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.

“If your hair is nappy, they’re not happy.” What it means to grow up with black hair in a white neighbourhood

“If your hair is relaxed, white people are relaxed. If your hair is nappy, they’re not happy.” —Paul Mooney


 

In business class one day, one of my closest high school friends eyed me strangely. “I just don’t really like the texture,” she said.

She was talking about my hair. It was the kind of jab that I never saw coming.

“What do you expect me to do about that?” I asked. My hair had just been straightened. I clamped my hands down on my head self-consciously, trying to smooth it. What more could I have done?

“I don’t know,” she said, shrugging, and turned back to the work the teacher had assigned.

Continue reading “If your hair is nappy, they’re not happy.” What it means to grow up with black hair in a white neighbourhood

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?

Continue reading Many Lives

Why

I.

Is this thing on? I tap the mic three times with a finger.

Right. I’ve been living in Aix-en-Provence, France for 8 months now. No one forced me. Unlike the majority of my friends here, my university program didn’t require me to pursue this and nobody told me I had to go.

“So why did you, Marisa?” Someone in the peanut gallery has his hands cupped around his mouth and is addressing me directly, from the audience.

I am here for a number of practical reasons, I tell him, mildly annoyed at his interruption. I’m studying International Relations, a political science, in a bilingual country (Canada) and am convinced this necessitates a fluency in the second language (French).

I’ve always liked languages. I don’t know why. One day in the car my mother asked me this very question—why I decided to go all the way with French—and I didn’t really have a response. I guess we just like the things we like because we like them. I told her that it’s not French, per se, but that I enjoy languages in general. I love my mother tongue, English, as well, and when given the opportunity will climb into books and hide inside them until summoned.

I am here because my parents were travellers and I suppose I have inherited this through osmosis. À la base, they were immigrants, brave enough to venture from one of the world’s warmest climates to one of the world’s coldest on the hunt for opportunities for their two young daughters. They enjoyed car trips with no destination in mind. I remember once getting in the car and driving North until we reached a nowhere city called Cobourg, Ontario. I remember it all very clearly. It was blustery that day.

Like sails catching wind, my parents veered often toward bodies of water, as if at some point they might discover somewhere as warm and inviting as the Caribbean sea. Sometimes they relented and surprised my sister and I with trips back to Jamaica, where they would pack our bags for us without our knowledge, pile us in the car, and drive us unknowingly to the airport.

Even recounting this to a hypothetical audience many years later, I can still recall the feeling; Pearson International cresting over the horizon when I had been told we were going somewhere mundane.

 

II.

When I was ten years old, my parents sat around the dining table with my aunt and uncle, a map of Canada spread out before them, highlighters and pens strewn across the page. At this point, my young self was convinced they were adventurers. They were planning what was to be the greatest trip of my life thus far, known to all involved as “The Maritimes Trip,” or “The Halifax Trip”, a whirlwind road trip across the East coast of Canada and through the Northeastern US.

We stayed in around 10 different hotels and were on the road for two weeks straight. Spread out across two vans, our two families traveled one behind the other, and just when you thought it couldn’t get any more fun, my parents actually communicated with my aunt and uncle via walkie-talkie. They navigated with maps custom made for our trip called TripTix, provided by CAA (this was before Google Maps, mind you.)

I walked the rocky shores of Prince Edward Island and ventured too far out at the Bay of Fundy in New Brunswick, actually falling off the cliff and into the water, scraping my knees.

When the trip was over, I cried, wanting more.

“Back to life, back to reality,” my mother sang. (She is a broadway fan and tends to sing a lot of what she says).

 

III.

I am in Aix-en-Provence because I had been saving my summer earnings for a long time toward something big, but I never knew what. And then when the opportunity arose to go abroad I knew I’d found it. The actual move, however, didn’t come out of nowhere. It was prompted by dissatisfaction. I was deeply underwhelmed. A lot of people do not know that I am in this little Mediterranean town because I wanted to escape. I found my university town claustrophobic.

“Why did you choose it, then?” This, now, from the woman standing next to the man in the peanut gallery.

I don’t know, I respond honestly. But in any case, I was tired of the city’s drinking culture; of lining up outside a dirty bar in heels that hurt my feet in sub-zero temperatures. I was tired of my roommates, who scared me. The house was sometimes so cold, and so quiet, that it made me want to scream. The place was, for all intents and purposes, dead. I wanted to cut the rooms open, dissecting them from the outside, just to prove to the rest of the street that we were alive. That they were living people in that house.

That year showed me that, if you are not careful, you can fade away.

It happens gradually. You can disappear, to everyone, to yourself. You must construct your life with people and events and places that inspire you otherwise you will forget who you are and you will start to fade away.

 

IV.

Trying to make friends with my roommates was like pulling teeth. (My own teeth. With a chainsaw. Blindfolded.)

I had to beg them to talk to me, to acknowledge me, to greet me when I walked in a room. They were supposedly friends before I joined the housing situation but you could have fooled me—they seemed only to tolerate each other. We had nothing at all in common. I wanted to travel and they wanted to stay put. They were all white and I was black. They were into sciences and I was into art. (I once tried to engage them in a conversation about foreign film and lost them almost immediately). That kind of isolation is scary.

I retreated briefly into my own mind. And I am still working to coax myself away from the distrust that blossomed that year, planted the year before, when I roomed with a girl who was similarly cold.

The day my father was set to pick me up from the house at the end of the year, he said he couldn’t until the next day. “I have a meeting,” he said, or something. I can’t remember because my mind was buzzing with radio static. I begged him but he maintained that he just couldn’t. It would have only been one more evening in the house bit nobody, he included, knew how badly I wanted to leave. At the last minute, Dad said he was on his way. My bags were already packed. I flung everything in his tiny VW Golf quicker than I ever imagined possible.

“I don’t know if it will all fit,” Dad said. “We may have to do two trips.”

“No!” I said, and forced everything inside as if by magic. “Drive, just drive. Please.”

Never in my life have I felt relief like I did that day. It was overpowering. I thought I might cry but simply placed my head against the window, breathing hard.

 

V.

So, I began to associate London, ON with both discomfort and boredom. I wanted to see something that would make me think, something that would make me say, “wow,” or “hm.”

I regret nothing of this exchange, despite that it took five months of planning and required repetitive, confusing correspondence with around 25 people at home and abroad. Because of this exchange I have a new language. I have perspective, which is invaluable. I spent a year with very little schoolwork owing to the flawed French education system, and without this distraction I realized Who I Was with such force that it punched me in the face. It was as though before the exchange, I was a shapeless, blurry form, and that I had finally retrieved my pen, adding much-needed detail.

My friends and I cooked together and hosted events and always brought wine, never arriving empty-handed—a European rule. We threw last-minute barbecues and spent hours sitting in the sun. We did a whole lot of nothing, too. A lot of chatting and complaining and eating Nutella crêpes. A lot of random exploring and finding new routes to new places. A lot of buying bus tickets to nearby towns just because we could. (I flew to London and to Rome because the tickets cost less than the shirt on my back.) Europe is interesting that way. It has been fun being a temporary jet-setter.

I don’t need to tell you I am thankful. If you look close enough, you can see it for yourself: my heart, swelling with gratitude, fit to burst. “And it’s all because we moved to Canada,” my mother recently reminded me over the phone. “Look at the opportunities you have.”

I see them, Mum, I see them. The opportunities are splayed out before me like playing cards and it is my play. It is my turn to draw.

 

VI.

I’ve made friends here that I care about deeply. Selfishly, I would like to take them with me everywhere, in fact; I would like to put them in my pocket. I’d like to mark the page in my book with them. I want them at my wedding and on my doorstep and in my backyard. I want to write an alternate reality, placing them in houses near mine, in Toronto. I want to have grown up with them. I want to introduce them to my friends back home and I want dinners with them, I want parties, I want more moments, I want more time.

“But you’ve had time,” says the man in the peanut gallery. The people in the front row are nodding in agreement.

Yes, I say.

All things considered, it has been a good time.

MC

 

IMG_3388
The Maritimes Trip

When the Tide Rolls In

I.

It is a lonely day when you realise that you are the only one truly responsible for your own wellbeing. You, like everyone, must eke out your own small corner of happiness in a world that is inexplicably vast, and noisy.

I imagine it is a lot like constructing a sandcastle. Tragedies (or waves) will always venture too close. At times they will warp your sandcastle beyond recognition. And when the worst waves hit—the ones that wipe out entire sections, entire meticulously-constructed rooms—your friends and family will gather amid the wreckage to help you to put it back together again.

I am not sure if there will ever come a moment when you are able to reconstruct the sandcastle on your own. Maybe you will always look around and call for help to whoever is on the beach, whoever is close enough to hear you, whoever wants to hear you.

Maybe one day you will wake and realise that those you thought were there to help you maintain the castle were only kicking over great sections while you weren’t looking. I’m not sure.

But what I’m sure of is that the sandcastle is populated by individuals who are flawed but whom you love, and is maintained by a job with which you are satisfied. It may not be striking in its beauty or even particularly innovative in design. Like everything, it is impermanent and will one day blow away. But if it is good, then I guess you’ve done it.

 

II.

When we were younger, my sister and I had a game we’d play at the seaside where we’d  hold hands and jump over the waves as the tide rolled in. This never seemed to grow old. Sometimes they were taller than we were, and threw us off balance.

Once, I was sucked underneath by the current—I saw only blue and green and swirling sand—and emerged with a bump on my forehead, horrified. It was a momentary but absolute loss of control.

I know people who, at the first sign of a large wave, would dismantle their sandcastles into pails and relocate to a place further from the shoreline, far from everything and everyone but safely away from what they believe could hurt them.

I know people who, standing in the wreckage of a beautiful, felled castle, would call out to no one.

 

III.

Sitting on the beach in a rainbow swimsuit, years ago, I constructed a sand replica of the Eiffel Tower which I was quite proud of. My mother dutifully snapped a photo. I eyed the sea with suspicion; the waves were always there, and are still there. (Ten years later I visited the real Eiffel Tower, and took a similar photo.)

It was only much later that I realised it was not about avoiding the waves at all, but learning how to rebuild.

 

MC

#11 Someday

There will come a day
When the books and clothes are tucked away,
The boxes sealed, the shutters drawn,
My small apartment
Emptied of song

When you come to help, you’ll say:
‘Doesn’t this room look big!
Without your life inside,
Without your socks and printer and iced tea, inside!
Without the fridge’s hum.’
Our voices will bounce around in echo
Pounding like a tuneless drum—

Whispering: “Thank you for your courage,
Safe travels back to where you are from.”

We knew this was a passing thing
(That’s what happens when you are nomadic)
We also knew that wouldn’t make
‘The End’ seem any less tragic

Come, friends, and sit with me
Wherever we first met:
Class,
Café,
On the stairs,
Or on that rocky bench,
Then tilt your face toward the sun,
Let its heat cradle your head.

Years from now you’ll be reminded of these:
Cypress trees, Mediterranean breeze,
And I’ll think of you—you’ll think of me

I can chart our growth just like a map,
Look!
There we were young and here we are old;
There we were nervous, here we are bold;
Here, we spoke in riddles, in themes,
like love, distance, and fear
In personal musings, in philosophy,
Voices growing louder, more clear

Shoulders were offered, dinners were held,
To help us all get through,
We realized even the bravest souls
Were lost and wanting, too.

I’ll see you all again, someday
Once the wind has blown us
Every which way,

I’ll see you again someday.

MC

No Thank You I Don’t Drink Coffee

 

This is a personal essay I wrote for a job application. It is an amalgamation of a lot of the ideas expressed on this blog.

 

I.

I am fascinated at the dynamism of human beings.

Ever-changing, we can be anyone or do anything or live anywhere. We can interact with every passerby, or only those wearing the color blue, or none at all. We can spontaneously move countries (as I have just done); speak languages we have just learned; drink coffee when we are not coffee drinkers.

A few months ago, I practically inhaled my first cappuccino after having spent the better part of my 20 years telling everyone “No thank you, I don’t drink coffee.” I used to balk at the very idea of the drink, turning up my nose at the smell, chanting, “Tea, please! Tea, please!” This time; however, I ordered without hesitation.

 

II.

Human beings move at breakneck speed. Today I am in France, on exchange, but tomorrow I could be in Thailand. I find this mildly unsettling, how easy it is.

For no reason in particular, my friends and I were one day sitting on a cliffside at the southernmost point of France. We waved at unknown sailors on a ship turning into the quay. They waved back, startling us.

“I love people,” my friend pointed out, vaguely. “Two sets of strangers, waving at one another.”

 

III.

Whenever I see an apartment building, I want instantly to cut it in half. I am not being malicious! Rather, I would like to see—in the style of a cross-section—the way the people live. I want to see what they have done with their small pocket of mankind.

(Give a human being a room and they will construct it as a bird does a nest. They will wallpaper it with colourful posters and rearrange things and, at the end of it all, will stand back and smile at their handiwork. They will grow herbs in the feeble light of the windowsill.)

 

IV.

In a sudden burst of inspiration, I woke and glanced at the world map pinned to my wall. I spotted an island I had never noticed before. It was off the coast of Antarctica, and had been previously discovered by someone, surely, but only very recently by me. Sandwich Island. On days like this, my heart lifts at all the potential in the world. Other days I am overwhelmed and must find reasons to rise from bed.

 

V.

Not long ago, I was eating at a Vietnamese restaurant in Paris with an old friend. We are far from home, I considered, sitting in a restaurant we chose at random. Surrounding us are faces we will never see again.

She told me quite casually that her master’s program required her to do an internship abroad, and that she could choose any city, any country. The entire globe was effectively at her fingertips.

I sipped my coffee.

“I’m thinking somewhere in Senegal or New York, maybe,” she said.

My friend continued to explain, but I could hardly hear. I was quaking with excitement, the roar of life itself filling my ears.

 

Strange Things Mothers Do

We are flying down the highway. My father is at the wheel, and my mother in the passenger seat. I am sitting in the back, panicking aloud about something, as usual. My sister has her headphones in, staring pensively out the window.

“You never stop talking,” my mother interrupts, her tone gentle. “Take a breath.”

I do.

Now, it is my mother’s turn to speak. “Where does it come from, all your stress? I wish I could take it away from you and put it on my own shoulders. Give it to me.” She is holding out her hands.

I place my hypothetical stress in her cupped hands.

“It’s mine now,” she says. My mother makes a show of winding down the window, holding the stress high above her shoulder, and tossing it out onto the highway. “There, it’s gone.”

I look out at the road, at my stress receding into the background, and wonder at my mother’s love.

You cannot ball up stress like a snowball. You cannot shrug it off like a coat. And you cannot take the stress of another person into your own hands. But I know that if you could, my mother would, in an instant.

This realization overwhelms me, so for the rest of the ride I am quiet. I wonder at this love.