If you’d like to try a listen, here you go!
Lunch at Dundas Square…
“You’re living life,” he says, lifting his wine glass up for a toast, extra emphasis on the word ‘living.’
What? Living life… really? That’s what this looks like from the outside? Following his lead, I pick up my glass, clink and down my wine in one gulp, mentally taking stock of said life.
Going on two years as a runaway, I’m still flying by the seat of my pants sans backup plan unless combing Kijiji for a crystal ball to tell me what the *uck happens next counts as a plan. Supposing in a pinch I could use it to set up shop as a psychic since I’ve got the hair for it. Meanwhile, I’ve yet to figure out how to parlay my newly minted MFA into work that pays, and though I’m mostly done the first draft of my book, what comes next is not for the feint of heart since 90% of all books written are never published. Let’s just say I beat the odds and find an agent, still gotta find a publisher to buy the book. And yah, there’s that other thing… few, if any, authors ever make a living wage.
His eager open face is filling with… what… what the hell is that? Envy or something crazier like he’s planning to go for it too based on my stellar example of living life???? OMG!!! Can’t burst his bubble nor blow my cool cover with the truth. T’would do neither of us any good.
Cue the pearly whites.
“Ya, I’m living life,” I say, slapping a smile on my face and reaching for the bottle for a whine/wine refill. A second chug of forget-about-it-for-now juice might do the trick.
Catching the train to Union Station…
My oldest son Cary’s girlfriend Myra shepherds me to the Dundas Street subway. Weighed down this visit with one giant suitcase, one medium suitcase and a knapsack, her help is as much necessary as appreciated.
At Union Station, the two of us get off the subway train, finagle the hard-shell bags through the turnstiles and head to the ViaRail platform.
“Buy you a coffee?” I ask, veering toward the familiar green and white Starbucks mermaid. Myra insists on keeping me company for the duration. Being it’s only 4:30 and my ticket is for the 5:20 train, we’ve almost an hour to kill.
“Ya,” she says and then asks, “Hey, are you absolutely sure your ticket isn’t for the GO train?”
Right. I forgot to say that for most of the subway ride, we’d been discussing the online ticket I’d purchased. Though I’m convinced it’s for a ViaRail train, Myra is equally convinced, based on its $17 cost, that it’s a GO ticket. So after we have coffees in-hand, and she’s maneuvered me to fantastic people watching spot, I dig out the ticket and pass it to her for scrutiny, though really, it’s more to prove that I’m right.
“Take a closer look,” she says, holding the ticket back in my direction. I bend my head, move the paper into optimal squintability range, and read the miniscule print.
Uh oh. How could I have missed it? The ticket is most definitely for the GO. Okay, whatever. First time I’d bought one online so amateur mistake.
“You know, you might see if you can switch your ticket for an earlier departure time. GO trains leave every twenty minutes,” she adds.
“Can’t,” I say, jabbing my finger at the ticket’s instructions. “Look… right here it says no refunds or exchanges.”
“Might be worth a wait in the line to check. We’ve got the time.”
Conceding the point, I line up, and five minutes later, the ticket agent explains that, indeed, I can take any train, including the one scheduled to leave in seven minutes.
When I tell Myra, she does not waste time saying “I told you so.” Instead, she grabs the big suitcase and starts threading through the crowd, wheeling the giant bag a hundred miles an hour toward a staircase, me trailing behind her. In a jiffy, she locates the correct platform and muscles me, along with all the baggage, into a train car.
“There’s a seat. Grab it,” she says, tipping her head at an empty, ten-inch wide spot next an older man as she stows my suitcases in a corner where no one will trip over them.
Wait a minute here. What is happening? Have I just been suitably taken care of by a woman who could be my daughter? Ain’t I the boss of her? Next she’ll probably spit on her fingers, smooth down my unruly hair and pin a giant sign on me that says, ‘”Don’t let this woman off until Waterloo.
Shaken, yet strangely obedient, I turn and back into the seat, wedging my behind where it definitely does not want to fit. The tight squeeze necessitates pinning my arms such that it’s pretty much impossible to lift coffee cup to lips without displacing my left butt cheek or slipping my shoulder deeply into the chest of the man squashed next to me.
Such thoughts are the least of my problems. Being handled by the next generation. That’s what I’m fixating on. Either I’ve unknowingly morphed from big city gal to small-town East Coast lady or something more frightful is happening, like maybe I’m getting old. Nope. I can’t think about that. Maybe it’s just nice for someone else make the decisions.
When the man beside me initiates conversation, I fire back a platitude to indicate I am not a train talker. He misses the hint and keeps chatting.
“Putting the house up for sale when I get back to Quebec. Planning to move to my daughter’s house in St. Jacobs, once the house sells, I mean. Living by myself, there. ”
Great. Gonna be one of those trips.
My seatmate looks to be in his early 70s, with a full shock of white hair shorn about his ears in what could be called hipster fashion except that he’d probably worn that same cut for decades, long before hipsters had appropriated the style. His left hand rests on his thigh, gold wedding band shiny and smooth, as if he’d recently had it buffed. It digs into his flesh, and if he removed it, I’m certain there’d be an indented white band left behind.
“Hard to get used to,” he continues. “It’s lonely, really lonely. Such a surprise she went first. I always thought I’d go first… knees falling apart… spill I took off the ladder that time I was fixing the roof… even had a heart bypass.”
Oh. A widower.
Widowhood is a familiar and growing theme. My friend Joyce, who lives in Waterloo, recently lost her husband of 59 years. I’d missed the memorial, but first thing I’d done when back in Ontario was visit with her.
On the way to see her, I’d picked up pastries from Sabetine, a French bakery on King Street. At her house, she’d busied herself making coffee and then passed me a plate and knife to cut the treats into pieces for sharing. When we were settled on the couch, she’d handed me copies of all that was read at the memorial, including a eulogy written by her son and a poem her husband had composed for his own 90th birthday.
With him gone, the poem was bittersweet while the eulogy was a brilliant, loving and funny portrait of him as man, husband and father. Parts I read aloud to Joyce, and I think her hubby would have approved of our giggles at the humorous bits, probably even joining in with his own laughter.
And with all the remembering didn’t the strangest thing happen. For those few hours, didn’t it feel like he was with us in that room.
“Oh, goodness. I’m so sorry. Seems like a good idea to move closer to your family,” I say to the stranger, making room for his wife to join us on the train ride to Waterloo.
“Yes, that’s what we’d always planned to do, sell the house and move in with Marie and her boys. She’s our only child. Got two grandsons, good boys, too.”
In the two-hour ride to Waterloo, I learn the stranger was once an engineer and that when he bought the house in rural Quebec for he and his bride, it had no electricity. Eventually, he jerry-rigged a generator that sometimes ran off the crick, until his wife pointed out that if he went first she’d have a terrible time keeping the thing going, so he’d had electricity lines run to the property.
“Never thought she’d of first. Fifty years went so fast. Sure funny how time feels when you’re happy. A day feels like a month without her.”
After we pass through Guelph, his phone buzzes, and he pulls it out of his breast pocket. The font is so big, I can’t help but read the text. It’s from his daughter.
“Train slower than the one from Quebec? Sending Joey to the station to pick you up.”
“That’s my 17-year old grandson,” he laughs, “… picking me up . Huh, hard to believe he’s driving already.”
The train arrive early to my hometown, a modern day miracle. I unwedge my bottom from the seat and wish my mate well selling his Quebec home, telling him one last time how lovely it will be to live in St. Jacob’s with his daughter, son-in-law and two grandsons.
I need to talk about Waterloo…
My former LuluLemon neighbour Cari picks me up at the train station, and on the way to her place, we decide to swing by my rental house for a look-see because she also happens to be my real estate agent
As we round the corner onto Brandon Avenue, I spy the fire engine red, ten by twenty shipping container I’d packed my life into almost two years ago. The box takes up more than half the space on the double drive and every bit of space in my heart. My pulse races for the sight of the thing, not to mention what I must do next.
What’s going on is this.
After I’d moved from Waterloo in 2015, Toronto had moved in, invading the next closest exploitable city, Kitchener-Waterloo. In a twisted way, Torontonians were merely abiding by the 100-mile diet fad, consuming all real estate only in a localized radius. The onslaught had blown the lid off the housing market, inflicting a new normal on my sleepy hometown… a frenzy of multiple over-ask bids making for a seller’s paradise.
Naturally, news of the cash bonanza had reached my ears in Halifax, but I wasn’t remotely tempted to sell. The house was meant to be a retirement nest egg, and my tenants were awesome. And hey, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
Course, the only constant being change, didn’t my tenants email me this winter and unexpectedly give notice. In the last month and a half attempts to rent the house had turned up nada, making me readdress the sell or rent situation.
When I don’t know what to do, I just do. So in my girl scout ‘be prepared for anything fashion,’ I’d arranged for the shipping container to be dropped at the house. Inside was enough furniture to pretty up house for market, though I’ve yet to know for certain if I want to sell or rent the sucker.
On the weekend, I rally up a team of loyal friends via Huck Finn, “Let’s paint the fence. It’ll be fun!” And thank Goddess that even though they all thought the moving thing was well and done when I bought the Halifax house, they don’t abandon me for this next round of madness.
Saturday morning begins a nonstop staging rampage that goes on for three days and includes unpacking the entire shipping container into the Brandon house, stealing artwork off the walls from Ruth and Claudia’s place to fill empty walls, pilfering a dining table from Kellie and four chairs from Cari, reclaiming a lamp from my brother’s living room, and even retrieving a few paintings I’d gifted to the Mattias and Kim, the couple who had bought my marital home in 2015.
Tuesday morning when I head to Toronto to spend time with my sons, I leave behind the Brandon house, looking gorgeous. Wednesday, I fly back to Halifax, bringing with me my middle son Graham for a wee visit over Easter.
And yup, I leave the province thoroughly convinced selling does make the best sense. After all, I don’t even live in Waterloo anymore.
Halifax, Nova Scotia
Meanwhile, back at the homestead…
Tucked in my chilly Duncan Street bedroom, peaceful sleep eludes me. I’ve tossed and turned night after night since returning home, and when Cari texts me to finalize the details to sell my house, I choke, putting the kibosh on listing.
Selling means Waterloo and me are over, for good, and I’ve got a bad case of the break up blues.
After an early Saturday Easter dinner, my friend Cindy and the kid-dults and I part ways. Graham, Warren, Spencer and Sara head to The Forum for Cosmic Bingo and Goddess knows what else after that, while Cindy drops me off at a 50th Birthday Party for my former neighbour from The Cave, Stephane.
The shindig is in the Juno Tower, located on the military base on Gottingen Street. Cindy drops me at the gate and an officer requests my ID.
“You’re for the party, then, are you?” he asks, and I nod yes.
“The Juno Tower is the tallest building on the base, right over there, short walk for you,” he explains, and I march off in the direction his index finger points.
Unbuttoning my coat, it flaps open to the breeze. Today was warm for April, and I’m entirely overdressed for a temperate evening. There’s not a soul to be seen, and I don’t hear a single siren. Tucking my hands into my pockets, I traipse along accompanied only by the sound of my heels clicking on the asphalt. Hidden in the North End, right by the MacDonald Bridge to Dartmouth, the base seems a foreign, otherworldly setting.
The sound of the crowd guides me to the room. Deep breath and in I go.
The party is rocking full throttle, but I know only two people, Stephane and his girlfriend Faith. French from Quebec, Stephane is an officer at the base and like me, a Halifax expat, meaning skint on Haligonian friends. Noting all the military haircuts and French conversations, I quickly surmise I am one of the few ‘local’ friends, and probably the only non-military or non-related guest.
Full disclosure. Four years flying solo, I still get a nervous glitch when I arrive places alone. Takes me a bit to get up the gumption to dive in and tonight is that on steroids. So when I can’t see either Stephane or Faith, I slap on a purposeful ‘yup, I know where I am going’ expression and slice through the crowd (none of whom pay me any mind) and head straight for the outdoor balcony.
Swinging the glass door open, I step outside, hoping when I step back inside, I will have the courage to muster up the social gumption essential to a mix and mingle with yet another crowd of complete strangers.
I’ve been called brave, ballsy even courageous for this runaway life. Nights like this, I call myself crazy. I could be living in Waterloo, in the Brandon house, surrounded by a familiar city, family and lifelong friends. Instead, I’m hyperventilating, hauling the night into my lungs while I concentrate on slowing down my breathing.
Twelve stories above the ground, I’m surrounded by a kaleidoscope of lights and colours bouncing off the water. Sky, sea and stars, all of them at once, impale me, and Goddess, there’s nothing to do but drink it all in, the awkward of aloneness, along with the freakingly breathtaking view.
When I collect myself, I head back inside and run smack dab into Stephane. He gives me a giant hug, thanking me for coming, and Faith, the one who planned the party and thought to invite me, wraps her arms around me next.
In September, when I moved from The Cave to Duncan Street, Stephane and Faith’s romance was fairly new. Six months on, they’ve got the look, the love look. Lucky ducks, these two for finding each other. And yes, though it reminds me that four years into singledom, I’ve yet to meet a boy-mate, their glee is infectious, giving me an unexpected shot in the arm.
Happy zinging in my bloodstream, I’m swept from the two of them and into the tide of Stephane’s friends, family, and workmates, the crowd enveloping me into the mish-mash of another human’s life.
I sleep deeply Saturday night, dreaming a milkshake pastiche of Waterloo and Halifax, of houses, love, long marriages and husbands I’d once had.
This decision to sell or buy came at me a stealth bomb, blowing up the new Halifax me and stirring up my old Waterloo self. I’d been running the old should’ve, would’ve and could’ve movie, reexamining the pivotal moments that might’ve turned me out a different life had I made different choices, a life centred in Waterloo with a husband at my side, rather than a solo, mid-life reinvention in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
It is a truth that a romantic partner brings out a unique you, a you that is only you when you are with that person. Perhaps this city might be doing that same thing for me.
This Halifax me, the one who regularly marches into a crowd of strangers, the one writing a book, the one living in a glorified shed—she’s operating without a net, without a plan, without knowing much past the next sunrise.
What was it the stranger said on the train—that time flings by when you’re happy? Goddess knows, the last eighteen months have all but disappeared into the ether.
Maybe. Maybe this is my happy. Maybe what I am doing is living life. Maybe I need to listen when someone else points out what I cannot see because it’s all too very new. I couldn’t seem to master this kind of living in my hometown, and in Halifax it comes without effort. And hanging on, well, what good ever came from that?
Endings and beginnings…
“I’ll have a Chai Latte,” I say to the young girl at the counter, dropping a few coins in tip cup by the cash.
I’m at The Smiling Goat, a locally owned coffee bistro on the corner of Spring Garden and Queen Street, across from my customary library haunt. By the time she brings me the tea, I’m splayed across the red sofa by a big picture window privy to a top to bottom view of the street. Though the day started out gray and chilly, the sky is big and blue with a few cotton puff clouds dotting the expanse. Kitty corner to the Goat, gigantic cranes slash the skyline, hard at work on yet another downtown condominium development.
I take a sip of my latte, open my laptop and pop in my ear buds. Right on time, I hear the familiar FaceTime jingle and click to accept the call.
“Hey Cari,” I say when my lovely former Waterloo neighbour, who also happens to be one of my best friends and my real estate agent, comes onscreen. “I’m ready to talk about Brandon.”
* * * *
Gallery of Ontario visit…
Back in Halifax…
Alright, alright… last one. On the car on the way back home after taking Graham to the airport…
Mushy thank you’d never see unless you read all the way to the bottom of this post…
Waterloo Crew: Heather, Ruth, Claudia, Chris, Cari, Brad, Kellie, Mitchell, Brent and Agnes, thank you for hauling boxes, fixing things and generally holding me up to ensure I didn’t fall down. Other Heather, Susan, Helga, Anna and Michael, thanks for food, drinks, laughter and fun. Claire Tacon, thanks for meeting at Breitups Park to talk books, writing and boy-moming.
Hali Crew: Gail Lethbridge, Cindy Church and Donna Morrissey… thanks for saying what I needed to hear exactly when I needed to hear it. And the other Hali posse, Susan, Kilby, Kathy, Nancy, Deb, and Cas, thanks for still including me, even tho’ my new girl face is no longer shiny and sparkly. And new date Project Friend victims, I mean candidates… you’ve been warned…
The Fam: Cary, Graham, Warren, Sara, Myra, Spencer, Brent, Agnes and my forever BFF, Leslie, thank you for putting up with my harum, scarum self and letting me continue to make dumb videos.
Karalee of no fixed address.