It’s easier here. I know exactly what’s expected of me.
As soon as the plane lands, it’s like exhaling. Whether I like it or not, I belong. I belong amongst the throngs of cowboy hats and army uniforms and riggers crowding the baggage carousel. These are the people that I understand. I belong beside my cousin in her car, laughing at her lewd jokes interlaced with anxieties, as we attempt to navigate the icy roads of the Anthony Henday and our late twenties. I belong to northern Alberta in a way that I’ll never belong to Toronto or any other place.
As soon as the plane lands, it’s like I never left.
And yet, last night, I found myself at a house in the St. Albert suburbs, trapped in silence by the most Torontonian aspects of my life. Here I was, amongst women in my peer group and I couldn’t think of a single thing to say.
They were friendly, lovely women, but I couldn’t relate to their discussions about mortgages and the rooms they have set aside for their future children; I couldn’t relate to their disposable income earmarked for jewelry purchased from a catalogue; I couldn’t even relate to their irrational fear of malaria. (It probably didn’t help that I’d met most of them once before, at my cousin’s wedding this summer—a wedding at which I may or may not have been publicly spanked by a groomsmen, grinded to Ginuwine’s Pony on the dance floor and actively avoided catching the bouquet.) Instead, I hovered awkwardly over the food, shoveling butter tarts and nacho dip into my face and patiently thumbing through the jewelry catalogue until it was time to go. (When we left, I gave my cousin-in-law a long hug and thanked her for inviting me. She’s a beautiful, strong woman—and she’s a lot of things that I will never be.)
I understand my Alberta life clearly, for better or for worse. I understand it for the monotony, for the pleasure in simplicity, for the comfort and familiarity of family and old friends. (As I write this, I’m sitting in front of my aunt’s fireplace, sipping sherry beside the Christmas tree while the dishwasher drones in the background. In more ways than one, it's a perfect Sunday evening.) I understand what it means to be content, but never satisfied.
I understand it as the only thing I knew for over 20 years of my life.
In Toronto, I’m still grappling to figure what I mean to people and how I ended up there. I’m struggling every day to pay my rent, to nurture my relationships, to make sure that I’m taking care of myself and pushing forward—in Toronto, I'm thriving on uncertainty.
And every day, I carry around a Ray Fenwick postcard in the back of my journal, tucked in neatly behind a picture my mom sent to me of me as a baby, when my hair was still naturally red and before I knew hurt of any kind.
“Somewhere Better,” it says.
That’s what I’m working towards. Because no matter where I am, I know I can be somewhere better.
I've been feeling far too negative as of late, so I spent Sunday focusing on writing a list of things that make me genuinely happy:
2. Hitting deadlines
3. Receiving handwritten mail
5. Fresh-baked bread
6. Eavesdropping on teenage boys talking about girls
7. The first time wearing new clothes
8. Freshly-laundered sheets
9. New favourite songs
10. Scientific-sounding words
11. Hugs/hand-holding (and any other oxytocin-inducing physical human contact)
12. Puppies (and most other baby animals)
14. Board game nights/building puzzles
15. Swimming in Cold Lake (and most other bodies of water)
17. Squeezing blackheads (not necessarily my own)
18. Reading books in the bathtub
20. Waking up in a sunny room
21. Favourite Scrabble words
22. Polka dots
23. Writing lists
24. Favourite mugs
26. Dance parties
28. When someone cooks a special meal, just for me
29. Bike riding
30. Take-out food movie nights
31. Affectionate nicknames
32. The sound of shoes clicking in an empty hallway
33. Diving off the side of boats
35. Second dates
36. Capture the flag/hide-and-go-seek
37. The smell of skunk
38. Drinking from coconuts
39. Sharing pistachios
40. Fresh haircuts
41. Ridiculous Facebook conversation threads
42. Spontaneously planned hangover brunches
43. Walking around barefoot outside (and also in other places that one should not typically walk in bare feet, such as airports)
44. Stealing the neighbour's cat, Loki, and making him cuddle with me
I'm carrying the heartache with me like we've never been apart.
(Every time I sit down to write this, I stop myself. It's too personal, it's too much for here. After nearly 14 years of doing this, of sharing the most banal aspects of my life on the Internet, I'd like to think that I've perfected the art of maintaining a personal blog without ever actually getting too personal or giving away too much. But it's hard lately, figuring out where that line is. I've become too cognizant of who is reading these words and more so, who will read into them. And in that way, even if I only write three sentences, it may still be too much. I'm forever starting over. And yet.)
The heartache is just that--a dull ache, at best. I don't have the time or energy for tears. It's aching for a lost friendship, for a life that I never felt completely comfortable with, for something that was probably never meant to be--or maybe it never really was. It's aching with the uncertainty of what I've done and what that means and what I don't have control over.
The heartache is following me, heavy on my heels as I tromp through the city, music in my ears, frustration in my fingertips, toque pulled low over my ears. I'm carrying it carefully, close to me, because I need this now. I need to know what this means because this is how I'm going to figure out what I want. And in time, I'll be fine. I'm always fine. It's probably the thing that I like most about myself. I knew that it would be like this.
After two days of nonstop rain, cold June nights, soggy meals and a leaky tent, Alex Dodd and I finally accepted defeat. We would have to cut our Waterton camping trip short. The prospect of sleeping in a dry bed was too appealing to turn down. So piling our sodden blankets into my car, we started to make the long drive north, back to the comfort of Alex's Edmonton apartment by way of Banff. Later that night, after I was too tired to drive anymore, Alex took the wheel, the lights of oncoming cars slipping fluidly by us in the dark. Sharp cold air flooded in through the window as he struggled to stay awake, exhaling cigar smoke into the Alberta summer night. It was in that moment that I woke with a scream, terror gripping every ounce of my being.
Alex didn't miss a beat. After less than two months of tolerating my nightmares, he had learned what to expect and what was expected of him. Barely looking up from the road, he soothed me back to sleep, despite his own exhaustion. "It's just a dream Jess. It's okay," he said, his voice calm and low. "Go back to sleep." And before I slipped back into unconsciousness, lulled by Iron & Wine, I couldn't help but think of how much I felt cared for in that instant.
I think it was in that moment that I loved Alex Dodd most.
Years later, when our relationship was still fresh, Jay and I went to a party at Alex's. Despite the potentially awkward social situation, the two bonded over an unlikely commonality--the management of my nightly neurosis: the sleepwalking, the sleeptalking and the occasional bouts of insomnia. "She hasn't screamed yet," Jay told Alex proudly, somehow certain that he was sheltering me from my night terrors.
Alex knew better. "Don't worry. She will," he said, laughing with certainty. I smiled inwardly. This is it. This is the common bond that ties together the men who have loved me most--their ability to protect me from the demons that sit on my chest at night; the monsters that make me gasp for breath; the unsettling visions that cause me to cry out in the dark and wake up in a cold sweat. Really, what they have in common is their ability to protect me from myself. In recent months, my night terrors have intensified. I find myself waking up shuddering in the corner or desperately trying to find the light switch. (My roommates, thankfully, sleep through my screams. Court, who graciously offered to let me share her bed during my month of homelessness, wasn't quite so lucky.) Now, there's no one to lull me back to sleep. There's no one to assure me that I'm going to be okay. Now, in my most vulnerable moments, there's just myself.
I don't mind. Because if nothing else, the nightmares are a constant. And there's something comforting in that.
I've been counting. I've been reciting the numbers, clinging to them, mouthing them to keep myself sane. Maybe it's because I'm exhausted. Or maybe it's because they're ludicrous to even me at this point.
Since I left Alberta on August 6, I've had 2 days off work. (The last day I took off was August 26; nearly a month ago.)
With roughly 5 contracts per week, I have been working an average of 10 to 12 hours per day.
Today marks my 29th day of work in a row.
And on day 25, I determined that 24 days of straight work in a row is my limit. I feel fine, but I'm making mistakes. I've broken glass doors, ripped my dress, forgotten to eat and misread train tickets. I've nearly missed deadlines, I've forgotten directions, and I've been self-condemned to solo late night Game of Thrones marathons and the subsequent night terrors. I haven't done laundry or bought groceries. I've been running to prevent myself from crying. (One is a better source of endorphins than the other.) I've been to Vancouver, back to Toronto again and now I'm on my way to Montréal.
But it's okay, because it's near the end and now I'm focusing on my favourite numbers of all:
And in 17 days, I will be in Thailand drinking buckets and this will all seem like someone else's life.
And then there's the other numbers: the unpaid invoices and my bank account balance. If working 12-hour days for two months straight affords me the chance to take a month off and travel with my best friend, I'll take it.
This is the life that I always wanted--up until day 25 anyway.
"It's not really related to the movie," I said, sheepish.
Nina, however, was not so shy. As her hand shot up, I felt my heart pounding in my chest. The moderator pointed to her and then Snoop Lion was looking directly at us, only four rows away.
"On your most recent tour, why did you choose to include small towns such as Cold Lake, Alberta and Beaumont, Texas? Did it have to do with this reincarnation?"
Snoop answered without hesitation. The tour destinations had been chosen deliberately, by him. He believes that it's important to perform in smaller communities because places like Cold Lake are often forgotten--and because so few other artists will go there.
"I want to play for the little people, too. I don't want to forget about the little people. I wanna play in jukebox joints for 30 people. I don't forget where I came from. And for those people, I want to bring happiness to them and their towns because they matter too."
It was so honest and earnest that I nearly cried tears of joy. It was totally worth the $40 we paid to attend the gala screening just to hear that response--and to witness Nina speak directly to Snoop.
Let's not talk about feelings today. Let's just get straight to it: The Work
EXPLOSION. This is a good thing.
Work gigs in the last two weeks have included (but not been limited to): being attacked by fire ants at an outdoor music festival on Toronto Island; hanging out in a condo building at Leslie and Sheppard; driving a friend to Niagara-on-the-Lake so he could balance large flaming objects on his face; sitting in a brewery parking lot watching Moonrise Kingdom; coordinating promotions for a series of travel trade shows; and writing articles for the newspaper. (Yes, I'd still like to think that I'm a freelance journalist. Mainly because I am.)
Now, if only the number of paycheques actually arriving in my mailbox actually matched my 12 to 16-hour workdays--then the work explosion would be a very good thing.
The New Apartment
I still don't feel fully settled, but in a lot of ways my new apartment is offering me the type of work environment that I've been craving for a long time.
Every day, I sit at a desk facing the street with the front door wide open. Sometimes I sit in the rocking chair on the front porch with Brockdog by my side, listening to Father John Misty, drinking coffee, writing and basking in the disbelief of how good life is to me sometimes.
However, my new home has also come with a set of challenges that I had somehow forgotten about; they're called roommates. After nearly three years of common-law cohabitation, I'm slowly remembering how to navigate the roommate relationship. Specifically, there's an issue of cleanliness. With a boyfriend, you can just tell them what to do and trust that they're still going to like you.
This is not the case with roommates.
And unfortunately, there's a lot of cleaning to do. See Example A. (The fridge situation has since been resolved courtesy of Simon, who agreed that it was perhaps a little out of control.)
Only slightly less horrific is Example B, pictured above.
Anyone that has lived with me knows that this is pretty much my own personal nightmare. "I'm the type of person that doesn't believe in having a kitchen junk drawer," I told Simon, shortly after moving in. "If it's junk, then you should probably just get rid of it."
He didn't respond, probably because he didn't want to immediately admit what I later discovered--our kitchen has not just one, but TWO junk drawers. (But not for long.)
I'm trying to love up on Toronto and take advantage of everything that it has to offer. That's why when Chevrolet invited me to participate in their city-wide scavenger hunt (with the chance to win $2000 for a charity of my choice) in one of their new Spark cars, I jumped at the opportunity.
I enlisted the help of Jane (since my charity of choice would be YCI and because I like to soak up as much Jane time as possible when she's not in NYC) and Brie (former Cash Cab winner and general babe).
The day did not disappoint. In two short hours, I went to a ton of places in Toronto that I had never been before.
Here's what the #SparkCity challenges looked like:
Clearly, we had a '90s on 9 soundtrack. (Best satellite radio station ever: fact.)
I won a prize for "most acrobatic photo" for this one. (I feel like "leg" day at the gym is finally paying off.)
I've determined that the swag we got is also pretty much a great first date waiting to happen. Although my preference would be beer in the park, I'd settle for eating pie while listening to new music and drinking coffee.
Thanks again to Chevrolet for inviting us to participate in the #SparkCity challenge!
"I think I'm ready to go home now," I said, sighing. My face sank deeper into the pillow, the exhaustion of the last month behind me.
"Home?" he said, eyebrow raised.
The implication wasn't lost. Alberta is home—or at least it's supposed to be. And yet, for the first time in eight years, I really do feel like I'm going home.
(It's strange, attaching this term of endearment to a city that I've borderline loathed for years. And stranger still, Toronto should be less of a home to me than it was six months ago, before I tore everything away in one fell swoop of uncertainty.)
But still, it felt like an accident, using that word for that place.
"Well, 'home,'" I said, orphan-quoting the word. "Wherever that is."
"What are you most looking forward to doing when you get home? What's the first thing you're going to do?" he asked.
The answer seemed obvious.
"I'm going to sleep in my own bed." It's been 12 weeks of sleeping in and sharing the beds of friends and family. I'm ready for my own. "And then, in the morning, I'm going to go get an Americano from my favourite coffee shop."
And really, I guess that's it; if home is where the heart is, maybe my heart is slowly letting go of the past and finally living in the present.
But the more likely answer? Home is where my bed is—and wherever I can get a decent cup of coffee.
I've been working on Toronto time—both literally and figuratively—waking up two hours early to meet Eastern Standard Time deadlines; gulping back cups of coffee while the Cold Lakers around me stroll, oblivious to a life where every moment is money. I've been on edge, raw, grumpy, waking up in the middle of the night to check emails on my phone.
On Wednesday, I drove an hour into northern Saskatchewan, just to have dinner with my best friend Naomi. She lives in Goodsoil, which is the second village over the border. (The first being Pierceland.)
Fresh BC cherries at my side, I tossed the pits out my open window, the Wooden Sky coming through my speakers. As I drove across the border, the haze from the forest fires that's been ever-present since my arrival finally cleared, opening up the perfect Prairie sky.
After dinner, we sat on Naomi's back porch, eating rhubarb from her garden, which she had baked into a piping hot crisp. Sitting in the kind of comfortable silence that only years of friendship can provide, we watched a storm roll across the field towards us, lightening flashing, the clouds unfurling careful grey tendrils as they passed over her house.
"I don't understand why people find driving through Alberta and Saskatchewan boring," I lamented. "I still think it's one of the most beautiful places on earth."
"Some people just take things for granted," Naomi said. "Every time I drive to Cold Lake I find something new to look at. Everything changes so quickly."
I think the problem is that people are just looking at the wrong thing. They're looking down, instead of up at the perfect Alberta sky.
Ever since I got to Cold Lake last Wednesday, I can't help but think that #OnlyInColdLake should be a Twitter hashtag. (Or maybe it should be #TICL for "This is Cold Lake." It's nominally less offensive than the all-encompassing and horrifyingly common usage of #TIA.)
Here are a couple of examples of how I would use this hashtag (minus the hashtag, of course):
It's too bad that nobody in Cold Lake seems to know how to use Twitter. It's also too bad that I don't really know how to use Twitter.
Anyway, this fictional hashtag was all I could think about as I geared up to attend the Snoop Dogg concert in Cold Lake last Friday.
Only in Cold Lake: Will you be ticket holder 1190, knowing that there were only about 1300 tickets sold.
Only in Cold Lake: Can you legitimately wear cowboy boots to a Snoop Dogg concert.
Only in Cold Lake: Is the line-up this short to see arguably the largest celebrity to ever visit the town in history. (I say arguably because it was a pretty big deal when the cast members of Degrassi visited in 1991. However, Snoop is definitely a bigger deal than that time the Swollen Members played here in 2002.)
Only in Cold Lake: Does Snoop Dogg get the same level of billing as Creedence Clearwater Revisited. (Actually, after Googling this, it's kind of legit. I just figured that Revisted was a cover band, but it's actually two members of the original CCR.)
Only in Cold Lake: Do they serve beef jerky at a Snoop show. (Again, maybe I'm wrong. Maybe they serve beef jerky at all Snoop shows?)
Only in Cold Lake: Actually, I'm pretty sure this doesn't only happen in Cold Lake.
Only in Cold Lake: Are people legitimately surprised when the headlining performer actually shows up. (At the bar afterwards, everyone was just kind of in shock. I don't think anyone, myself included, really believed that it was going to happen until he walked out on stage.)
Only in Cold Lake: Would people be too satisfied, too stupid or just too stoned to know that they could--and should--demand an encore. (I'm pretty sure it's the only encore-free concert I've ever been to, with the exception of the Smashing Pumpkins performance at Summersault in 2000. And they were just dicks.)
Only in Cold Lake: Would you give a random guy a ride to the bar and let him sit on your lap. (Turns out none of us knew the dude in the green shirt.)
In conclusion: I'm pretty sure that seeing Snoop in Cold Lake was the highlight of my life to date. Fact.
The next day, after barely sleeping, I got up at 6:45 am to drive my parents to the city for my little cousin's wedding.
Graham totally locked that shit down. Good work, team.
I don't look tired, right?
Maybe not, but I do have to warn you: if you ever invite me to your wedding and there is a photobooth, I WILL source props from elsewhere in the room. (This usually involves dismantling your centrepieces and decorations. Might as well put them to good use.)
I met some like-minded photobooth abusers. We called this series, "Forever Alone." (I particularly like how our photos are perfectly juxtaposed against Graham's happy couple stud shot.)
The truth is though, with cousins like these, I don't think I'll ever truly be alone.