From the Edge of Elation

In grade ten, I was friends with two boys who, for the purposes of this essay, I will call Roy and Kamran. Every so often, they would make an offensive comment about our teacher or our classmates that would give me pause. They particularly liked racial stereotypes. I tried to ignore their little comments and crass sense of humour. I had a small crush on Kamran, so this was easy to do.

Roy once complained about not being able to understand a math concept.

“I can help,” I offered, eager to please. I understood the material pretty well by that point.

“You?” Kamran asked. He looked at Roy and laughed. I stared back blankly; I didn’t get the joke.

“Black people don’t know anything about math,” Roy explained. “If I wanted help, I’d ask an Asian.”

My world crumpled like newspaper. I asked the teacher to go to the washroom, where I eyed myself in the mirror. I was humiliated. They had stripped away everything that made me special, reducing me to just some black girl.

My face hardened. I never wanted my intelligence questioned again. From that moment on, I decided I would work so hard that my capabilities would be unmistakable.

I had always worked hard, driven by a love of learning. Now, I had something to prove.

~

When I was sixteen, my family took a road trip to Boston, Massachusetts. It rained for the entire week, which seemed to wash out all the colour of the city, reducing it to grey monochrome. Somehow, my parents were still full of energy—they loved exploring new places and impromptu road trips.

We toured an old naval ship, the USS Constitution. I was bored all throughout and dragged my feet, tightening the strings of my hood to protect my hair from the rain and damp.

Later we toured the Harvard University campus. This part of the trip piqued my interest immediately. The best students in the world went there, I had heard. These students probably never had their intelligence called into question, like I had in math class. Why would they?

We toured the red-brick grounds and green, pristine lawns: Cambridge Common, Harvard Yard, and Harvard Square.

I caught a glimpse of myself in one of the windows of the buildings and did a double-take. My pink hood was tightened around my head, making me look bald, and the face that looked back at me was pimply and acne-scarred. My skin seemed pale from the overcast clouds. I took stock: flat chest, clunky running shoes, jeans. Like most teenagers, I didn’t find myself beautiful. In fact, I thought myself grotesque in the window’s reflection, the lovely Harvard grounds splayed out behind me like a joke.

But you didn’t need to be beautiful to go to Harvard. You needed to be smart.

“I’m going to go here,” I told my parents. I bought a Harvard shirt and decided I would wear it once admitted.

“We’ll be proud of you wherever you go,” they said. I am blessed with parents whose only requirement was that I try my best. The rest was up to me.

But I wouldn’t be proud of me, I thought. I had begun to set the bar high, and when I reached the bar, I would simply nudge it higher; a cruel game I played only with myself.

When at last it came time to apply to university in December of my grade twelve year, I broached the subject of Ivy league schools to my parents. They dodged the topic, until finally they recommended that I apply local.

I lashed out. “Why? You don’t think I can get in?”

“We think you can get in,” they assured me. “We just can’t afford to send you.”

Again, I was holding myself, and now everyone around me, to an impossibly high standard. I balled up the Harvard T-shirt and shoved it to the bottom of my drawer, ashamed.

I raised my concerns to a family friend, Mr. Hall, a former university professor. “Marisa,” he said in his booming baritone. “Everyone needs a bachelor’s degree, so go somewhere you can afford. For your master’s you can go anywhere.”

I liked the idea and decided to hold him to it.

~

I attended Western University in London, ON, and spent my third year abroad in France. While there, I visited a friend in Paris. She was wrapping up a master’s degree at Sciences Po, a school in France renowned for its instruction in political science and the humanities.

I was happy to visit. Her residence—the Cité Universitaire de Paris—was beautiful, with sprawling, manicured gardens and stately limestone buildings, or “houses.” The Canadian house, the Italian house, the Belgian house, and so on.

I, myself, lived in a similar Cité Universitaire in France, but in the south, in a little city called Aix-en-Provence, just outside of Marseille. I was studying French with the intention of mastering it, although at the time I had no idea what I would do with the language. I figured I would carry it around in my pockets like loose change and dispense it at my leisure.

We entered the Canada house, and my friend introduced me to a rag-tag group of international students, a Belgian, a girl from Lebanon, a guy from Canada, all of whom were enrolled at Sciences Po. We sat in the residence lounge around a bottle of red wine, which we drank serenely from plastic cups. I was impressed by these students, whose drive and talent had taken them all the way to Sciences Po.

I was speaking with the Belgian, apologizing periodically from my French.

He waved away my anxieties and took a sip of his wine. He eyed me curiously. “What are you planning to do?”

“When?”

“After school.”

“I’m not sure. Graduate school, maybe.”

“But which one? Where?”

I smiled. “I don’t know.”

He leaned back in his seat. “London School of Economics? Sciences Po Paris? NYU? Columbia?”

The fact that he assumed I’d be going to one of those schools—the best schools in the world— flattered me. Made me giddy. I hadn’t given much thought to graduate school in recent years. He had planted a seed. I considered the options he had laid out.

Columbia, I considered, turning the word over in my mind. Columbia.

~

In August 2018, I was back in Canada from my exchange. I knew it was time to think about graduate school. The question was: what to go to school for?

It might seem backwards that I had decided to go to graduate school without knowing what for. But I always knew I needed more school. My undergraduate degree in international relations left me aching for something creative, a way to incorporate what I had learned in a format that was better suited to my skills. Writing.

I settled on the Creative Writing MSt at the University of Oxford, the MA in Prose Fiction from the University of East Anglia (UEA), which had produced two of my favourite fiction writers, the University of British Columbia MFA, and two Columbia programs requiring three separate applications – the School of the Arts, and the dual Master’s in Journalism and International Public Affairs. Deep down, I knew I wanted to go to Columbia. It was so close to home I could drive there, and was in the art and writing capital of the world. Truthfully, I had chosen three programs there because I didn’t think I would get into any. And if I didn’t get into any, I would be crushed.

Journalism and Creative Writing battled for prominence in my mind. I weighed their pros and cons all day. As I woke up, ate my breakfast, sat in my lectures. Should I apply to both? One or the other? Neither? Which was more lucrative? Which was more me? Was this whole thing a mistake?

There was, as always, the question of paying for a journalism degree in a world where the media landscape was unpredictable, changing rapidly day to day. I tried to spin this on its head. Should journalism be spontaneously extinguished, maybe I would be one of the last journalists to ever exist, my writing career brief and intense, like a firework.

~

Columbia’s International Affairs program required the GRE, or Graduate Record Examination, a four-and-a-half-hour nightmare with a math section—which I hadn’t done since high school.

For a while, I lived at the library, running 3-hour GRE self-practice tests and squinting at the screen because I didn’t yet know that I needed glasses. With my eyes (as with my graduation school applications) I had overestimated my capabilities, figuring that anything was possible, and that all limitations were self-imposed.

I would soon learn that women are not machines.

Writing the GRE took it out of me. The math was impossible to master, and the cost of the test, books, and online prep course actually bankrupted me. I had never seen my bank account so low.

But I was doing it for a higher purpose, I told myelf. I hoped it would be worth it.

~

“Would you call yourself an optimist or a pessimist?” my roommate Maggie once asked the house.

“Realist,” I said, of myself.

“I’d say you’re an optimist.”

“Oh?”

“If you weren’t an optimist, you wouldn’t have applied for these schools. You wouldn’t have applied to Columbia.”

I liked this idea. That deep down, amid all the self-criticism, I was actually a closeted optimist.

~

University application deadlines always fall in late December to January, coinciding with biannual family trips to Jamaica for Christmas. As it so happened, I filled out my undergraduate applications in Jamaica, and completed my graduate school applications there, too.

I wrote my essays at my grandmother’s dining room table and filmed a video essay in my mother’s old bedroom. Croaking lizards crooned in the background. Sunshine streamed through the curtains. I warred with the internet, which had random dead-zones throughout the bungalow.

“What are you doing?” my young cousin asked.

“I’m writing a reading response,” I said, barely looking up from the screen. The Columbia MFA application was hefty – a 1000-word reading response on a piece written within the last 10 years. There was also a personal essay and a 25-page sample of fiction.

“You swore,” he said, pointing at my laptop screen. I had written the word ‘fuck.’

“Yes. Sometimes it’s okay to swear if you’re quoting a piece that swears.” My response was focused on the use of vulgar language in André Alexis’ Fifteen Dogs, winner of the 2015 Scotiabank Giller prize.

I returned to the Western campus for my final semester. I paid the graduate school application fees out-of-pocket and, soon after, phoned my father, desperate for money. I didn’t have anything left for groceries. Sometimes my ambition scared me: I was willing to starve to achieve.

I was hungry, for sure. Just not for food.

~

Over Christmas and the month of January, I read over my applications until I had practically memorized them. I hit the ‘submit’ button and withdrew into myself.

~

People say that you are your harshest critic. If this is so, then my personal critic does not only criticize; she curses. She hurls biting insults. She minimizes her accomplishments, grinding them into insignificance like chalk into powder.

My critic lived on my shoulder throughout the month of February. I was perpetually on edge, jumping at every ping of my email, which would carry with it either an acceptance or rejection, a success or a heartbreak. Confirming my worth or negating it.

Eventually I turned off my email notifications, checking only once a day. But I remained in a state of perpetual crisis.

“I can’t live like this,” I cried, flinging myself onto the couch. I flipped on my then-series of choice, New York Times Retro Reports, a series of depressing but informative clips about the top news stories of the 20th century.

“You’re always in crisis,” Maggie teased. She was standing by the kitchen island, chopping oversize blocks of cheese onto crackers. “This is like, your third crisis today.”

I held a cushion over my face and pretended to smother myself.

Dramatics aside, I knew couldn’t continue. I was a ball of nerves. Somewhere along the line, I had bound my worth firmly to university acceptances.

What I needed was an unshakeable confidence that could withstand any rejection, residing deep within me, like the dense inner core of a planet. An understanding that I was worthy and capable and beautiful, regardless of what people might say. I told myself that, regardless of whether or not I got into my preferred programs, my capabilities would not change.

And if in the end I was accepted but unable to pay, I would not fight it, but take it as a sign it was not yet my time. This would be a limitation that, for once, I would simply have to accept.

~

I received a decision email from Columbia in mid-March. I left it unopened for the entire morning as I got ready for class. I decided not to touch it until I had reached the bus stop down the street—I didn’t want the contents of the letter to send me into a spiral, derailing the day and making me late for class.

Accepted to the School of International Public Affairs.

Tinny music auto-played as I opened the letter—“New York, New York,” by Frank Sinatra. I sat on a bench and cried quietly, relieved. I didn’t realize how desperate I was for the acceptance until I received it. I cried on the bus, and cried on my way to class. It wasn’t even my first-choice program, and there was no funding involved. But I was overjoyed by the confirmation that I was capable.

A few days later, I found out I was wait-listed for the School of the Arts. I didn’t know what to make of it. I wore a look of general puzzlement on my face for three days.

“It’s not a rejection,” said my roommate Cassandra, when I told her.

Finally, I received an acceptance from the School of Journalism. Three for three! I thought. I skimmed the letter for any mention of funding and saw none.

So that was it, then. No funding meant I couldn’t go.

~

Cassandra and I sat down for dinner. Her heavy red hair was spooled in a donut on her head, fastened into place by a comically tiny clip. “I knew you could do it,” she said.

We had an hour-long conversation about the nature of attending school in the U.S. without funding. The pay-back period would be ten years, at least. She mentioned the wait-listed program and how it might result in funding.

“Wait-listed applicants are bottom of the list for scholarships,” I pointed out. She looked at me sadly.

“Maybe I can defer the Journalism School offer and work for a year,” I said. Maybe this, maybe that. I paced around the kitchen. Without funding, my family would be engulfed by school fees like wildfire, and I would be the one to strike the match. I had always said that attendance was contingent on funding, but now, with the offer in my hand, my perspective became warped like cheap plastic. I wanted to go.

If elation were a cliff one could climb, I had reached the top. But now, I stared down its face into reality. I had applied for a prohibitively expensive school and I had to face the consequences.

~

I called my sister Katya and told her the news over FaceTime.

“I knew you could do it,” she said.

“No funding though.” My email pinged, as if on cue. “Wait. Another email.”

“From who?”

“Columbia Journalism. They say they’ve calculated my funding.” A full hour after the initial acceptance!

I struggled to log into the webpage provided and was locked out for a half hour. I gritted my teeth in anticipation. “I hope it’s enough,” I said, as I waited for the link to reset, clicking repeatedly.

I opened the link and reviewed my funding—my sister and I screamed. It was enough.

~

I accepted my offer to the Columbia Journalism School in May. Cassandra and I flew to New York City a few weeks later and stayed in a hostel near the campus.

We toured Columbia. The buildings bore elements of Greco-Roman architecture—domed rooves and imposing columns. Red-paved pathways led to parks, hidden alcoves, and finally, out into the roar of New York City.

I looked around, saying little. I had the old, familiar urge to set the bar ever higher, to minimize the accomplishment. My acceptance was just a fluke, I thought. Maybe there weren’t as many applicants as previous years. Maybe they needed people.

“This is incredible,” Cassandra breathed.

The critical voice in my head quieted. I considered how almost everyone had known this was possible, except me. I considered how warped my perspective had become over the years. How hard I was on myself on a daily basis.

“It is, isn’t it?” I said, welling with pride. I decided I would allow myself this one thing. Look at what you’ve done.

~

Later on in the trip, Cassandra slept in at the hostel and I toured a bit on my own. I tracked down the residence where I would be staying – The International House of New York, for international graduate students. Without even realizing it, I had applied to a residence within the same network as the Cité Universitaire of Paris, which I had visited years earlier. It’s funny how things come full circle like that.

I explored the residence dining room and lounge areas, which I felt matched, if not surpassed the grandeur of the Columbia campus. I was overwhelmed. It was too much. I jumped on a subway train heading back to the hostel.

So, I would be attending Columbia and residing at The International House. Things had gone well. But, I reminded myself, even if it had gone the other way, and I had been rejected from all the programs I had applied to, this same reality would still have been possible. I would have always been capable, whether admissions saw it or not.

I thought of all it had taken to get here, all the people who had contributed. I was grateful to the people who hadn’t believed in me as the people who had, because they made me work harder. I became so overwhelmed with gratitude there on the train—to myself, to everyone—that my eyes welled with tears. I blinked the tears out of my eyes and looked around. It was okay. No one had noticed.

MC

The Girl on the Gurney

I pull on the shapeless blue gown. High fashion, I tell the outpatient receptionist at the hospital, haute couture. She smiles.

I sit on a gurney and wait for the doctor with my father, who is sitting in a nearby chair. I don’t like this thing in my hand, I say to him, gesturing to the IV. I try to rest it on my lap in a way that it won’t hurt, but any way I position it, it aches.

Don’t worry about it, says my father.

It hurts. How do they know they’ve even put it in a vein, and not somewhere else?

The nurse made you hold your hand in a fist and hit your hand until the vein showed up, remember? That’s how she knows.

Yes, I say, but how would she know she had gone in the vein and not under? It’s hard to see. I gesture around my hand, bewildered.

My father shrugs. I guess that’s why it takes training.

My father returns to the book he was reading, “Becoming,” by Michelle Obama. I liked the biography so much that I had bought it for my family, signing it, To everyone, from Marisa. Feb 2019.

I say: My roommates were trying to convince me to go to class even with the bandages on, after this is all over.

My father lowers the book a bit reluctantly, but listens.

They argued with me for like, an hour on it. They said ‘Marisa your education is more important than how you look’ and I refused, I said, ‘I know people on campus, and I’m too vain to go on campus with a bandage on my face. Besides, everyone is going to ask me questions.’ And they said ‘so what,’ and I said ‘what if they think I got a nose job?’ And they said, ‘Then you tell them no, I had sinus surgery, and now I can breathe clearly.’ And I scrunched up my face because it’s so unsavoury, isn’t it? Sinus surgery. Not exactly a glamorous topic. But they fought me.

My father nods, lifts his book.

That’s how you know they’re good people, I say. My father lowers the book, closes it. Sets it on the side table near the gurney.

And you know they’re right, I continue, You know they care. They’re so smart. I can talk to them about literally anything and I can trust what they say. Maggie has mastered two languages—French and Spanish. She’s wants to teach abroad next year. Cassandra impressed this one Genetics prof so much that the prof gave her a work placement and scholarship, then invited her to a conference, then got her a job for the summer. She’s going to do a half-law-half-bioethics degree at McGill to work on gene patent law, can you believe that? And Jasia is planning on going to teacher’s college. I read her application and it’s incredible. They can’t not let her in.

Talking about my roommates has made me a little less tense. My thoughts turn to my younger sister, Katya.

I guess Katya had a lot of these, huh? I ask.

What? My father stares longingly at the book.

Surgeries.

Of course, he says.

Where was I, in all of that?

We left you at home, he says.

Why?

You were young, he says. Katya was young. I remember, once, they gave her an IV, just like the one you have there, but because she was a child they had to wrap her entire wrist with tape. Her hand had started to change colour, it was so tight. I had to ask them to loosen it.

She probably had an itty-bitty hand, too, I say.

It was an itty-bitty hand, he affirms.

Sitting in the gown, I have a new appreciation for all that. Throughout her childhood, my younger sister Katya had multiple surgeries and had many IVs put in—not just one. And here I was, at 21, agonizing about a single surgery when she had had at least three before the age of five. Growing up, I was fiercely protective of my sister and quick to pounce on anyone who stared a beat too long at her scars. But there was no need. I had wrongfully assumed she was vulnerable and in need of my protection.

When she frequented SickKids, the Hospital for Sick Children, hospital staff awarded her a “Bravery Bead” for every blood withdrawal, surgery, etc. Each of the beads corresponded with a different treatment. By the time it was over, Katya had upgraded from a bracelet to necklace, which jangled with multicoloured beads that I would stare at, uncomprehending.

John Steinbeck once said, “I wonder how many people I’ve looked at all my life and never seen.” My sister has probably stockpiled bravery from her childhood, like a pile of matches you can set fire to when you need warmth or light.

For the surgery today, I would receive no beads. I was too old for that and not nearly brave enough. In place of beads I had inspirational young women. My roommates. My sister.

My father retrieves the book and opens it.

What part are you at? I ask.

He sighs. Chapter 1, page 1.

I’m sorry, I say, laughing. I’ll let you read.

My face changes when I remember why I am at the hospital, and what I am about to undergo.

He looks at the book, then looks back up. Sets it down. You’ll be fine, you know?

I know, I say.

You’ll be fine.

MC

 


Image credit: Woman in the Hospital by Gyula Szabó.

 

Small Stories Everywhere

It starts off as hail. By the time I get home, fat white flakes billow down.

“Isn’t it nice?” my roommate says. “I just love the beginning of winter.” She dances around the kitchen, singing a rendition of It’s Beginning to Look at Lot Like Christmas.

I make chai tea on the stove, boiling water and milk and whisking in cinnamon, sugar, and ginger. It’s a recipe I learned from some Indian family friends with whom my sister and I grew up in Scarborough.

My eyes droop with fatigue. I think of the assignments I should be doing, the standardized test I have elected to take for grad school, the too-many extracurriculars I have taken on.

I look out the window and drink my tea. It’s been a year and a half since I saw snow like this. “Nous ne sommes plus au Sud de la France,” I think. We are no longer in the South of France.

The snow slows the city to a crawl. It takes one of my roommates an hour to get to campus, while the other one gives up waiting for the bus and leaves, choosing instead to walk home. Needless to say, it’s a bad day for travel.

I board a greyhound bus bound for Toronto that takes four hours instead of the usual two. I cycle through my playlists, my taste growing stranger and more eclectic as time winds on. I listen to indie, then ABBA, then classic rock, then movie soundtracks, then Disney ballads, then movie soundtracks again. The condensation on my window blurs the light from the streetlamps, haloing them in yellow and orange like watercolour paint.

All around me, small stories take place. The girls in the row ahead of me are discussing their boyfriends. The woman in the aisle across from mine says, “Hey Bonnie, it’s Sharon, I guess you called me, so I thought I’d call you, so you can call me back.”

I arrive at the train station and wait forty minutes for another train home. This one will take an hour. I buy a tuna sandwich cut into two halves. While I eat, I watch.

Not far from me, a woman asks a man, maybe her boyfriend, what she’s “supposed to do.” She looks a little concerned, out of place. He moves away from her, lips moving, and she holds his gaze. Maybe he’s saying he’ll be right back. A man across from me in a suit runs a hand down his face, hangs his head. Distracted by these people in this train station and by my own thoughts, I drop one half of my tuna sandwich on the floor.

*

Once on the train, I open my laptop to try and get some work done, and immediately freeze. There is a female voice, crying, somewhere in the train car. I catch only snippets of her garbled voice. “And I, I just don’t, understand.” I look around but can’t find the person in distress. The crying continues, coming from everywhere and nowhere at once.

I don’t worry for this faceless girl on the train. There’s a strength, I think, in being able to cry on public transit. To really cry. (It’s the ones who want to cry, but do not, who I worry for.)

I close my laptop. I don’t know how anyone can get any work done with small stories happening everywhere.

MC

On the Passage of Time

I move to clip up the lock of hair that normally escapes when I tie my curls into a bun. I am left grasping at empty air. The hair has grown and is now caught by the hair tie. I set the bobby pin down on the desk before me.

This is how time passes. (Subtly, while you are not watching.)

On the first day of my internship this summer, they took my photo for my key card. I looked down at the picture and hardly recognized myself. My face, settling into adulthood, with all these features I never noticed!

This is how time passes.

At 21, time is chopped into neat segments. University, internship, university, internship, and so on. Things are constantly starting and ending.

And at the end, I always find myself back in my father’s car. Back in my childhood bedroom, where my bookshelf towers over me like a record of my life. Here, I will briefly recover until I am ready to launch myself, inevitably, back into the beginnings and ends of things, back into the world.


Image credit: “City Morning” by Rimantas Virbickas.

A Little Less Young

There are three days left of my latest communications internship.

I’ve always sat in the wrong department, so it’s the Portfolio Management team that

buzzes around my desk.

Today, they are all talking at once, all around me,

their voices interspersed by the gentle classical music that comes in through my earbuds,

which creates an interesting effect:

Dawn by Jean-Yves Thibaudet, overlaid by older

male voices

passionately discussing concepts I don’t understand.

I become briefly melancholic, the music and voices growing quiet. I think about how with every internship,

with every day, I become a little

less

young.

I Guess I’ll Write About the Little Things

I.

At my new job downtown, people speak only in buzz words.

I start to keep a list. I quickly discover that their favourite expression is “high-level overview.” As in: “Marisa, we’re going to give you a tour of the office. Sort of a high-level overview.” This is funny: any sort of overview is – by nature of it being an overview –  high-level.

When I get home after my first day, my mother bursts into the room like sunshine. If you don’t know my mother, she is: a grin that takes up a good portion of her face, freckles, hair caught in a bun. She is: eyebrows set high on her face like everything is interesting. She is: a tinge of an accent, and a habit of referring to every man as “fella”.

“How was your first day?” she asks.

“Would you like a high-level overview?” I say.

“Of course.”

I consider this, placing a finger on my chin. “I did nothing and nothing happened.”

“Sounds like a low-level overview to me.”

“Katya,” I say, turning to my sister. “Give me a high-level overview of that sandwich you’re eating. And a bite.”

 

II.

What there is left to write about, when the exchange is over? When life is predictable and there are no longer surprises at every turn?

Let me tell you! There is a beauty in familiarity. In the noncommittal rain that falls over the Toronto streets. Outside the train, I watch the overcast skies turn the foliage a deep green. Small lavender flowers peek out through the brush.

I’ll write about the little things; about the man who greeted his wife and small daughter at the train station. He crouched down, hugged her and chatted to her animatedly. She was wearing sunglasses too big for her face and a pink sunhat. He then kissed her on the cheek, and kissed his wife, and then kissed her pregnant, bulging belly, and the whole group sought cover under the shelter, so the little girl could press her nose against the glass and watch the train whisk by.

I’ll write about the little things.

 

III.

After living in Europe, all prices seem deceptively low. I have developed the nasty habit of flinging my money at things: shoes, subway sandwich, phone case.

Compared to my life abroad, I feel like a princess. There is never any urgency to ensure my own survival. When I was away, if I didn’t take steps to go to the grocery store and cook something I would likely die.

But at home, barbecue chicken is always made à la Daddy, and Those Bagels I Like are bought consistently. My sister need only breathe the word cheeto and a bag will miraculously appear in the cupboard.

My fridge in France was almost always empty, with only Camembert, a single egg (rotten, probably) and an industrial-sized bottle of iced tea. The fridge at my parents’ house is so full to the brim I saw the cream cheese exactly once and never again. I suspect it is lost to the world.

Things have back to normal and life has resumed its ambling pace. I no longer have to jump through hoops to do anything administrative. Stores are open for twice as long as they were in France, with no endless midday lunch break. Sending a letter is no longer a spectacle. And by the grace of God I am able to order hawaiian pizza.

But things have changed while I was away. Minimum wage jumped to a whopping $14 an hour, and the prices of everyday goods rose as well. Recently, the family purchased a black lab-border collie cross that likes to use the furniture like a chew toy. He probably thinks his name is “no, no, no,” or “sit, sit, sit,” or “please stop biting me,” because that’s all we seem to say to him. (The puppy’s name, in reality, is Ziggy.)

At work, I am only one of two people in the office who speak French, and in short order, am given the opportunity to translate into French for the company. That was quick, I think, but the need for the language is palpable. I suppose this bodes well for me.

I am a newly-minted bilingual, eager to speak and write. Sometimes I forget the whole thing, the whole exchange. I open my mouth and am stunned all over again that it’s French that comes out.

 

IV.

Working downtown is an exercise in anonymity. I often feel as though I leave my identity at the train station and recover it at the end of the day.

I am almost embarrassed by how little people seem to care about one another on the train. In Ian McEwan’s Atonement, the book’s pivotal moment is one where Briony, the main character, realizes that everyone is living a life just a complex and as vivid as hers: “…the world, the social world, was unbearably complicated, with two billion voices, and everyone’s thoughts striving in equal importance and everyone’s claim on life as intense…”

I wonder what the People On The Train would think of this.

At the office, I once caught my fingers in the hinge of one of the heavy doors. Be careful, my mother would have said. Those are your piano fingers. But when I look up, I realize no one has seen this small tragedy. No one here knows that I play the piano, either. I run my fingers under cold water in the staff bathroom and feel inexplicably lonely.

 

V.

The exchange is not “over”. The whole thing was so vivid that at times I feel I am still living it. I suppose it has to be that way. The drawback (or upside, you choose) of travel is that you leave little pieces of yourself everywhere. At the back of my mind I think about how I have spread my life across Europe, Canada and Jamaica, like peanut butter on toast. Spread it too thin it won’t taste like anything.

Or maybe life is not peanut butter. Maybe peanut butter is peanut butter and life is life.

I will always be stunned by the difference between my parents’ lives and mine. Their friends, family, and nearly everyone they had ever known – was limited to a single island with roughly the population of Toronto. I’m not sure what that’d be like.

 

VI.

I step out of my office building and the sun hits me, hard. I am in dress pants with a key card clipped to the waistline, masquerading as an adult. I don’t know what worries me more: the possibility that this fools no one, or that it fools everyone. Downtown bustles around me, always busy, always late for something.

The smell of food hangs in the air like a good idea.

MC

Many Lives

I.

At home, things are just as I remember. I take a southbound bus and find that I still have all the stops memorized. I even see faces I recognize from high school, an unlikely thing in the expansive Toronto outskirts. The sheer familiarity unnerves me; after 8 months of constant variation and challenges at every turn, my hometown seems all too predictable.

The city has remained static. I have changed.

The most obvious difference, of course, is the French language, which now flies to my tongue with relative ease. On the train one day, I speak in French with my sister to practice and she follows along, responding where she can. I read and watch movies and forget momentarily that they are not in English.

These changes in myself become even more pronounced when I spend a day back at my university campus. The last time I was here, I was a year younger and in a completely different frame of mind. It is the setting of a past life.

Looking toward the year ahead, my final year, proves daunting. I wonder: How can I do this? How can I do this without them?

 

II.

It is difficult to wrap my mind around: the friends with whom I spent every waking moment of the past 8 months are now thousands of kilometres away. Yet they have expertly woven themselves into every fibre of my being. At a family BBQ I sit by the poolside in a floral swimsuit given to me by a friend, reading a book in French she has given me, as well. Earlier in the day I listened to a playlist she recommended—I cannot extract myself from our intermingled existences and I am not sure I want to.

Harry and Meghan’s royal wedding is aired on the television and upsets me for some reason. It takes me a while to realize that it is the English accents that are sending me into a spiral: these people, on the television, sound like many of the friends I have left behind.

 

III.

At a lunch, a friend notes that I seem happier and lighter now. It is true; I am buoyed by the year abroad, held aloft by the memories. A waiter sweeps to our table and the service is friendly, sincere. It is one of the most distinct differences between France and here. Canada is, without a doubt, a customer-centred society. The customer is always right. (In France, the customer is more often than not, wrong.)

On Skype, I tell my friends, “Just remember that although I may not be there with you I am always there with you. I am thinking of you.”

I hope my friends find this idea reassuring. It is an idea as simple as it is revolutionary: that someone very far away in a city called Toronto cares deeply about them. Their voices fill my bedroom through the speaker of my laptop and it feels for a moment as though they are right next to me.

 

IV.

Sitting on the couch, despondent, with nothing within walking distance in my quiet suburb, my earlier plan to live downtown for the summer becomes not only a desire but a necessity. “I am in exile,” I tell my father. I am being dramatic and he laughs. But without a throng of friends surrounding me like a protective shield, without the thrum of the city, I am dying.

I rush to interview for jobs in Toronto. In late May it initially feels as though there are simply no relevant positions left, but I pursue a few promising leads.

While I am downtown for an interview, I message two friends who live in the area to see if they would like to get together. Both are occupied; working late. I ask another friend when she might be free and she responds: “never,” citing work, a course, and other things. Another friend says she is “booked up.” I can’t remember any friends abroad ever saying they were “booked up.” That’s four “no’s” in a row and I must refuse the urge to throw my phone at the wall.

North American society is more fast-paced, I know. People are busier. Work, regrettably, sometimes takes precedence over friendships, an issue I never faced in Europe. This is a quality of European society I have learned to appreciate. I now prioritize coffees with friends; I take time to eat. “Why don’t we sit?” I ask my sister, just as we are leaving a café with the intention of drinking our smoothies on the road. “Let’s just sit for awhile.”

I think of all the endless time spread out before me. The job I will eventually start and the school year ahead and the masters programs I will apply for, at some point. How can I do this? How can I do this without them?

At only 21 I feel I have lived many lives.

 

V.

I reunite for sushi with high school friends who have not changed, save for experimental haircuts and new boyfriends. My love for them has only grown deeper with time and space. It is lovely to have friends that have spent enough time with you to notice the intricacies of your personality.

“Marisa, you’re a little scatterbrained, you know that? Always losing your keys. It’s pretty endearing actually.”

“You’re always checking a watch that isn’t there. And then you say, oh, I guess I’m not wearing my watch today! Again and again.”

“You eat so slowly. And order so slowly.”

“You are always moved by things. That’s your personality. Always touched.”

I can’t even deny this. I am moved by my friends, near and far, and how lucky I’ve been to know them. Is it selfish to want it all? To want all of these people together in the same room, gathered around a single bottle of wine? Maybe it is too much to ask, for now.

Here is my friend, sipping her soup. My friend, who has cropped her brown curls short, who has proved time and time again that she will never leave my side. Here, we pick up where we left off as though no time has passed. I have friends across three continents: Oceania and Europe and right in front of me.

I wolf down a roll of yam sushi and smile, looking at my friends talking animatedly over one another, and a Samuel Beckett quote springs to mind:

I can’t go on, I’ll go on.

 

MC