Falling Through Doors

Nov
20

Double Tank Road

 

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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’

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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
15

Leaving Young Love

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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.

Sep
17

The Happenings

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I think I was pretty bored in my early teen years. One reason was that we lived in a rural setting on Vancouver Island. It was idyllic, but who needs sublime beauty when you’re fourteen. (As a younger child it had been different—weekends and afternoons were spent colonizing the forest and rocky shoreline, my brother and I building entire worlds for ourselves between catch-and-releasing coin-sized crabs on the stony beach and nights spent in our treehouse.) The closest town was Sidney, whose population of ten thousand had a median age of fifty-six, and whose speed limits rarely exceeded thirty kilometres per hour. It was not in walking distance. The best things in town for sub-sixteens (read: non-driving) were a five-pin bowling alley called Miracle Lanes and the Dairy Queen. These were only youth hubs in the eyes of parents, who would hand over a twenty and drop their kids off in town for a Saturday afternoon of what they thought would be bowling and Blizzards, but would most likely be a dime bag, Doritos, and Mountain Dew down by the pier. The older ones with cars would park in the Safeway parking lot at night, loitering and showing off their sound systems.

Another reason for my boredom is that I disliked school. I disliked it from day one. This had nothing to do with the content of the classes—I was able to engage with the material and excelled in all subjects except math, which was a major contributor to my boredom. Negotiating the perplexing interactions with other children stressed me out. As a small child I wore short hair. This and my shyness, combined with a surname that rhymes with hamburger, made me a prime target of the popular mouth breathers. The resulting low self-esteem would follow me until the end of middle school, when I grew tall and willowy and began to resemble an adult, at which point I still didn’t fit in. North Saanich Middle School looked like a correctional facility, which I suppose it was in a way—a brutalist grey cube to contain a few hundred kids aged eleven to thirteen. My theory then was that they wanted to keep us away from the rest of society, hide us, and perhaps in the meantime they thought we’d destroy one another. I began skipping class in grade six, a habit I kept up until the end. In my grade-twelve year I had the highest tardy rate and lowest attendance rate in the school. I marveled over the printout—pages and pages, double-sided—that the vice principal gave me. The trouble administration must have gone through to itemize each of these marked the record in my eyes as an accomplishment.

*

I was fourteen and in my first year at Parkland Secondary. It was a year after I shed my insecurities in favour of a sense of invincibility, a year before an unknown girl in an LA Kings half-zip pullover jacket and a knuckle duster would punch my lights out at a bus stop in front of the school after I refused to give her my bus fare, and eighteen months before I would drop out of school for a year after writing a letter to Principal Bunyan outlining the flaws I’d identified in the system and explaining that I therefore didn’t see the point in my being there any longer. I was a young woman of few words. I liked to wear worn-out Birkenstocks (retrieved on numerous occasions from the garbage can near the back door of the house, having been spirited out of my closet in the night by my father), olive green combat pants, and long-sleeve knits. My favourite food was ice cream sandwiches. I played on the senior volleyball team.

I had recently become friends with Erika, who was similar to me in that she was very tall, born in 1982, and played senior volleyball, and dissimilar to me in that she went to another school, never smoked pot, and attended a Christian youth group. I liked her, and she liked me, and when I was around her and her churchy friends I felt, for the first time perhaps, as though I was a part of something—as though I belonged. They were so nice! And happy! With no traces of apathy! Also, she was normal: she didn’t talk about Jesus all the time, she didn’t wear floral smocked dresses with Mary Janes. Actually, I thought she was cool: she liked grunge, played guitar, and because of youth group she had older friends, some of whom were what I then called hotties. So when Erika invited me to a youth retreat one weekend, cryptically—deceptively?— known as The Happenings, I decided that it sounded like a good idea. I certainly had nothing better to do.

*

I arrived at St Mary’s church hall on a Friday afternoon and was greeted by a short woman with a soft, rosy face and slightly upturned nose, her thighs packed tightly into bona fide mom jeans. She wore battered Reeboks, a Cosbyish sweater (can you still say that, in light of, you know, everything?), and a headband pushing her flat brown hair into a little swell at her hairline. Attached to her sweater were two pins, one that read Peggy and another that read GOD has a plan for YOU. She approached me with a basket of pins that looked similar to her Peggy pin.

“Are you Alison? I think you must be Alison! Welcome to The Happenings.”

I smiled and nodded and pinned my pin. “Where should I put my things?”

“Sure, dear! Just go in this door, turn right down the corridor, and you’ll see Jason standing at the bottom of the stairs. He’ll show you.” Her smile was vast, and I felt very welcome. She hugged me. Our pins touched. I had grown up going to church on Sundays with my family, and it had been nothing like this. There the adults were brittle and judgmental, the hymns austere and funereal, the other kids were weirdos, and the church hall smelled like old coffee and stewed fruit.

I walked down the corridor under the condemnatory eyes of sepia-tinged pastors past, until I reached the stairs.

“Hey. You Alison?” I didn’t answer for a moment. It was a hottie. Already. Six-three, blue–green eyes, square jaw, even a goatee (hey no judging—this was 1996). “I’m Jason.” He hugged me. It was an earnest hug, close and long. He worked out for sure. When he let go, he produced a large green pompom that hung limp at the end of a length of yarn. “Warm Fuzzy!” he said as he slipped it over my head. I looked down at the sad green sphere dangling in front of my sternum, then back at Jason. I frowned.

“What is this?” It sounded like three stern little sentences.

“It’s a Warm Fuzzy,” said Jason, undeterred. “It’s, like, a good feeling. You’ll give them and receive them over the course of the weekend. They represent caring and love.” I saw another kid run past the window wearing a whole knot of these things, ten at least. He looked clownish, and loved.

“Right on,” I said, and followed him up to a small room that had two sleeping bags already laid out on the floor.

“You can drop your stuff here. You’re sharing with Erika and Miranda.”

I thanked Jason. He did that thing that guys sometimes did, like two quick snaps and a clap wherein an open hand meets the closed fist of the other one in a flourish of swinging arms, that somehow seemed cool. He said, “Later,” and walked out. I dropped my backpack onto the hardwood floor, already a little bummed that there weren’t even beds. I thought of my churchgoing grandmother and the two centimetres of bathwater she made my brother share at bathtime when we stayed with her as little kids—somehow sleeping on the floor made sense.

*

“Watches please!” Peggy made her way around the circle in which we all now sat, and I watched everyone surrender their timepieces, tossing mine in with the rest when it was my turn. Erika whispered to me that this was her favourite part, escaping time for two days. I liked that perspective and immediately adopted it. It made it all seem so edgy. A tiny girl with blonde hair, pink-rimmed glasses and a Miranda pin looked on the verge of tears as she rested her watch—the last one—on top of the others. “Don’t worry,” said Peggy. She held Miranda’s gaze. “We’re on God’s time now.”

There was an icebreaker in which we had to introduce ourselves with an adjective that began with the first letter of our first names, and that we felt best described us. Peggy started.

“Perky Peggy!” Her face was more flushed than before, and now that she was sitting cross-legged on the floor her jeans made me think of sausage casings. Porky Piggy. I knew it was unkind, but I couldn’t unthink it.

Energetic Erika.

Musical Miranda.

Generous Jason. I resisted the urge to object to this clear flouting of what I thought were very basic rules.

I chose Authentic for myself. Yes, we all know that it’s an impossible claim for a teenager, but I reasoned that no one could argue with it, although I’m not sure why I thought someone might try to.

I felt badly for Wacky William when it become apparent, moments after he’d spoken it, that he regretted his choice. He patted his cowlick nervously and smoothed the collar of his navy blue polo shirt.

After a rundown of the weekend’s activities—singing, eating, free time and a series of talks—we were given time to get to know each other. Upstairs I sat with Erika and Miranda, who turned out to be our age but was still waiting for gruesome hand of puberty to strike. She wasted no time in getting to the good stuff.

“How do you guys feel, you know, about having strange thoughts?” She wrapped both hands around her mustard yellow Fuzzy and squeezed.

“Like what kind of thoughts?” said Erika.

“The thoughts that are not what God wants you think. The bad ones or the weird ones that maybe the devil gives you.”

Having never thought of my thoughts in such binary or biblical terms, I didn’t know what to say. I wish I had just nodded and said something like I totally know what you mean, to save Miranda the embarrassment that ensued.

“Do you mean thoughts about guys?” I said, thinking of Jason and not feeling guilty for a second.

“No, no, not guys. I mean sometimes, when I’m with my friends at school, I start staring at their breasts, and then I can’t stop staring at them.” Her face flushed and Erika and I just looked at her. She was physically immature, and because of that I could understand her curiosity, but whatever her reasons, I didn’t think it was strange. Before I could say so, two kids lurking in the doorway started to laugh and Miranda ran from the room.

*

After dinner it was time for music. When Jason brought out a guitar I almost melted. I sat on my own on the fringes of the circle. I didn’t know any of the songs. Jason started strumming. He closed his eyes. He began rocking back and forth. People began to sway. He sang a cover of “Flood” (WARNING: before clicking the link know that it is truly terrible, and the video has substantial kitsch factor, and it may get stuck in your head) by a Christian band called Jars of Clay. I was compelled by the darkness of the lyrics: But if I can’t swim after forty days / and my mind is crushed / by the crashing waves / lift me up so high / that I cannot fall / lift me up … and keep me from drowning. I felt conflicted by Jason’s singing. At first I thought he was attempting tricky harmonies, but it soon became apparent that he was tone deaf. This was a major buzzkill. When he finished everyone clapped and hugged and exchanged Warm Fuzzies. I got a brown one and an orange one. He began a new song. This time everyone sang, and by the end of the hour I knew all the words to “Our God is an Awesome God” and “Jesus Loves Me.”

Later, when we went up to bed, Erika and I discovered Miranda’s things were gone. Erika said she heard that Miranda had been picked up a couple of hours earlier. I hadn’t even noticed, and I wondered if those were regular hours or God hours.

*

I woke in the night and couldn’t get back to sleep. I rose, skirted my mound of Warm Fuzzies and went downstairs, hoping to pilfer a snack. I followed the dark corridor, the framed faces ghostly, hints of their eyes trailing me. Before I reached the kitchen I noticed a glow issuing from beneath a closed door at the far end of the hall. I pushed the door gently and it opened. Seated in the centre of the room were three teenagers I’d never seen before, holding hands and chanting in whispers. In the corner Wacky William and another couple of kids were bent over a low table, surrounded by scissors and balls of yarn, a pile of Warm Fuzzies on the table between them. Wacky William looked up at me, his eyelids heavy. One of the chanters opened his eyes and smiled at me, then closed them again.

It was the middle of the night. I looked at my wrist as if there were a watch there. No one said anything, so I backed out of the room and went back to bed, my shoulder blades pressed against the polished floorboards.

*

Day two was tedious and I felt disturbed. Breakfast was stewed fruit. William and the others from the midnight Fuzzy factory wore vacant expressions, bags under their eyes. I gave all my Fuzzies away.

The “talks” were little sermons delivered by speakers in their late teens. One about the masks we wear to hide our true selves from the Lord, another about facing the darkest parts of ourselves. This involved asking volunteers to publicly dredge up their worst memories, and opened the floor for others to express sympathy and advice. Everyone would then encircle the person, touching or hugging him or her. Two people left the room in tears. Jason gave a talk on being in a canoe with this father, and the canoe capsized but somehow he was alive.

“I was seriously drowning and the waves were crashing, and I could like, feel him lift me out of the water.” Everyone was rapt by Jason’s account of his near death experience, having clearly forgotten the words to the song he’d bastardized the night before. I looked at Erika and rolled my eyes. She mouthed the word bullshit and smirked.

As the weekend went on The Happenings revealed itself to be a kind of porn—everyone getting off on each other’s teenage melodrama and piety. The more dramatic it all was, the stronger the sense of belonging, even if “belonging” meant hugging it out through crocodile tears to the tune of made-up pain. I was young and more than a bit apathetic, but I felt in my bones that there was something perverse about what I was witnessing. It was clear that my minimal hugging and lack of indulgence in the theatrics of the weekend had made me a pariah. Any Fuzzies I received were pity Fuzzies.

That night, long after lights out, I said to Erika, “This blows, right?”

“It very much blows.”

She wasn’t surprised when I told her what I’d discovered the night before.

“Oh yeah I know, you found the prayer squad. There are people in that room praying in shifts all weekend. They’re praying for us. Plus, they approach kids and tell them they’ve been ‘chosen’ to help make the pompoms. It’s weird. I had to do it last year. It kind of wrecks the weekend for you.”

“Hey, do you want to get out of here?”

We escaped through the window. Erika had left her shoes downstairs, so we each put on one of my Birkenstocks and walked into the centre of Sidney. When I asked her why she bothered with this type of thing she said she didn’t really know—they were her friends and this was her world. “Plus,” she said, “What else is there to do?” We turned left on Beacon Ave and walked the main stretch.

Some grade twelve skids were hanging out in the Safeway parking lot with a brown and gold ’85 Chevy Van, a Too $hort decal emblazoned across the rear window, bass rattling the chassis. I could just make out the tinny classical music playing outside the 7-Eleven across the street, a recent initiative to keep loitering teens at bay. The Normandy Restaurant was shut up tight, the next day’s early bird special in tight cursive leaning against the window. The smell of the sea rode a breeze up from the pier.

“Shit,” said Erika. She slid her foot out of my sandal and nudged it towards me. It was as if she was saying Here’s your bad influence back. A white hatchback turned in from a side street and approached us. We stood still in its high beams and when it came to a stop, Piggy and Jason got out.

“Here they are, Mom,” said Jason. Traitor! We were busted.

*

It turns out I wasn’t saved by The Happenings. Over the years that followed I went on to do far worse things than a midnight meander through sleepy Sidney. I lied to my teachers, deceived my parents, indulged my interest in older boys, went to parties and took hallucinogens with older kids, dropped out of school. But I don’t think I was worse than those youth group kids, the ones who judged, who feigned acceptance, who bullshitted each other, who hugged and hugged. There was no substance there. No empathy. There was a brittle emptiness, a void in which young people practised conforming.

Back at the church I was taken into the chapel and Erika was sent back to the room. I was escorted to a pew and a group closed in on me: Piggy, Jason, and some people I recognized from the prayer squad. They each closed their eyes, put one hand on me, and reached the other up in the air. They were reaching for God. I began to panic, and they began to pray.


[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.]

Jul
06

The Paralysis of Home

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In late 2008, I returned to Canada briefly from South Korea where I’d been living and working for a year. I rented a place on the Plateau in Montreal in the depths of winter and the global financial crisis, and after shivering through November, December, a rapidly depleting bank account, and an onslaught of professional rejections, the new year came and I moved out west to stay with my mother and father on Vancouver Island while I waited for yet another visa to be processed, this time for India. Then in February 2009, my Oma, my father’s mother, passed away. I was twenty-six.

Here’s something true: there are moments throughout adulthood that reduce us, repeatedly, to children. These are moments in which everything around us grows burly and imposing and suddenly becomes unreadable. These moments are different from those that spirit us to childhood, the ones in which we see things again through the veil of wonder and innocence and innate selfishness through which we once saw all things; rather, they’re host to the phenomenon of everything we’ve practised for falling out from under us, leaving us in that navy blue one-piece ski suit we wore on the bunny hill for the winters of ’86 and ’87, and which was difficult to get off in a hurry without help, and to which we once succumbed in a snowbank, and in which, as a result, we peed. These are the moments that make us feel insecure, terrified, cold, and wet.

A major catalyst for such regressive moments is visiting parents, as is well known to most grown people who have moved away from home and are well on their journey to building an adult life in which they make decisions for themselves and are capable of deciphering scarf weather from t-shirt weather, indoor voices from outdoor voices, and which pronged household items should and should not be inserted into electrical outlets. Some of us care for pets, raise one or more children of our own, are capable – even fond – of cooking nutritious and occasionally adventurous meals for our friends and families, and can keep our apartments clean. And yet: after the first two days of a stint back home, something that lurks in the shadows descends upon an otherwise perfectly – or at least somewhat – adjusted cluster of adults. This is when, despite the aforementioned capabilities and good habits, you forget how to be your adult self and things begin to play out how they did twenty years ago. You feel insolence, you feel frustration, you feel embarrassment and even sometimes voiceless. You suddenly crave approval. And your parents? They’ll be sucked into the pantomime, too, and dammit, they’ll insist you mind your manners.

Another source of such regression is grief, either confronting one’s own or seeing the raw pulsating face of someone else’s. This is something we never get better at. It is disarming and perplexing and causes the dreaded sensation of a spreading, dampening, humiliating chill. There is never the right way to articulate what you feel, and never the right thing to say to someone facing loss. Words become nonsense.

When Oma died it was not sudden or unexpected, just very sad. She lived in Villach, Austria, and had been cared for by my dad’s sister and a rotation of two live-in care workers through her later stages of Alzheimer’s. My father visited fairly regularly. From the time I arrived out west, it felt as though we were simply waiting. It’s a horrible thing to be waiting for, and everything felt paused; we knew when it happened we would need to be ready to go.

One morning, early, the phone rang. I didn’t answer it; I knew who would be calling. As a child, I was terrified of answering the phone at home in the early mornings and late evenings because there was always a possibility it would be a member of the Austrian contingent (nine hours ahead), who would speak to me in German while I panicked, gripping the portable phone and running through the house to find my father. It’s not that I couldn’t understand my Oma or my Tante; it’s that I was crippled by the fear of being misunderstood myself, or of suddenly being at a loss for words, or forgetting the word for something and standing dumbly, breathing into the receiver. It made me feel like a baby. This particular morning, early and cold and February, I listened to the phone ring twice, and then stop. It was around five o’clock and I knew at that moment that my father had answered it and I knew which words he was hearing. I knew he would be trying to brace himself with the justification that he had known it was coming. I knew he’d be finding himself surprised at how impossible that was.

My mother happened to be out of town and for a minute or two I resented her absence. It was her job to be here for him, not mine. I was ill equipped for this. My father’s grief was not something I felt grown up enough to deal with. I suspect no one ever grows up that much. I lay frozen in the spare bedroom – the room in which my mother’s father had passed away twenty years earlier – feeling like I was holding a phone to my ear, my father on the other end, and choking on my own silence.

I got up. I pulled a hoodie on over my nightshirt. I went into the hallway and stopped at the top of the stairs to turn the furnace on. As a child, lying awake in my basement room, the low rumble of the furnace springing to life had always seemed an indication of the day itself coming alive, an indication that my father was up and the world wasn’t as still and empty as winter mornings let on.

I stood near his bedroom and listened, and when I walked in the phone was on his nightstand and he was lying curled up on the far edge of the bed, his back to the doorway. I said, “Dad,” and he stayed still and said nothing. The room was that early morning grey–blue. The furnace hummed. My father, who stands six-foot-three, looked small. I sat down on Mum’s side the bed. He cried very quietly and I felt a quiet despair, not just at the death of my grandmother – my last remaining grandparent – but also at his pain, his loss, and my complete inability to know what to do in this situation. Signs were slipping, becoming unreadable. How do you truly comfort a parent? After a minute he turned to face me and rested his head on my knee. He was just as unprepared for his grief as I was. I grew uncomfortable, even disturbed, by the wrongness of the moment, given rise to by his tears, by the fact that my mother had gone away overnight, by my incomplete arsenal of emotional mechanisms. I had stepped out of my space, my framework. After a minute the situation became unbearable for me, and I stood up and said, “I’ll call Mum.”

Throughout the day I did my best to atone for having cowered in the shadow of the circumstance by doing things I knew how to do. I called my mother. I called my brother, who was living in India at the time, and told him I’d book him a flight to Austria. I called British Airways and negotiated bereavement fares. I made arrangements for pet sitting and cancelled the Island Farms dairy delivery (I have no idea why the little slice of heaven known as the Saanich Peninsula, in 2009, was still serviced by what we called The Milkman, even though we knew his name was Dave). When it came to the admin of flying to Europe for my Oma’s funeral, I seemed to know what I was doing.

I also held it together several days later at the actual funeral, a ceremony that unexpectedly left my brother completely unwound (it might have been the requisite Catholic drama of the whole thing, the rose-covered casket disappearing gracefully behind a sweeping velvet curtain to the tune of Con te partirò). I was moved by my brother’s show of emotion; there was something theatrical and heartbreaking about him weeping to Andrea Bocelli. Maybe it was because I could picture how my Oma looked when she listened to that song, which was one of her favourites: her eyes closing as she leaned back, the corners of her mouth curling into a slight smile, her small hands swaying on the armrests of her chair, conducting a tiny orchestra.

After the funeral and a week with relatives, I flew from Austria to Bangalore with my brother and spent the next six months traveling in India, Nepal, and Oman, figuring out my next move. The paralysis of the unknown, it turned out, would always be a passing, fleeting thing. The paralysis of home, however, lingers, and the memory of that morning, of my weeping father and lack of words, continues, years later, to disarm me.