slice of the city skyline. I painted the place in shades of orange and eggshell, and when the movers arrived with my stuff, everything particle board was partially ruined.

“It’s in your contract,” said the guy. “We don’t cover Ikea shit.”

I went back to Ikea for yet more torture as well as a bed, a sofa, and a bookcase I was determined to fill with classic literature tomes, Norton anthologies, poetry volumes, a comprehensive Shakespeare set. I had been self conscious about my diminutive book collection ever since I’d brought a guy called Dom home when I was nineteen, pre-Neil, so I chose a not-bottom-of-the-line bookcase that would live up to my expectations.

Dom was a customer at Starbucks who ordered a grande dark while talking on his cell phone, always dropping the thirteen-cents change into our tip cup that was variously emblazoned with slogans like Tippers is as tippers does and Tip! In the name of love. Into his cell phone he was always saying things like …not synergy, but something like it, …I said boardroom three, not four; we need to be able to hook up the Playstation, and …fine, fire him. None of us had any idea what he did for a living. All we knew was grande dark, Boss suits, and the face of a man not older than twenty-three. In retrospect, him asking me out must have been an act of colonization, or perhaps in response to a dare. He didn’t want to go out, though. He came to my apartment with a rented video and we ordered in. He snooped openly, looking in my closet and appraising my wardrobe, rummaging through my makeup kit with abandon, scrutinizing the titles on my small bookcase, most of whose shelves were lined with CDs and framed photographs.

“Is this all your books?” He picked up a used copy of The Bell Jar and I was embarrassed by how poxy it seemed in his well-manicured hands. It was among other predictable titles such as Catcher in the Rye and Little Women, as well as my first-year lit and art history textbooks.

“Yes,” I said, and then: “But I’m hoping to build my collection. You know, as I progress with my studies.” I cared about what he thought in the same way I guess all young women trapped in such a power imbalance cared what older guys thought.

Dom only raised his eyebrows and put the book carelessly back on the shelf, horizontal and spine to the back. We watched the video (Playing by Heart—he kept watching me to see when I would figure out the quite contrived twist in that film) and kissed briefly on my couch and he never called me again, just continued with his obnoxious patronage in the coffee shop as if nothing had ever happened.

*

In his cold grey apartment, Neil cooked me dinner. I sat at the table in the kitchen and sipped the red wine he poured me. He served me lentil stew and a green salad of mesclun in a balsamic drizzly thing and we sat and ate it surrounded by the sounds of our own eating and the rain that had begun to fall on the eaves outside.

“How’s Montreal?” he asked. “How’s your program going?”

“Cold, and fine,” I said, scooping a little crème fraîche onto my lentils. They were hot and warm and coated the inside of me. I needed this. I looked around at the minimalist space and couldn’t tell if its emptiness was curated or just lazy. There were a few chipped enamel mugs and dishes around the kitchen, and the living room had only the recliner and coffee table from our old place, and a small sofa covered in a charcoal cable knit blanket. Drying the in the dish rack I saw the old green enamelware colander that had been my grandmother’s, then mine, then ours, and now his. And hers. Its enamel was chipped and I soon realized how perfectly the place was decorated. Their home was classy and adult and nothing about it seemed temporary. The dish cloths had been acquired to match the colander, the napkins too had a subtle stripe of the same green. I started to cry again. Neil got up from his chair across the table and sat down beside me.

“You’re really hurting,” he said, and I hated him for it.

*

Classes began and I bought books. My shelves filled gradually and so did my time: there were parties in warehouses in the Mile End, cheap casual concerts on the Plateau, and as the temperatures dropped, fondue nights at new friends’ apartments. In late October I was invited to the birthday party of someone named Jasmine whose mother had once been a neighbour of Neil’s. Neil had given her my number and, I suspect, suggested she invite me. I walked up to St. Joseph Boulevard and knocked. The door swung open and Jasmine said, “I’m so glad you made it.” She was tall and thin with a short shaggy bob, and was wearing a skirt and moon boots. The party was vaguely Napoleon Dynamite–themed, and the film Cry Baby was for some reason playing silently on the TV in the background. I talked to a few people, but my shyness begat an immense wave of homesickness that left me leaning against the dishwasher watching people, and then crying quietly along with Johnny Depp.

At home after the party I dialled Neil before I even took off my coat.

“I can’t really talk now,” is what he said.

“What?” is what I said, except I wasn’t just saying or asking, but was also accusing and shaming a little as well. “Why?”

“I was just heading out.” I could picture his non-phone hand gripping his hair, channelling the tension back into his own scalp like a gruesome closed-circuit.

“Ok. This late?” After a pause and some static spanning a continent, I said, “Do you miss me?”

“Of course I miss you,” he said.

There was more silence. Silence on the phone just sounds like distance, like each kilometre, each highway, each prairie and glacier and tiny hick town, all grinding up together into static, into one spannable, manageable, and maddeningly audible thing.

“I love you,” he said. “I’ll call you tomorrow.”

I hung up the phone and threw it hard at the sofa, where instead of bouncing it lodged itself safely between the cushions.

*

My friend Brooke had always referred to Neil as Mr Safebet: How was your hot date with Mr Safebet last night? What would Mr Safebet think of you having that fourth tequila shot? How wild is Mr Safebet? She called him this because he was quiet, his overall air of bookishness accentuated by his freckles, his ever present thick-rimmed glasses and copy of something written by James Joyce or George Saunders or David Foster Wallace. Plus, he had a good job managing a coffee shop on Commercial Drive. She also didn’t think he was that good looking. He wasn’t unattractive, he just wasn’t a six-three hottie with his own landscaping business, double dimples and the brooding gaze of James Dean like the last one.

The last one had been Richard. At a Frank Black concert, he handed me a matchbook with his number scribbled inside. We dated for about two months, which, in a bizarre turn of fate, ended up being just enough time to meet each others’ grandmothers once, and then comfort each other through the grief resulting from their respective deaths, less than a month apart. Within the final week of our brief relationship he both burned himself with a cigar butt in a profound and immature expression of grief (a non-smoker, he’d bought the stogie especially), and told me in a restaurant that he didn’t see the point in reading books. I tossed a twenty on the table when he was in the bathroom and left forever. I never told Brooke about the burn or the book thing, which is why she continued to hold Richard up as a bastion of suitable boyfriends.

Neil was a safe bet. Moving in with each other had jettisoned me into a sphere of domesticity I wasn’t yet interested in. I became trapped in a strange orbit in which there were mutual decisions to be made about utility providers and fresh fish to be filleted every Tuesday. In terms of plummeting back to a recognizable reality, my re-entry strategy was a subconscious one but effective: I moved quickly and the relationship burned up in its own atmosphere.

*

Even when it got dark outside, and night encroached on the Pacific time zone; even when we had watched a movie together, sitting on opposite ends of the sofa; even when he said, “Do you mind sharing a bed tonight?” and we got undressed and covered ourselves in his blanket—their blanket—and lay side-by-side, noses and hip bones and toes pointing up toward the ceiling; even then their home was cold and hard. The lamps shone sterile bluish-white. The sheets smelled both flowery and bleachy—industrial. I thought to myself how easy it would be to use the power that resides in the arsenal of all young women, to trap him into showing me the emotion that so far he hadn’t shown me on his own. I thought how easy it would be to slide my hand across the space between us.

I did nothing though, of course, because I am not an animal. I was lying in another woman’s bed. I hadn’t been able to bring myself to ask whether or not she knew I would be staying the night there. Something told me that she did, that this visit was probably the result of discussions and arrangements and compromises and bartering, and this made me feel even farther away, even more on the outside.

“I need you to know that I was devastated when you left,” he said. He turned his head toward me after he said this, and the way the light was creeping in from the city outside it was difficult to tell what he was really saying. I could see, somehow, the wet blueness of his eyes, always something new-looking about them without his glasses, something almost new-born.

“Are you asking for an apology?”

“No, I just need you to know that. I know what it looks like. I guess I just didn’t know why you left, besides the obvious reason why you left.”

“Does it matter why?”

“No,” he said. He slid his hand across the space between us and took my hand. “Are we friends?”

“For tonight only, I think,” I said. I didn’t take my hand away, and eventually we were both asleep.

*

The first snow came in the final week of November. When I stepped out onto my balcony in the morning it was the first time I felt that seizing inside my nose, the fibres crystalizing. It frightened me and I emailed my professors, saying I wouldn’t make it to their classes that day. There were moments when I thought I might have been in over my head with the winter thing. Other moments I marvelled at the beauty of the silent white blanket that had taken hold of the city, the traffic soundless, stresses muted. I took night walks alone. I refused to buy boots and would come home with my Chuck Taylors soaked and stiff and ease my feet into a tub of warm water. Learning to enjoy the cosiness of polar living felt luxurious.

The week of the first snow is when the call came and he told me he’d met someone.

“I can’t help it. I’m in love with her,” is what he said.

“In love?” is what I said.

Afterwards, I took the elevator down to the first floor, letting my bare feet drag along the carpet in the hallway. I shuffled into the dépanneur and bought a litre of red wine and a pack of Benson and Hedges. I spent the evening on my snow-covered balcony, staring at the dark mountain and smoking half a pack.