Saturday, May 12, 2007

Everything's turning up rosy and grey

When I was in fourth grade, we were paired up with ninth graders who would be our reading buddy partners for the year. Once a week, we traipsed single file to the library, which was the only common meeting ground at the school.

(The school, although it only had maybe 300 students, was spilt into two halves to prevent bullying. The grade fours, fives and sixes shared a hallway, while the grade sevens, eights and nines' territory was on the other side of the school, with the school library smack dab in the middle. Even though my brother and I both went to school together for three years, we never saw each other because he was exactly three grades above me. While waiting for the bus after school, Andrew used to get in trouble for teasing me, until it was explained that I was his little sister. People are still shocked to discover that I have a brother. Three years ago, we went out to the bar in Cold Lake together and he had to take out his liscence to prove his identity to some of my disbelieving friends.)

Anyways, in fourth grade, my reading partner was a ninth grade boy who I'll call J. He'd help me learn to read, and we'd play games together and we had a generally good comraderie, despite the awkwardness that comes from a little 15-year-old boy struggling to relate to a 9-year-girl.

I didn't think about him until years later, when my brother graduated. The night before my brother's graduation, my reading partner from six years earlier died.

In Cold Lake, the pre-grad grad party was traditionally held at Strawberry Hill, a section of bush between the Provincial Park and the edges of town. As the story has it, a group of guys got into a pick-up truck that night after the party. With no room left in the cab of the truck, J. crawled into the bed of the truck, Prairie-style.

(When I was a kid, this was my favourite way to ride in my Dad's truck out to the cabin. It wasn't until Vanuatu that I got to re-live the feeling of sitting in the back of a truck as the wind rushed through my hair, the dust settled into my eyelashes and I laughed every time we hit a bump.)

As they came down the hill by the Catholic church, the driver, who was drunk of course, rounded the bend too quickly. J. flew out of the back of the truck, hit one of the totem poles, broke his neck and died.

To commemorate his death, a beer gardens was held at the Marina View (or what locals refer to as the Roundel). Because, of course, one should always create a memorial out of drunk driving accidents by holding beer gardens.

Rumour has it that as the drunken festivities memorializing his death drew to a close, people were seen jumping into their pick-up trucks drunk, to drive home.

This is reason #2 that I sometimes hate living in northern Alberta. Lessons are never learned, and worse yet, irony is always lost.

The strangest thing about being home again is how a place like Cold Lake can make you feel like the centre of the universe, and at the same time, so completely insignificant.

Here, everyone knows who you are. They know your reputation, they know your history, they know your parents. For those of us who have picked up and left, we're fawned over by adults wanting to know what we're up to, sharing a friendly hello. Walking down the street sometimes feels like a scene out of The Truman Show, with even the dogs seeming to bark their greetings. It's a stark contrast to the anonymity of sitting on a Toronto streetcar, staring at your shoes to avoid making eye contact with the blading guy standing in front of you.

There is no feeling like the feeling of everyone knowing you, whether it's for good or for worse.

But then you remember that this is just one of hundred or thousands of small towns spread throughout North America, and that somewhere, someplace, is a girl just like you, walking down the street and thinking that she is the centre of the universe.

I'm as large as life, and nothing more than an ant.

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