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?”
“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.