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.


Of course, he says.

Where was I, in all of that?

We left you at home, he says.


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.



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.


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.


I. Introduction

Throughout my adolescence, everyone seemed to have an opinion on my hair, and it was almost always negative.

Owing to slavery and a complex history of oppression and marginalisation of blacks, black hair has always been seen as unkempt and unusual. Society’s aversion to black hair goes far beyond the scope of this essay. But comprehensive studies are not necessary to see the effects of these social norms. Stop a little black girl on the street and ask what kind of hair she wants. (Please don’t, but I think you know where I am going with this.) I will bet you any money that she will tell you: straight hair.

“Your hair is nappy,” our many stylists would tell myself and my sister. “It’s hard hair. Thick. Difficult to comb.”

“Do you wash your hair?” our friends at school would ask. This was humiliating. Of course we did, but why did we constantly need to affirm it?

“Why does it do that? It’s so strange.” Exhausted and embarrassed, I would tell them that my hair was very curly and this was how curly hair acted.

“Can it grow?”

“It’s so different, your hair.”

“Why don’t you just wear it out? I don’t think I’ve ever seen your hair down.”

“Can I touch it?

“Your hair is just like velcro,” said a girl on my street.

There was a game we used to play outside, with two velcro paddles and a felt ball, which you would throw to try to get it to stick to the paddle. What she had said was not a compliment, and it chafed me that she found my hair so strange, even at 9 years old.

She said, “What if I—?”

She approached me and I took a step back, but I was too slow, and the velcro paddle came down, fast, onto my braids. Just as she had expected, the paddle stuck to my strands, and she tore it off with a sharp, ripping noise. “Cool,” she said.

“Ow,” I said, my eyes filling with tears.


II. Change

When I was a child living in the Caribbean, my hair was coaxed into neat braids by the many nannies or “helpers”—as we say in Jamaica—that doted on my sister and I throughout our childhood. Cornrows or twists in elaborate designs. We cried every time we got them done, because they were so tight, but we quickly learned that this was necessary to look presentable. The image of a young black girl sitting between an older lady’s legs, rubbing her eyes, is not unusual, and is actually depicted in a lot of black artwork. “Beauty is pain” has always been the resounding lesson.

For myself and my sister, moving to Canada at ages 7 and 5 meant leaving our beloved helpers, more like aunties to us by then, behind. For the first time, it was my mother who sat us between her legs and attempted to plait our hair. She really did try, but taking care of black hair is complicated, and her hair, like that of many black women, had been relaxed since she was in her late teens. Young girls always believe their mothers are the most beautiful women in the world, and of course, we want nothing more than to look like them. I wanted nothing more than to look like my mother. And her hair was relaxed straight.

With society reinforcing this standard of beauty, there is no reason for young black girls to think their hair is beautiful. Think about it: when was the last time you saw a black hair product advertised in mainstream media? When was the last time you flicked through a magazine and saw a model with natural hair? Where are the black hair how-to’s in magazines like Cosmopolitan, as they have for white hair?

My mother quickly passed us off to professional stylists. We got our hair braided by a woman in Toronto, and would smile tearfully into the mirror when it was all over. We could ask for anything and Aleisha would do it with flair: zigzag patterns, twisting swirls, braided or twisted ponytails.

We dutifully wrapped our hair in satin scarves to preserve the shine. My parents paid inordinate sums for these styles, and wherever our stylist moved we followed her, no matter how far she relocated to in the city, no matter where she moved to—even once getting our hair done in a pretty dangerous part of Toronto—owing to the lack of women who could do our hair.


Once, our hairstylist did something a bit outlandish with my sister’s braids. The result was strange. “It looks…” my mother said.

“I was trying something different.”

My mother was not amused. We were paying a lot for the style.

“Should I do it over?”

My mother bit her lip. My sister’s face was twisted in indignation. She was what stylists would call “tender-headed,” which meant she would cry easily at the tightness of the braids. And I could see that her scalp was already red and sore. I watched the standoff closely, feeling horrible for her but feeling—cruelly—relieved that it wasn’t me. I couldn’t imagine sitting in that chair twice in one evening, having the whole thing done again.

“She can’t wear it outside like that,” my mother said.

“Beauty is pain,” Aleisha said, and started all over again. My sister bawled.


III. Assimilation

We eventually outgrew the braids and, like most black girls, we relaxed our hair—me at age 12, and my sister at age 10. My sister’s hair texture was looser than mine, and so her relaxed hair was straighter. I looked at my own tresses in the mirror, still quite curly, and started to cry. I wanted my hair as straight as hers. I felt less beautiful.

I started to come to school with my new straightened, relaxed hair. “Your hair looks great,” people would say.

“I like your hair better that way,” people would say, meaning, ‘straight.’ They did not know that the harsh lye could sometimes cause the scalp to ooze pus and scab if it was left on too long. It made it hard to sleep, the first night after.

To give myself a break, I tried occasionally to wear my curls, but the relaxer had stretched them into strange shapes that were not uniform.

“It’s interesting,” people would say at my attempt.

My processed hair was limp and couldn’t grow past my shoulders, and was so weak it would break off. When we went swimming, people liked to comment on how strange it looked wet. But the relaxed hair could be easily straightened, and when it was straight it was beautiful. Everyone said so.


For years, my sister and I would hand our stylists as much as $150 at a time to relax our roots. We did this for picture day, school dances, special events. Just before I relaxed my hair, I would run my fingers over curly roots and think they felt sort of nice. Soft, but strong. Shiny. Healthy. I wondered vaguely what they would look like all over my head. And then I would go to the salon and relax them into submission, the curls disappearing as quickly as they appeared.

Beauty was straight hair.

When my hair was straightened I felt a satisfaction I cannot explain to you. I looked in the mirror and felt, at once, older, more attractive. I stood out a little less. (This was in high school, you know, before we realized that the things that made us different were the things that made us interesting.) Relaxing was $70 every time, and periodic hair straightenings were $35. We have never calculated our hair expenditure but I will do that here, now. $3500 between my mother, sister, and I, every year.

But we paid the money, as so many black families do.

In high school, I tried everything to blend in, trying desperately to brush my hair flat and sometimes retreating to the washroom in the middle of class to make sure the style held. Somehow my beauty was in constant flux, prone to sudden decrease depending on how my hair decided to act that day, sticking up in ways my white friends weren’t used to (but that black hair tends to.) I would flat twist the front of my hair and try to coax it into styles that my hair did not want to be in—ponytails, for example—styles that were not meant for black people. I figured out how to tie a neat bun and wore my hair this way for much of my adolescence. My hair began to take up disproportionate space in my mind. I was constantly worried people were looking, or that my hair had freed itself from my very deliberate bun.

Like many, in the tumult of adolescence, I would sometimes find myself unhappy for reasons I could not explain. So, if I was feeling low, I would try to trace back the emotion to the root source, and this worked swimmingly, making me more self-aware over time, and more conscious of the things bothered me most. Sometimes, I could trace my unease back to something someone had said earlier on in the day, but most often my mood was directly correlated with how my hair looked that day.

If it was straight, I was upbeat, and felt beautiful. If it wasn’t, the day seemed gloomier, and I was unhappy. This was what it came down to.


As high school went on, it became annoying to try to outline the fundamentals of kinky hair to my friends on a daily basis; everyone seemed very underexposed and I was embarrassed on their behalf, yet I still felt like I was the one doing something wrong somehow. (There were so few black kids in my high school that it was very easy to feel like the odd one out.)

“My hair is so frizzy today, it looks like an afro,” my non-black friends would say, frowning into the mirror in the washroom. Or: “With this humidity my hair puffs up like an afro.” The word afro always had a negative connotation, and I wondered if they realized that’s what my hair was: afro-textured. I thought their complaints ridiculous, and felt a mild resentment and jealousy that they could roll out of bed and wear their hair as it was.

At sleepovers with our friends, my sister, and I always faced a dilemma with regard to our satin scarves. It was a cultural norm tying them on at night, and we felt strange without them. Tying your hair with satin not only maintains whatever style you’re trying to wear but also prevents harsh rubbing and breakage from cotton pillowcases. But at sleepovers, we didn’t want to make our white friends uncomfortable. So, sometimes we wore our scarves, but most times we didn’t.


IV. Realization

Owing to the racial make-up of our neighbourhood, my sister and I had very few black friends growing up, so the people we talked to the most about our hair was our family. At family gatherings, we would quickly start in on hair talk. What we were doing, what products we were using. Trading ideas. Some family friends would complain they suspected they had been passed over for jobs because of their hairstyles, and vowed never to enter the interview room with their natural hair again. This is not a new thing.

But I soon grew tired of the straight look. I tried everything, from roller sets to rod sets to braid-outs and twist-outs. I tried to curl it like my white friends did, which just did not work. To educate myself about my hair, I watched YouTube videos and bought reams of black hair products, which, in my predominantly white town, were expensive and hard to come by. Black hair products are much more expensive than white hair products and are scarce; we would sometimes crisscross the city in search of them.

My mother was on the receiving end of many of my anxieties. “I can’t do anything with my hair!” I cried, brandishing my flatiron and comb like weapons. “I just need one style! One style I can wear!”

She would shrug. “Oh, Marisa.”

“Why don’t you just embrace the natural look?” my father would say.

“It’s just not that simple,” I would hiss. But then again, what was simpler than wearing your hair the way it grew out of your scalp?


Someone—I can’t remember who—recommended I watch the music video for “I Am Not My Hair,” by India.Arie, and was instantly struck by the lyrics.

Hey (hey)
I am not my hair
I am not this skin
I am not your expectations, no (hey)
I am not my hair
I am not this skin
I am the soul that lives within


Does the way I wear my hair make me a better person?
(Whoa, whoa, whoa)
Does the way I wear my hair make me a better friend? Oh
(Whoa, whoa, whoa)
Does the way I wear my hair determine my integrity?
(Whoa, whoa, whoa)
I am expressing my creativity
(Whoa, whoa, whoa)

This, to me, was a new concept. For the first time, I considered my hair as an entity separate from myself—a simple accessory, rather than a sign of my worth. I had radical ideas, then, about individuality and inherent value. Who was I without my hair? What if my hair was short? Or gone? Would I still consider myself a woman? Would I still consider myself beautiful?

I came to the conclusion that I could never be truly happy if I continued to hate this part of myself.

But could I really wear my hair natural? All throughout my life, stylists had been telling me that my hair had to be relaxed. It was hard hair, tough hair, nappy hair. Impossible to handle. And after almost a decade of relaxing my hair, I had all but forgotten what my natural hair looked and felt like. I began to go through old photos to try and gauge the texture. The situation soon gained new relevance: at university, the cost of relaxing my hair along with textbooks and groceries was starting to weigh me down.

By the mid-2010s, the natural hair movement was in full force, and my friends and family were all getting swept up in the wave. One of my Aunts stopped relaxing her hair. Watching an episode of Grey’s Anatomy, I pointed out to my sister that all the black characters were wearing their satin scarves before bed.

“It’s different. Accurate,” I said to her. “I like it.”

I watched Chris Rock’s “Good Hair” documentary, outlining the ins and outs of the 700-billion-dollar industry hinged on the self-consciousness of black women. I began to realize that the black struggle for beautiful hair was symptomatic of a larger issue, and that I believed my natural hair was ugly and hard to handle not because it actually was, but that’s what society was pushing me to believe.

Now aware of these invisible, societal structures, I tried to educate people when they’d say something offensive about my hair.

“How often do you wash it anyway? Once a week?” one of the girls in my residence building had been talking to my roommate and now addressed me.

I furrowed my brow. “Actually, if I washed my hair every day as you do with yours, it would dry it out, because the oils don’t travel down curly hair shafts as quickly as they might on straight hair. So once or twice a week is good.” I even forwarded her a link to a webpage explaining this.

But even this became tiring. When, in second year, a roommate asked the same question, I merely said, “Yeah. Once or twice a week,” and retreated to my room.


V. Transition

In March of 2016, at age 19, I relaxed my hair for the last time.

At the time, I wasn’t trying to reclaim my identity or anything. I just decided I didn’t like paying almost $100 a month for it anymore. I had also begun to suspect that relaxers had to have negative health effects, and had done a bit of research. I read some unsettling articles about the links between hair relaxers and long-term illnesses such as reproductive problems, fibroids, heart disease, cognitive disorders, cancers, early puberty, altered immune systems or even blindness. It felt ridiculous to pay so much to potentially hurt myself.

“You’ll regret it,” my stylist back in Toronto said. “You have hard hair.”

“We’ll see,” I said.

Having two hair textures—relaxed and natural—is not easy. The hair is extremely weak at the “line of demarcation” (where the two textures meet) and breaks violently. I could have cut off the relaxed ends in one fell swoop but I was scared; scared of cutting my hair too short and shedding, with it, my femininity. So, I bought a pair of trimming scissors and cut the ends off slowly, struggling to blend the two hairstyles during this transition period. My family followed my hair journey with mild amusement, but also with interest.

Sometimes, in desperation, I considered relaxing my hair. And this, I suppose, is why they call it the creamy crack, likening it to the highly addictive drug.

“If you’re not going to relax your hair, neither will I,” my sister said one day.

“What? You’re serious?”

“Yeah,” she said, smiling.

And later, my mother said the same thing. The Coulton women were going natural, and I was thrilled. But how long would it last?

“Have you found a hairdresser in France?” a family friend asked repeatedly. “What are you going to do with your hair in France?”

By the time I arrived in France for my full year academic exchange in September 2017, I was almost completely natural, with only an inch of relaxed hair left. And then one day I sat in front of the mirror and cut off the remaining silky ends. I looked back at myself, at my afro, and felt actual fear. There were no curls, just frizz, just as my many stylists had warned me. I figured it was only a matter of time before I relaxed it again.

I watched a YouTube video to try and figure out what to do with my hair. The woman demonstrated how to very gently define and detangle the curls. Not many black girls are taught how to handle their natural hair like this—how to properly take care of it.

I used the technique outlined in the video and sat in front of the mirror, examining the result.

It was beautiful. I had dark ringlets that sprung back vibrantly when tugged on. When I brushed it back, my hair shone. The hair was versatile and could hold any style I attempted, straight or otherwise. I knew vaguely what my natural hair looked like but not like this—not when it had been correctly styled, the proper curl creams and oils applied.

I noticed that I had the same hair texture as an acquaintance of mine. Years ago I had longed for her hair. It was really quite perverse; I knew so little about my natural hair texture that I was jealous of someone with hair exactly like mine.

I took pictures and videos and sent them to my family.

“Do you know our hair looks like this?” I said, stunned. “Our hair is beautiful; did you know this?”


VI. Arrival

My black hair journey is not over. Societal norms can creep into my head again, insidiously, at any moment. My natural hair seems childish, and less adult, in a way. But this feeling is fading.

My sister and I still get silly questions. I was recently asked if my hair actually grows. Then, later, I was told it “wasn’t even hair” and that it had a “three-dimensional quality,” which was particularly scathing.

In her first year of university, my sister was asked in a room full of people whether she washed her hair. She decided not long after to transfer universities, citing that her peers were just too underexposed, in more ways than one. Our university is outside of Toronto, in a small town. I fully support her decision.

I am beyond thinking that black hair is just hair, now. In fact, natural hair is a political statement, and a marked deviation from social norms.

When it comes to styling our hair, the issue is a lack of knowledge transfer as well as misunderstanding on all sides. The story is almost always the same: our mothers relaxed their hair for their entire lives and therefore are limited in their ability to teach us how to handle our natural tresses. Black haircare requires a measure of technique and patience.

The prevalence of relaxer-use in the black community is not linked to relaxer brands and beauty supply stores, but rather a lack of understanding about black hair, a lack of representation of our hair in the media. But most of all, it lies in perverted beauty standard branching from a buried history. It lies in the Caucasian, Euro-centric ideal that dominates our magazines and televisions, which translates to a lack of knowledge transfer in the black community and apathy toward proper styling techniques.


For the first time, I posted a picture of my natural hair on social media. Ironically enough, the first person to compliment my hair was the same friend from high school who, in business class one day, pointed out that she “just didn’t like the texture.”

It took some bravery to wear my curly afro out, the first time.

“Your hair is just beautiful,” a friend said immediately. “I would kill for hair like yours.”

I raised my eyebrows. My hair had a history she was not aware of, stretching back through my teenage years, to my childhood. But I accepted the compliment because she was right, it was beautiful.


VII. Forward

Recently, I was getting ready to go out with a friend. My hair had been straightened using a flat iron.

“Ready to go?” he asked.

“Yeah,” I said, looking into the mirror, feeling uneasy for some reason. “Wait a minute.”

I stepped into the shower and washed my hair, watching my curls come back to life.

“I’m ready,” I said, after smoothing my hair into curly updo. The style was easy, taking all of 10 minutes, and so, so pretty. I couldn’t believe how I looked. I wanted to go back in time and tell my younger self about this hair, about what it could do.

“I feel very… I feel like…” I couldn’t pin down this emotion.

“Yourself,” he offered.

“Right,” I said, smiling. “I feel like myself.” We left my apartment and pulled the door shut behind us, stepping out into the world.


Many Lives


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?



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.



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.



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.



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.





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.



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).



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.



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.



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.



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.



The Maritimes Trip

When the Tide Rolls In


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.



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.



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.