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