A friend who was thinking of moving back home to Calgary picked up a newspaper in the corner grocery near her place in Vancouver and there was a photograph on the front page of a man in a cowboy hat surrounded by a herd of cattle. Is that the president of the United States, the grocer asked my friend, and she explained to him that the man in the photograph who resembled the president of the United States was a rancher forced to sell off his cattle for next to nothing because there was no grain in Alberta to feed the herds. The grocer gazed at the photograph for a moment and then said to my friend that if he were a younger man he would go to Alberta and buy some of those cows for her. (This was before the tainted beef scare.) My friend had said nothing to the grocer about where she was from or where she was thinking of going, yet he seemed to take it as self-evident that she would understand what he was saying, and she realized that she might even be prepared to accept a herd of cattle as a gift. Perhaps this was the moment at which my friend knew that she would return to Calgary, which had been her home for seventeen years, and from which she had been away for nine years, and that she would cease trying to make a life for herself, as the saying goes, out here on the coast, first in Victoria and later in Vancouver. Her decision to go home created some consternation among her friends, who had come to think of her as being of here, and not of someplace else, and I had to admit that I had never formed any real idea of Calgary, a city in which I had passed no more than a few hours at a time, and now that she was leaving I was faced with the question of Calgary, which would be claiming her, so to speak, and taking my friend away from me.
What can I say of Calgary besides oil barons and beef? I have seen the glass towers of downtown Calgary rising like a dream from bald prairie. I have seen the airport. Alberto Manguel lived in Calgary, but I could never imagine him there (it was like trying to imagine Kafka in Calgary). The problem is that I have never visited anyone in Calgary. Other cities have taken a purchase on my imagination: Edmonton, when I was six years old; Winnipeg, home of my parents and my grandparents, almost ancestral in its allure; Toronto, where friends live always in danger of losing themselves in urbanity.
When my friend moved to Vancouver she was impressed by the sight of what she called a cube van filled with naked pigs parked at a curb in Chinatown. I had never heard the term cube van and I presumed that it was a Calgary expression, like Calgary Red-Eye, a glass of beer adulterated with tomato juice, and then I remembered reading a collection of humorous newspaper columns called, I believe, the Calgary Eye-Opener, an expression that itself referred to the shot of hard liquor once available free with breakfast at better hotels in the west. The naked pigs were piglets for delivery to the barbecue joints in Chinatown, and the sight of them hanging naked, as my friend put it, in rows in a van with the door open became for her an emblem of the city in which she could never feel at home. More recently she admits to having developed aggressive driving habits that she suppresses when there are people in the car (an old Volvo) with her. When she gets in the car now she begins to scheme, to plan routes around the traffic jams: she has had to develop a traffic-canniness. A few weeks ago my friend had a panic attack when she thought she might be doing the wrong thing by leaving Vancouver, but later her landlady congratulated her on her decision to move and told her that in Calgary she would have enough disposable income to spend three weeks in Hawaii every winter.
My friend tells me that she grew up on the west side of Calgary, in view of the foothills and, in the distance, the Rocky Mountains: this is the magical landscape in her life. The other day I happened to pick up a street map of Edmonton, and as I looked at the grid of downtown streets I was transported suddenly to the park by the river: a numinous landscape of my childhood that seemed always to leap toward me and which I have carried with me all my life. There is a sense of space and thereness that one can only have at the age of six. I understood in that moment what going home must be for my friend, who has been away from home long enough to have grown away from the young person she once was, entangled in the local: home is now exotic to her; it beckons.
Those who go away leave their absence behind them with the result that we are all eventually located in a nexus of absence, defined by the nearby vacancies where our friends once were. We leave each other and are left by each other: the word is bereft. We raise a glass to absent friends. As my friend prepares to leave for home and her day of departure approaches, I grow resentful of Calgary, for in a week she will no longer be here; she will be there. And then what? Walter Benjamin writes of a neighbourhood that he had avoided for years becoming "disentangled at a single stroke when one day a person dear to me moved there. It was as if a searchlight set up at this person’s window dissected the area with pencils of light."