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It’s been years since I had beautiful days. I mean days where not only the Olympic mountains clear as origami across the strait are breathtaking, but I am, too, striding the city’s web of streets to the library, feverish to meet a lover or locate a remembered poem, the world emitting a glory of minutiae: carillon of birds in the library courtyard, a woman in fingerless gloves playing the saxophone for coins, old men in oatmeal-coloured coats with hardcover biographies of generals or bridge engineers tucked under their arms. I’d thought those days were finished.
I listen to records on grey winter Sundays in Victoria, my Ontario childhood some white pillowy bank in my mind. Who listens to records any more, you ask. Lots of people! There’s a renaissance going on, that’s what the CBC said: analogue’s back. They’re even selling record cleaners again. I went to A&B Sound, just walked in off the street and asked for one and voilà, my own little black velvet brick. I love it. It’s like my lint brush, though my lint brush is red. Which I also love—and need, since I own six black turtlenecks and live with an aging long-haired cat.
Just yesterday, I discovered the anti-skating device on my record player. That’s what it says in the gentle industrial print—no capitals—of the 1970s: anti-skating. I turned the dial and the tone arm on the record player wagged erratically back and forth across the tiny channels, uncommitting, panicky, glissant. The haphazard sounds from the record were frightening, though they could be considered artful, even avant-garde—I was once a champion of just that kind of thing. But all I could think was injury, chaos.
I used to skate as a child. In a sky-blue wool coat with toggle buttons, an overlong scarf, knitted by my mother, trailing behind me like smoke. Along the Ottawa canal—which wasn’t even frozen by February, can you believe it? The Globe published an enormous, iconic photograph of the grey, unsleeping water, and people walking alongside, looking unsteady. The photograph was as large as the one of the Russians destroying the statue of Lenin during Glasnost, that other thaw. What next? Our beavers will start losing their teeth.
I don’t look so lovely in my black turtlenecks as I once did. I’ve grown pale in a natural, unbecoming way. A lover once said he adored my “gorgeous crinkly eyes” but the crinkles no longer uncrinkle. And the white hairs on my head have no resilience, they just break off.
The word that calls me to it these days is inevitable. It leaps out from the radio when intelligent people discuss the day’s news. I used to love warm words like artesian and magenta, words that butter the mouth. But then one day I tuned to the word utensil. I understood it as well as I understand cold water in a glass late at night. A drop of iodine in it.
In those old days, when I was sometimes beautiful, the central task each day was: becoming someone. It wasn’t something I had to work at; I simply had to throw my whole self in. And I did. I was fully alive every second of those years, even that horrible, drunken night I scrambled down an escarpment—thorns and thistles, then a perilous gravel slide—rather than walk the grim spirograph of highway overpasses and off-ramps.
I wore a look of nervous expectation then. Many deciphered it as happiness; it made my skin luminous. My head was this live bulb at the top of a dark turtleneck.
Things happened: three long-term relationships, two miscarriages, my government job with its stretches of ease and bursts of intensity. One spring afternoon, the ceiling over my desk broke open and another person’s desk—from Taxation—fell straight toward me until its legs caught on a piece of rebar. Just after I turned forty, my mother and father divorced suddenly, then set off on similar spiritual quests.
But nothing ever reached down and urged me to claim anything—to be heroic, I suppose. I just remained who I am. More and more each day, I became the person in this body, not the kind I see profiled in Chatelaine, pointy-shoed, two-cellphone financial analysts or lunch-in-a-Thermos grasshopper-impassioned field biologists. I became a quiet civil servant with a pile of unused holiday time. My former supervisor, Bert, urged me at his farewell party to use up those hours: “Go to New Mexico and visit your mother, or where’s your father, Thailand?” “I’d only bore them,” I’d said, which was true.
A few days after the party, Bert popped in to introduce the new supervisor, Gerald. “He has some very green ideas,” he said. Well, I thought they rewarded experience, not greenness, ha ha. He was a young man, the kind you see in picture books, no doubt a good husband and father, genes for playing hockey and passing the LSAT. He had arrived fresh from a climate-change workshop in Ottawa, where one morning the participants were bussed out to an abandoned tobacco field, and they planted enough trees to offset the co2 emissions they’d incurred by flying to the conference. He taught us how to calculate our ecological footprint and the office’s “planetary load.”
Then he had us yell out together, “Carbon neutral by 2010!” Some of us threw our fists in the air. He looked right at me when he said, Good job. I don’t mean there’s anything romantic. I was distraught at the thought of going down with this overheated planet, unremarkable as a sesame seed fallen from someone’s bagel in the mall. I was skidding. I wooed Gerald so that he would notice me. Now it’s as though I’m wed to him. A sacrificial wedding, like a nun’s.
Gerald has announced that he’s getting a shower installed in the office bathroom so people can bicycle to work, and that the department will provide all riders with the latest in bicycle helmets. We’re challenging the people in Public Works to a Kilometre Kount. Last week I took an entire afternoon off and went to an athletics shop where I got some stretchy pants and a quite nice, highly visible yellow rain jacket with zippers all over the place, including the underarms. Next I got measured up at the bicycle shop; they’ll have my bike ready in a week. It’s called an Urban Adventurer.
It’s happening fast. But I just hang onto that image of the unfrozen canal in the middle of winter. And it’s like what am I doing out here on the west coast, what’s so special about it any more if the canal’s grey, too.