Wild at Heart
by Claudia Dey
At 17, I moved from Toronto to Montreal to study literature at McGill and live in a room on the top floor of a dormitory partway up the mountain called Mount Royal, where I could look upon the city that housed Leonard Cohen. He could in turn look upon me, take me as his lover and high priestess, and this is how I pictured spending my undergraduate years. My older sister drove me the 500 kilometres in our mother’s beige VW Rabbit. When we came upon the 1960s colossus that would be my new home and I got my room key from the dormitory’s obese sentinel, then stepped into my cell-like, but not unfriendly, rectangle, there was only the unfamiliar. Not the howl of freedom I expected. I was a teenager with boxes surrounded by other teenagers with their boxes, all of us outside the lines that had been drawn around us.
My sister and I hugged goodbye. I put a mix tape in my cassette player, hung dark crushed velvet from my curtain rod and tacked a Wild at Heart poster to the wall. (It was the early ’90s.) We know from fairy tales that beginnings are enchantment cut with doom; this was mine. I did not have a telephone, a curfew, my mother’s bedroom above me. I did not have the unspoken expectations of peers and neighbours crowding my decisions. I did not know anyone in this building or the one next door or the one next door to it. It was a wilderness, this new and unscripted place, and I was new and unscripted within it. I could buy wine from a corner store. I could cut my hair with a jackknife. My freedom was part Vaudeville and part punk rock. It grimaced and pranced, then spat on the ground and stared me down. I could wear a dancer’s leotard, see-through pants and blue-tinted glasses—which I did, when I finally left my room.
I fell in with two would-be-handsome-one-day book-loving boys who, like me, were scared of crushing beer cans against their foreheads. We walked up Saint-Laurent marvelling at our life—we its untethered heroes—while feigning being used to it. There is a photographer who does portraits of teenagers and considers the pictures abstracts as her subjects are still growing into their faces and bodies. We were abstracts that night, forming and reforming ourselves, dancing to reggae music in a club with a metal detector at the door, our sense of abandon setting in. Over the next four years, we remained close. We would fumble our freedom—one book boy infamously stayed inside an entire November while the other got colour contacts and became a Lothario—and we would devise our codes. I found the library in the religious studies building to work, a diner where a widow with no voice served a perfect breakfast, the bus route to the thrift department stores. I found shortcuts and quiet spaces, imitation Rasputins to love. It was a time when I was charged with pioneering my own life, and I want to believe that has no end.
Dey is a playwright, novelist, actress (starring now in the independent film The Oxbow Cure) and co-designer of Horses Atelier.
By Kelly Oxford
Moving sucks. Always. But it sucked more when I was eight weeks pregnant with my first child and I’d just spent two days vomiting my way across British Columbia and into Calgary with my boyfriend, James, and our cat, Maya. We were moving back to Alberta to be closer to our families before the baby came. This was the sixth move we’d collectively been through in the past two years, so this time I let James choose a place. I was tired and sick, and this first apartment would only be temporary, until we decided where we wanted to be in the city. These sorts of details were easily glossed over; we were already a seasoned relocation team.
“So, this suite I rented, I found it through a friend,” James said, as he pulled up to a slightly dilapidated bungalow.
“OK.” I nodded slightly, nibbling on saltines. “It’s actually a basement suite.”
I looked in the rearview mirror and saw the moving truck behind us. I tried to be a Pollyanna in the face of this terrible basement suite news: At least we had movers.
They immediately began to unpack as James and I made our way across the lawn, Maya in my arms. James spoke with the homeowner as I continued into the suite.
It was a hovel. There was a “kitchen” in the “living room,” and then a closet-sized “bedroom” in the back. The ceiling was so low I felt like a giant. Maya hissed on cue.
“We’ve got a problem,” one of the movers yelled from the back door.
I turned to face him and saw that our queen-size mattress did not fit down the stairwell. I walked up the stairs.
The mover leaned in. “This is an illegal suite. The stairs and door aren’t up to code.” He looked angrily at the homeowner, who was still talking to James.
“The suite is terrible,” I confessed quietly as I squeezed through the triangular space between the mattress and the wall. He nodded. He’d seen our brownstone in Victoria; he’d packed up our 1920s-era home with 12-foot ceilings and a solarium and original, oversized windows with views of the park and its peacocks. He shivered, and I pretended the shiver came from knowing that a pregnant girl (I told him when he questioned why I vomited so much) was about to downgrade from an idyllic home to a dungeon.
Then he leaned against the flower-patterned mattress, wedged in the doorway, and casually suggested, “Can we take you somewhere else? You can get out of this lease if you have one.”
I nodded and walked across the crunchy dead leaves on the lawn, towards James and the homeowner, holding my cat, like some demented, pregnant villain.
“We aren’t moving in.” Their expressions were a wonderful potpourri of shock and confusion. I continued, “The suite is illegal. We’d like our money back.”
The homeowner did that thing where you smile as you’re trying to process a bad situation and made the “calm down” hand signal, which is something you should never, ever do to a newly pregnant woman.
“It’s illegal,” the mover piped up. James turned to me. “Is it that bad? Can we do it for a little bit, just until we find another place?” I shook my head.“Our bed doesn’t fit inside and Maya-hates-it-here!”
The movers put our things back in the truck and pulled away from the curb. We ended up living with James’s dad and stepmother for a month. I spent most of it throwing up in their bathroom. Eventually we moved into a larger basement suite in Mission alongside Elbow River, one with big windows.
The move to Calgary was unplanned chaos, but it was put into perspective when we became parents after the winter (which wasn’t as cold as the winters James and I grew up with in Edmonton and Ottawa). We had our first baby on Mother’s Day weekend. The following weekend, down the street from our new home, was the Lilac Festival. We joined a crowd of people who were walking down 4th Street. In front of Ducky’s Pub was a man with dreadlocks, singing Ram Jam’s “Black Betty.” It was 11 a.m. I squeezed my kid into the BabyBjörn, held James’s hand, and felt like I was home.
Oxford is the author of Everything Is Great When You’re a Liar.
By Semi Chellas
Recently I’ve noticed I have to hold books farther away, not closer, for the print to come into focus. Same with my memories. I can’t remember what I did last Wednesday, but I have these shocks of memory from (how can it be?) 20 years ago.
I’ve been writing about moving to Toronto, and I suddenly imagined someone calling you to fact-check the piece. Like you, I’ve spent the last two decades telling stories, and the difference between the made-up stuff and the truth is another thing that’s started to blur. So I feel awkward, but you sent me that sweet email out of the blue on my birthday and it’s making me bold. Would you mind answering a few questions so I can make sure I don’t get it all wrong?
1. When we lived together in Ithaca, did you think of me as a Canadian? Did it ever occur to you that I might move back to Canada some day?
2. What was the make of your blue pick-up truck? Was it a Ford?
3. Isn’t it true that when you drove me to Toronto, the only furniture in the truck was the coffee table we made without nails and that stuffed armchair we bought at the side of the road? (One of our friends told me later that another of our friends had said, re: the chair: “How could she take that from him too? Heartless.” It hadn’t occurred to me until then that you might have a broken heart. I thought I was the one with the broken heart.)
4. You’d said, “The landlord called. He wants to know if we’ll renew the lease for next year.” I said, “If we’re going to live here, we should live in this apartment.” You said, “I was thinking of going back west.” I said, “I think I’ll go to Canada.” Do you remember if we discussed these plans any further before we executed them? Isn’t it true that the words “breaking up” were never spoken?
5. Do you think it was because we were both trying to write that we could no longer live together? (I hope I emailed you about your most recent novel. If I didn’t it was because I had a baby and was working 50-hour weeks and was not myself. But really there is no excuse, because I loved it.)
6. Did you think we might reconcile? Were you thinking about that at the border, when even though you were driving, you looked to me in the passenger seat to answer when the customs agent asked, “How long will you two be staying?”
7. Do you think we might have reconciled if we hadn’t put a border between us?
8. When you dropped me in Toronto, did you think we would ever see each other again?
9. Have we ever seen each other again? (I think there was a time in Brooklyn, in Susan’s garden, when someone said you were in town and might stop by. I remember being glad you might. But I don’t remember if you did.)
10. Heartless? Was I?
Chellas is an Emmy-nominated writer and co-producer of Mad Men. She currently lives in Los Angeles.
Hair and makeup: Diana Carreiro, TRESemmé, P1M.ca.
Model: Marie-Eve, Next Models.
Photography by Norman Wong.
Styling by Tiyana Grulovic.
Assistant stylist: Jillian Vieira.
For where to buy, see Stylesource in our November issue.