Article Category Archives: Creative Nonfiction

In Between

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Even though my passport says I am Canadian, my body—my tanned skin and my dark hair—sometimes suggests otherwise. When I was nineteen, I left my home in Toronto for a five-week French immersion program in Chicoutimi, a lovely little town in northern Quebec. When I first met my host family, my host mother Marie-Paul asked me, “D’ou viens-tu?” or Where do you come from?

“Je viens de Toronto,” I replied.

“Non, non, quel pays?” Which country, she asked, shaking her head.

“Oh. Mes parents viennent de la Guyane.”

“La Guyane Francaise?” Both of my host parents laughed.

I laughed too the first time, but when this joke was endlessly repeated, it ceased to be funny. When you are told the same thing over and over again, it can become part of you. I came to think of myself as an outsider in Canada, even though I was born and raised in Toronto.

And yet, I don’t feel a strong connection to Guyanese culture—in my home in Toronto or the “homeland” of Guyana—either. Most of my high school was Indo-Carribean or Indian but the stereotypical Guyanese girl in Toronto is rowdy, likes to have a good time, loves to dance, drink and fête until the sun comes up. They can be stubborn and mouth off. Obviously, this doesn’t apply to every West Indian, but it is the image that’s perpetuated. So my little sister loves to call me white-washed. She cites my disdain for heavy drinking, the fact that I don’t go crazy on the dance floor and my absolute aggravation when she blasts chutney music from her bedroom. According to the stereotype, I should like these things. According to my sister, that fact that I don’t makes me white.

So I’m not quite Canadian and not quite Guyanese-Canadian. Where does that leave me?

Waiting by Tiffany Rambali

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I have only two memories from my first voyage to Guyana, a trip that I made with my family when I was six years old. The first is of lying in a hammock when a frog jumped onto the cement underneath me. It settled in, relaxing. Its bulbous eyes seemed to pop out of its skull, black lines painted across its slimy green skin like veins. I was amazed that a frog could live in such a hot country. I could just imagine it melting into green slime until it was nothing but a cartoony pair of eyes.

The second memory is of the night we spent in my “grandma’s” house. She was not actually my grandmother; I’m not sure how we were related. That’s a funny thing about West Indians: everyone older than you is an aunty, uncle, grandma or grandpa. At this grandma’s house, I slept underneath a mosquito net in a room with the window open. Even at night, the humidity was suffocating, and even with the net I could feel my skin starting to itch. I tossed and turned until I finally fell asleep.

What I don’t remember from my first visit to Guyana was what struck me most on my second visit when I was eighteen. That time, we stayed with my mother’s cousin. All I could see were divisions, that Guyana was not one people, one race or one class: The fancy community where my relatives lived, the houses all like mansions with their own security guards and gates, and the shacks lined up in the village five minutes away. The names of the village and streets in French, English and Dutch, all remnants of the colonizers who left their footprints. The congregation of black people and Indian people in the malls and the way they eyed each other with apprehension. The domestic dogs, strong and fearsome like regal guards of a palace, and the strays with skin adhering to their bones, passed out in the heat.

There were no stereotypical Guyanese girls here. Yet, everywhere we went during that trip, I still felt like an outsider. In Guyana, everyone can tell you are from “out-away” by your clothes, your accent and for the simple fact that they don’t know you in a country where everyone knows everyone.

One night I was chatting with my cousin Kiesha. We were identical in age but I already assumed we would be different. She was Guyanese, after all, and I was…? I still wasn’t sure.

“I don’t really like to drink,” I told Kiesha. “I might have one or two, but that’s it.” I expected Kiesha to scoff at me, to laugh at my inexperience and “whiteness.”

“Oh, you’re like me,” she said. “I don’t like going out and drinking too much.”

You’re like me…. A little phrase that stuck with me. Kiesha and I were actually very much alike. We were both studious, partied in moderation and we both enjoyed a healthy number of extracurricular councils at school. We were even physically alike, our dark hair shoulder length and slightly frizzy, our bodies petite but slightly curvy—young women who could fit in each other’s clothes. How could someone so far from home be closer to me than the girls in my school?

I had always disassociated myself from post-colonial and diasporic stories. They seemed to be about the mixed-race child trying to make sense of their mom and dad’s sides of the family. Or they told of the immigrant in shock, of trying to pick up a new language in a new land. All of the characters, sometimes fictional and sometimes real, were literally outsiders—born outside their resident country. But the truth is, the children of immigrants are sometimes just as lost. Immigrant families flock together in niche neighbourhoods in select cities and their children try to navigate the culture of their community within the larger Canadian culture, the two constantly at odds—as they often are in me.

I had always felt stuck in that jarring gap between Canadian and Guyanese. It sometimes felt like a gorge, dark and lonely, any hint of a bridge long eroded away. But as I get older, as my known world expands, I’m learning to find myself in that in-between space and build my own connections across this gap. I’m starting to write my own story.

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Related reading: Two poems by Ayesha Chatterjee

Fractures: An Adoption Story

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I am holding the court papers in my hand. Never did I imagine it would come to this.

I think back to the first time I met him—he was seven, I was ten. It was at a Chinese restaurant on the main street of Fredericton, the kind that served sweet and sour fried chicken balls with the unholy orange sauce that was popular in the 1970s.

My mother’s colleague organized the meeting. Did he know that it was a de facto interview for a new family? Although it was done with the utmost of secrecy—an “accidental bumping into” at the restaurant—I suspect he realized in the recesses of his seven-year-old brain that he was on display for us.

He was boisterous and restless, what would probably be labelled ADHD today. Yet, behind the rambunctiousness, there lurked an unsettled, hostile force. Did my ten-year-old mind detect this or is it framed by adult hindsight?

He ate exuberantly although I am sure most of the tastes were completely foreign to him. Between mouthfuls, he showed off a toy he had received for Christmas. While my siblings and I technically had veto power, in reality we knew that there was no sense in raising any objection: he was about to become our younger brother.

*

I remember the day he came to live with us. He was just about to turn eight; I, eleven. It was something we had in common, birthdays in the same month. The green VW Beetle pulled into the driveway of our home, mid-afternoon. Out he tumbled with all his worldly possessions: one small yet sturdy suitcase and a giant stuffed animal, given to him as a parting gift, as if to say bon voyage.

My heart broke at the sight of his meagre possessions. I was humbled and guilt-ridden at the thought of the house behind me filled to the rafters with stuff, when he had so little.

At first, like a new pet, he was a novelty—entertaining with his jokes about kings on their “thrones” (I learned that boys never grow tired of poop jokes) and his energy, playing for hours on end with his new Tonka trucks in the backyard.

Then the legacy of his childhood began to rear its head. He was the product of teenage parents, at first shunted between relatives and then sent through an ever-revolving door of foster homes. His anger at being so unwanted in the world took on a more visceral, physical response as he grew older. His fists became a weapon of choice in expressing the rage he didn’t understand and I, three years older but not much bigger in size, a convenient punching bag.

In a household already filled with physical and emotional chaos, we were not equipped to deal with the fallout of his neglected childhood. I skim a memory off the percolating surface of my own childhood.

I am lying in a snowbank, red parka against a freshly powdered white backdrop. My brother, jeered on by his friends, has just beaten me up on the way to school. I wait until I hear the scrunch of their boots fade away, weighted by the shame and humiliation of what has just taken place, before I can pick myself up and make my solitary way to class. I am grateful no one asks questions about the bruises beginning to turn the sides of my face a molten purple.

Although the settings change, it’s a scene often repeated over the years. I am nineteen before I stop being afraid of his fists. I am home from university and although he still gets angry, I see he has learned to lash out with his voice instead. Still, I instinctively shrink from the words of wrath and livid face whenever he vents his anger.

Gradually though, the jagged peaks of rage soften and time smooths out the dark crevasses of fury. A genuine fondness for each other replaces the childhood yoke between tormentor and the tormented.

I am amazed by the culinary skills that he seems to have plucked from thin air. He is ever the “mechanical genius,” as my father likes to call him, a blessing in a family that can barely figure out how to operate a toaster. It becomes a family joke: a pitch for a new Martha-Stewart-style DIY show that highlights the range of my brother’s talents—from inventing household gadgets and building furniture to crafting recipes for tasty homemade confections and canning organic tomatoes.

Essence by Anya Holloway

He is impressed by my career too, a whirlwind of airplanes and countries as I travel the world with the United Nations. I enjoy bringing him mementos from my travels: silk rugs from Iraq, handcrafted boxes from Sierra Leone.

It is now a relationship built on stabilizers, phone calls on birthdays and in the next port of call between trips home. He visits me in Ottawa many years later and presents me with a ticket to Phantom of the Opera at the National Arts Centre. I become teary-eyed at the thought that somehow we have managed to survive the upheavals of our early years and climb into a life raft together. It feels miraculous.

But then the miracle crumbles once again. I see that it is a mirage instead: shimmery, bathed in a golden glow, yet elusive and ultimately out of reach.

The cracks appear slowly at first, almost imperceptibly. We are standing on the stairs of our childhood home. He is yelling at me for some forgotten infraction. I am exhausted, having been up most of the night with our mother, who lies dying in a room below. I am not afraid that he will physically strike me, but his anger is real, palpable and directed at me. He is using his size and the chaos of the moment to put me in my place.  That moment passes but the sensation of his belligerence lingers for a while longer.

*

Our mother dies. The animosity that my brother had exhibited in his early years reappears toward the rest of the family, but not yet with me. The familial pressure valve begins to hiss in earnest when care for our father becomes an issue. Leaks, then ruptures appear in his relationships with my other siblings. Still, he invites me to visit him at his cottage to heal my wounds after a disastrous posting in Afghanistan. Is this his unspoken mea culpa to me for the years when his fury and his fists were his most memorable traits?

Our father is rushed to hospital suffering from pneumonia. My brother wants him to remain in hospital post-convalescence; I would like him to be cared for in his home with the same loving attention we provided to our mother during her dying process. But I know that underneath these disagreements over sick, ageing parents lurks the broken bones of a neglected childhood that have never properly mended. The peaks of anger and hostility re-emerge from the past. It’s as if he is the seven-year-old boy again, feeling unwanted and unloved, shoved into a family container that is already filled with strife and unhappiness. Though the wounds have now split open on all familial fronts, I cling to the mirage of the life raft we built together.

Then the doorbell rings. As if culled from the latest courtroom drama, I am served with papers from my brother’s lawyer. I feel the heft of the documents in my hand. He has used the courts to transmit his pain, demanding his siblings be ex-communicated from the care and welfare of our father. All contact between us abruptly stops. The legal system becomes a giant X-ray machine held up for the world to see, a portrait of a broken family unit—a messy web of ghostly breaks. Affidavits are the X-rays through which every crack, every splinter, of the family skeleton is captured. And even without a doctor’s diagnosis, I know the X-rays will confirm that the fractures can’t be healed.

Searching for Home

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Enfolded in the hills of southern Vancouver Island, a two-storey house still stands in the center of a small acreage. When I dream of home, I dream of this house. I lived there until I was ten years old.

My dreams of the house are visceral. I feel the coarse loops of the carpet, I know the shape of light the dining room window casts on the far wall. When I awake, I am so full of longing that I feel as if I’m returning to dry land after breathing underwater.

Maya Angelou says, “I believe that one can never leave home. I believe that one carries the shadows, the dreams, the fears, and dragons of home under one’s skin.” I have not lived in that home for many years, and yet I feel as if I have carried a piece of it with me since I left.

*

Like the connections we form to our parents, the physical place in which we grow up—both the building and the surrounding geography—imprints itself on us as infants and helps to build a sense of security, what Alain de Botton calls a “psychological sanctuary.” Our childhood home is part of a powerful set of memories that goes to the very heart of who we are.

In my childhood, my home was the place from which all my feelings of belonging originated. Everything about it was magical to me—the crawl space where we stored Christmas decorations, the cookies that emerged from the kitchen—and the landscape, such as the ooze in the pond and the garden and its rows of corn and peas.

I once found a bunch of carrots growing in the unkempt grass on the edge of the lawn, several feet from the garden. When my father dug them up, out came perfectly formed, foot-long carrots, bigger than any we had harvested from the garden. “They must’ve grown from a seed packet I tossed away,” he mused. I thought of Jack and his beanstalk.

There were dragons at home, though. Divorce came, a bitter crisis that left us all shattered. My mother stayed at the house with my two sisters and I moved out with my father. I was ten.

My father told me I was lucky to be with him, I was better off away from my mother because she favoured my sisters. This seemed to make sense—my father was only trying to protect me. He assured me that the new house he was going to build would be good—better than the old one.

*

Simply living somewhere does not make it a home. That sanctuary that we all seek cannot be created instantaneously. It takes time. And familiarity. And so many unnamable things, individual to each inhabitant.

In the early twentieth century, the modernist architect Le Corbusier sought to strip away architectural affectation in favour of simpler forms. When he was commissioned to build homes for factory workers in France, he designed apartments that had bare concrete walls and naked light bulbs. Gradually, the tenants began to transform the apartments: “Unconcerned with spoiling the architect’s design,” explains de Botton, “the tenants added shutters, flowered wallpaper and picket fences.” Over time, the tenants were able to create a sanctuary away from the grimness of the factories by imbuing the apartments with their own identities.

Although I tried to convince myself that my new house was as good as the old one, in truth I looked for my old house everywhere—even the surrounding landscape was not beyond my scrutiny. Behind the new house was a small marsh and sometimes I would clamber through the brush to stand on the edge, breathe in the familiar smell of skunk cabbage and imagine that this was just like the pond at the old house. But it wasn’t.

Where before having friends over was as easy as a knock on a door, it now involved phone calls, conversations between parents, strict curfews. The new house fulfilled the criteria of Le Corbusier’s “machine for living in,” but I know that I never felt at home there. And I did not have the autonomy that the factory workers had to transform the house myself.

littleyellow

Five Yellow Houses by Jennifer Harrison

Nine years after my parents’ divorce, I moved out to attend university in Victoria. That same year, my father moved into a new house. My mother had long since left the old family house and so suddenly, I had no childhood home. It left me feeling adrift. So began my moving years.

Built around the school calendar, the moving cycle would start in the autumn: my regular roommates and I would find a place in September and disperse when classes ended in April. I stopped returning to my father’s house in the summers and so would move again. I could have found a cheap apartment and stayed put, but I didn’t. I just kept moving.

In September, my roommates and I would regroup and find a new place to live. We had become fast friends, four young women in our twenties and precocious to no end. We cooked, made wine, got robbed, fell in love but, eventually, each of them finished school and moved back to their hometowns. Except me. I stayed in Victoria, but kept moving.

I became an expert at it. I used every container available to avoid the hassle of finding new boxes: I packed blankets and sheets in laundry bins, knickknacks went into garbage cans. I never unpacked drawers but simply removed them from the dresser and brought them to the moving van just like that. I kept all the boxes I did have for the inevitability of the next move. Over five years, I moved eleven times.

I never questioned what I was doing. “Geography has little meaning to the child,” Angelou says. “Since the child cannot control that environment, she has to find her own place.” I moved through my geography in a blur. Finding my own place was something I didn’t know how to do.

*

I was twenty-eight and living in Vancouver when I met John. I didn’t realize it at the time, but he was the love of my life. After a year of dating, we moved in together. I flattened all my boxes and tucked them into the basement, sure that the time to leave would soon come.

A year went by. I began to feel restless, would grow irate at the sheer amount of stuff we had. John had so much stuff. In fact, he kept not only his own stuff in the basement but stuff that didn’t belong to him, including stuff that belonged to an old roommate of his, Mark.

“Get rid of it!” I insisted.

“I’m not throwing it away,” John said.

I hated Mark. I didn’t know Mark. “I’m not going to be the one who hauls it to the truck when we move!” I declared. I had drawn my line in the sand.

I wanted to move, I realized. Moving felt normal.

*

De Botton calls home a “guardian of identity…where we slowly resume contact with our most authentic self.” For years, I had kept the dragons of my first home buried beneath the preoccupation of moving. But now, I couldn’t move. What was I supposed to do with myself?

I put up coat hooks by the door. I found a coffee table for the living room. I hung up a poster from a museum in Scotland that John and I had visited together. Slowly, the apartment began to reflect my personality as much as John’s. My feelings of restlessness began to fade.

One day, John and I ventured down to the basement to do some reorganizing.

“Do you still need all these old boxes?” he asked.

“Well, if we move, I’ll have to find more,” I said.

“Yeah, but when exactly are you going to move?”

I put them all out with the recycling.

*

It happened when I was cooking dinner. When I was discussing Shakespeare with John over a bottle of wine. When I was washing the dishes. How did I get here? I’m home. My first home is still with me—all the dreams and dragons of it. I carry it close, but it no longer burdens me.

John and I still live in the same apartment. We replace washers in the taps, clean the windows, sweep away the dust that gathers in the corners as if by magic.

Sometimes, I fall asleep on the couch in the afternoon, dream of light shining green through maple leaves, of gravel roads. The furnace in the living room pings as it cools down and the sound follows me in my sleep. It will be the only noise I’ll hear until John opens the door and returns home.

References
Angelou, Maya. “Home.” Letters to My Daughter. New York: Random House, 2008. 5-7.
De Botton, Alain. The Architecture of Happiness. New York: Vintage Books, 2006.

Her Story Repeats

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When my son was six he put his stubby finger under the word “Mom” in a book we were reading. “What’s that?” he said. Why that’s me, I thought. Or at least the me I thought I would be. Mom: freezing at the ice rink, stamping her feet, watching her son play hockey. Instead, I’m Mum: drenched at the pitch side, shaking my brolly, watching my son play rugby.

I always thought my children would grow up Canadian, surrounded by family, their grandmother a daily presence in their lives, rather than an occasional visitor. I imagined outings with my siblings and our respective children, taking part in typically Canadian activities: summer barbeques, an autumn weekend picking the perfect pumpkin, and tobogganing or skating all winter. This vision survived even after I left Canada at the age of thirty-eight, and even after I gave birth to my children in the United Kingdom. It simply never occurred to me that they would be culturally different from me.

But they are British to the core: to-mah-to not to-may-to, wellies not boots, and field hockey not ice. When Canada won the gold medal for ice hockey at the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014, I was ecstatic. It brought back memories of the 1972 Canada-USSR Hockey Series, an event deemed so culturally significant that televisions were wheeled into school classrooms so we didn’t miss a game. Yet my offspring were indifferent to Canada’s Olympic glory. I should have known better. They are growing up exactly as I did: in a country far away from grandparents, cousins, aunts, and uncles,with their own interests and a heritage I will never completely share.

a1609_cultivating-strength

Cultivating Strength by Maria Doering

I moved to the United Kingdom forty-five years after my parents left Ireland for Canada. The daughter of outsiders became one herself. For my parents, immigration was a leap into the unknown. My father left his job in a bakery with the hope, but no promise, of better prospects abroad. My mother was lucky enough to secure a nursing position in Canada before she left Ireland. But neither of my as-yet-unmarried parents knew much about their future home.

My mother likes to tell the story of how she ordered tea during a layover in New York. The waitress presented her with a small pot of hot water, a cup and saucer, and a tea bag on the side. My mother had never seen a teabag before and had to ask the waitress for instructions. I imagine my mother wanting to laugh about her ignorance with one of her sisters back home. But letters were rare; phone calls unheard of. Apart from one trip home to show off her first-born child, it would be thirty years before my mother returned to Ireland.

I had no reason to leave Toronto; I was blessed with a good job, a large circle of friends and my family close by. But one’s heart isn’t bound by logic. When it was time for my British boyfriend to go back to the UK, he asked me to go with him and I did. In some ways it was easier for me. Email and cheap long distance meant I could easily share my own blunders (such as asking a sales clerk if they stocked leather pants instead of trousers) with family and friends. Like my mother, I made a return trip to Canada to show off my first-born. Unlike her, this was one of countless visits over the years for occasions such as my sister’s fiftieth, my mother’s eightieth, and annual summer visits to the family cottage. Here, my children were at their most Canadian. They swam in the lake, battled black flies, made campfire s’mores and celebrated Canada Day with sparklers and fireworks.

Looking back I sometimes wonder if my frequent escapes back “home” spoke to some deeper ambivalence towards immigration. I am certain they hindered my settlement in England. I was so desperate to maintain contact with my Canadian friends that I clung to them, to the detriment of any new friendships.

Were my parents less ambivalent? I don’t remember. But I know they joined a large and sociable group of immigrants in Sudbury. This mining town, with its rich mineral base, promised jobs and prosperity to the many newcomers who arrived from Italy, Finland, the Ukraine and other far-flung places. Friends and family from Ireland joined my parents, some staying only a few months, others much longer. The Irish community stuck together; both my mother and father took it in turn to be President of the Irish Club.

When I look back on my childhood, I’m in awe of how my mother threw herself into her new life. Irish dishes—soda bread, stew and of course the mighty potato—featured prominently in her cooking repertoire. But she also proudly served up cabbage rolls, spaghetti and tourtière—recipes learned from her Ukrainian, Italian and French Canadian co-workers and friends. She taught herself to skate by pushing a chair around the ice rink flooded in our back yard every winter. She learned to ski, both downhill and cross-country. My mother embraced all that Canada represented, even during its most challenging season.

My move to England was a less stereotypical migration than my parents’. I didn’t arrive with a wave of Canadians seeking work and a new life. I needed only to book a flight, thanks to my Irish passport, which also functioned as a work permit. I quickly found a well-paying job and moved in to my (now) husband’s London flat. With a Starbucks across the road from the office, even my morning fix was unchanged.

I faced none of the traditional stumbling blocks. But I have struggled, nonetheless, to fit in. Sixteen years on, I may have adopted some British vocabulary, but my accent is still remarked on almost daily, my choice of words or phrasing still slightly off. Once, my husband texted from our son’s cricket match, “He just stumped someone.” I texted back, “Is that a good thing?” only half in jest. Despite volunteering as the manager for my daughter’s netball team, I don’t understand all the rules. Nor has my mother’s international cooking repertoire been entirely replicated. I deemed the iconic Victoria sponge cake impossible after many early failures and the classic British roast dinner, with Yorkshire pudding and gravy, still unnerves me.

I don’t seem to have tried as hard to fit in with my new country as my parents did. I don’t know why but age surely plays a part. My parents were much younger and less settled when they immigrated; I was a more finished product and less willing or able to adapt. Pushing forty, I was well out of my comfort zone learning to drive a stick shift (a prerequisite to obtaining a UK drivers’ license), making new friends and navigating the myriad differences between Canada and the UK. If I’d been able to find a Canadian Club, I’d have gladly drunk from that cup.

Geography was also a factor. My parents’ accent didn’t stand out in Sudbury; they were surrounded by the voices of their own and other countrymen. But once my little Brits were born, we moved from London to the countryside. There are very few immigrants in my town so as soon as I open my mouth, even now, the questions come.

But I am, slowly, adapting. I have now been abroad for one-quarter of my life and the links to Canada are diminishing. With the sale of our cottage last summer, I fear we will spend less time in Canada and perhaps none when my mother passes away. At some point I stopped reading the Globe and Mail newspaper online. At some point email and phone exchanges with girlfriends back home became exceptional rather than routine. I watch my children play field hockey, rugby, cricket, netball and rounders. I make them tea, not supper—and I can whip up a Victoria sponge in thirty minutes and bask in the compliments. (It turns out I was using the wrong size baking tin. Or do I mean pan?) I have also adopted the great British tradition of a bracing walk in the countryside, no matter the weather, and am pleased to count it as one of my favourite things to do over here. But even after fifteen years as Mum, I still mourn my doppelganger back in Canada. I can almost see her, Tim Horton’s coffee in her mittened hand, hunkering down for another session at the ice rink, her breath freezing in the air.

Gary Gets Angry Sometimes

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Gary can’t pronounce my name; at first he didn’t even try. I don’t think it’s because my name is “ethnic,” as he doesn’t remember my white co-workers’ names either. He calls us Smiley, Pinky, and Blue Eyes, which makes us feel like 1930s gangsters. I call him Helmet Guy because each day during drop-in hours, he rides a shiny red electric scooter down the street from his unit to the housing co-op office and he always leaves his matching helmet on during our conversations.

Gary is a dedicated maintenance volunteer in his housing co-operative. He knows a lot of things about a lot of things. And about a lot of people. He’s resourceful. For instance, one day I wished aloud for a microwave in the office because cold dal just doesn’t have the right texture. As he left, he casually mentioned that he’d keep an eye out. I went back to accounting to the City about how we use their subsidy money. Not two minutes later, Gary returned, speed-walking with microwave in hand. Brown eyes glinting with the score. Official business.

“Holy shit!” my co-worker and I cheered.

“See, I got one for ya. That guy across the street was just getting rid of it!” Only the inside dish and one bottom peg were missing, but microwaves still work when they’re slanted. Gary brought us a dish the next day, found somewhere else.

He knows about mould and doorknobs and furnaces and insulation from his time as a superintendent. He knows exactly which day the City picks up garbage and which day they pick up plastics and which day they pick up paper. They alternate garbage collection now but do compost weekly, to encourage more green bin use. When this was instituted last summer, it drove Gary to the brink of madness.

“Why can no one keep it straight?” he yelled one day in the office. “They should pick up garbage weekly like they usedta ‘cuz people put their compost in the garbage and then the garbage just sits there stinkin’.” I asked the City to deliver calendars listing the pick-up schedule to everyone in the co-op. It seems to have caught on now. Most of the time. Things take time to become part of the culture in a housing co-op, but when they do, they have “always been” how things work.

redbuildings-dyanhatanaka

775 Concession by Dyan Hatanaka

Gary moves fast, he is a man of action, so this slow pace of behavioural change in the co-op doesn’t jive with him. He gets angry sometimes, and sometimes the reason is obvious but other times, he is not sure why. He has recurring nightmares about Skynet and apocalyptic visions of the office crumbling to rubble. He had lost his Star Trek uniform, and then he found it buried below the Beanie Baby collection that had to be thrown out after a bed-bug scare. One day after a pretty good discussion on aliens and atheism and terrorism, I asked him why he gets so stressed out.

“Maybe you shouldn’t drink ten cups of coffee a day,” I offered. He said that’s not the problem, it’s because he’s seen things. “Like what?” I asked, thinking of previous conversation topics.

“You wouldn’t want to know.”

Last weekend, we ran into each other in the neighbourhood and it would have been awkward not to walk together, as we were headed in the same direction. I didn’t want to talk about work on my time off, so I inquired after his wife. It had been their anniversary a few days prior. They had gone out for Chinese food and it was shit, he recounted.

“Aw, that sucks,” I said.

“Yeah, I told them about it, too.”

“I bet you did. Which anniversary were you celebrating?”

“You always ask the hard questions, Smiley! Don’t tell my wife!”

“Harhar.” I rolled my eyes.

After a silence, he said “Uhhh, four.” I was surprised; with his white hair and deep furrows I didn’t peg him for a newlywed. Then I learned that she was his second wife and they met while he was a superintendent. She’d lived in the building and he was so handy and they hit it off. His first wife? She had leukemia but didn’t know it. One day she woke up with a bad headache, went to the hospital, and died there. Within a week. That’s why Gary never goes to hospitals, even when he has angina attacks, because those places are doomed and those people don’t know what they’re doing.

Before we parted ways, he sighed and said, “You know Smiley, sometimes I used to get angry at my wife. I don’t know why. I really wish I didn’t.”

“I’m sorry Gary. I guess you can make it up by being good to the folks in your life now.”

“Oh I am.” He nodded vigorously. “See ya tomorrow!” The office isn’t open on weekends, but same same. The days go on.

Yesterday, Gary threatened again to “take the board down.” He was angry because the co-op’s board of directors had not yet approved a policy that allowed maintenance volunteers to have copies of master keys for every unit, in the case of an emergency while the office is closed. The board hadn’t even discussed the issue yet, since they meet monthly and Gary had brought it up only last week, but that’s not really the point. The point is, why is everything so inefficient? What would he do if, one day, there was a fire on a weekend? Why don’t people trust him?

“Well now, just wait. We can talk about this as a group at the monthly board meeting on Monday,” I said.

“They’re dragging their feet!” He replied loudly, pointing at me, eyebrows way up. This is a common refrain, along with “one hand doesn’t know what the other hand is doing” and “they don’t know if they’re comin’ or goin’.” It took me exactly 24 minutes from that moment to explain the process about keys listed in the co-op’s by-laws (“Only good for one thing, toilet paper!”).

After he calmed down, he apologized. “I’m sorry Zeela, I didn’t mean to take it out on you.” He’s recently started trying out my name. It’s kind of nice; Zeela is the nickname my favourite aunt gave me.

Gary gets angry sometimes. He doesn’t know where it comes from, but I can understand. For one thing, he hasn’t got much. Gary wouldn’t call himself poor; he gets by. I know that social assistance pays his rent at one of the City’s rare affordable housing units. The waiting list for a place like his is seven years. He won’t move anywhere, despite his frustrations with the co-op. He can’t. Almost everyone around him is stuck the same way—except for the folks who moved into the new condo buildings last week, and the people who frequent that hip new café that used to be a 2$ kabob place.

Gary gets angry sometimes because he’s got no ID. His birth certificate was in bad shape and when he went to get it replaced, the clerk at the desk punched a hole in it and gave him a form to fill in. This is an insurmountable task. Gary’s not the best reader because he didn’t finish school, because he got into “a bad scene” when he was a kid, because he got bumped from one foster home to the next, because he was taken away by Children’s Aid and split up from his siblings, because they all watched their dad kill their mom. He can’t get a birth certificate without listing his mom’s maiden name on the form, which he doesn’t remember because he was seven when she died and he never knew his family again.

Gary gets angry sometimes, like a lot of men I know whose childhoods have been fucked up. This doesn’t excuse his targeting of the board or his wife or me. He has been conditioned to be angry, to win with intimidation; he’s a scrapper, always has been, and he watches too much Fox News which makes him paranoid.

Sometimes, sometimes often, Gary is loving and patient and playful. He appreciates details. Like today, when he complimented me on the strength of the coffee I made for the meeting. “I’d like to take you with me when I go home on the spaceship,” he winked. And I might go, just to meet those few who live without gravity.

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