Coming of Age

Meeting her in Vietnam for the first time after a month of separation is a strange relief. I feel guilty for all the resentment I felt in our time apart and now all I see is my bestie and partner in crime. It feels like I’m levitating and everything is pictured below me, exposed and vast. We’ve got a loose itinerary for Hanoi then decide to go with the flow and make plans based on what arrives in the moment. Our promise is to the unknown. She’s already seen the south of Vietnam so we agree to explore the north then head to Laos.
Vietnam is a stark contrast to Japan in every imaginable way. I find myself laughing at the unpredictable bursts of energy in the streets of Hanoi. Hundreds of scooters whizzing past carrying helmet-free passengers, flowers spilling out of markets along with the smell of Pho and fresh herbs; red and yellow flags and images of Mao crowning buildings and shrines. Vietnam is colourful and noisy and chaotic -- all elements of its culture, including slaps on my back from grinning shopkeepers are welcome after years in the embrace of Japan’s quiet and controlled bows. The din of the street actually rattles me awake and I rejoice to be able to sing with it, even scream over it with impunity. In the frenzy I feel an unpeeling of my Japanese self. I stretch out my limbs and raise my voice.
In the decades following the coldest of wars fought on its soil, all I can see is the total victory of the West. Vietnam is the Sale: they’re selling to the tourists and the tourists are buying! I’m buying! I’m buying silk dresses for my slightly smaller silhouette, tank tops for a slightly smaller torso, cotton dresses that whip around my slightly thinner thighs. I’m thrilled that my appetite is almost nil now that I’m in the tropics and trepidatiously trying the food. But this spice! this steam! these chilli peppers accidentally swallowed! The sights of the streets are seductive wonders: the day’s produce spread out across ground tarps, women in Non La conical hats hidden from the hot sun, clouds of sooty dust swirling around packs of mangy dogs and brightly painted houses. One evening I pass by a bucket of headless, pulsating frogs in the night market.
I’m suddenly aware of Western women all around me. I rediscover that I am, in fact, a white woman. There is an army of us traveling on our own, independent and full-hipped, tanned and white-toothed. We look to be marching singular and strong, dreamy and determined to consume the world our way. It’s hard to reconcile how empowered I feel by this new female company while secretly threatened by their beauty, and conflicted by the privilege of our collective heritage and money. Sometimes a moving sales target, sometimes afraid for safety, sometimes a hurricane of power and privilege, is being a Western woman in Asia.
Seeing all the different body shapes is a relief and yet I’m also wondering where my beauty fits in again, how will I be judged now? Will I be attractive to the Western men traveling here? So far most of the guys remind me of the dorks in Japan and I’ve yet to lay eyes on someone really hot. I find the Vietnamese men strikingly beautiful but they’re always trying to sell you something, so, like with Japanese men, there’s a distance between us, a lack of sensuality. I am still a masked product but this time they're not buying it, they’re selling to it. We get on bike taxis and race out to the Tu Duc Tomb and wander around the maze of crumbling structures heavy with vines and carpeted with moss and flowers. There are annoying tourists everywhere and I get a sense of the Southeast Asian circuit we’ve embarked on: the same backpackers at each destination, all repeat versions of the other, all kind of repeat versions of you. It’s not long before I start to resent being a tourist, being so unspecial, and appreciate having lived in Japan so long; the ease and flow of being a resident.
We buy a guided tour of some of the bunkers and war sites. Our guide, Thinh, does all the right things to appease our appetite for magical Eastern exoticism. He gets our birth years and does our Chinese charts. He asks if I’m single and I hesitantly say, “Yes,” grasping that the statement reveals that I’m unprotected, yearning, and maybe worst of all, hopeful. It’s written all over my face. G resists participating in the charade but I completely eat it up. He tells me that Dragons are my match and to be careful in the Year of the Buffalo, to not leave my house on my 30th birthday, and that I’ll have two sons. He asks to write in my journal and jots down: “Dear my friend! When doing meditation, just breathe steadily and set your min (sic) free. Good luck to you. (Breathe and Smile). Hugs, Your friend Thinh.” He then adds: “you don’t worry everyday I pray for you.” I know it’s mostly an act but but I get really emotional when I hug him goodbye. I give him a huge tip. He reassures me that true love awaits.
G and I are taking it really easy and revelling in not having to rush off somewhere to teach, or please a boss, or worry about being on time. We repeat these 'whoopee!' vacation mantras constantly, “Ahh this is so great, soooooooo great, bye bye Japan! Bye bye restrictions and rules and alienation! Bye bye sexual frustration and men who won’t touch us! Bye bye personality prostituting!” Before leaving Japan, we played Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good” over and over. It’s probably a little overstated to revel in “it’s a new dawn, it’s a new day, it’s a new life” from well-paid jobs in a beautiful, safe country, but not for us! We feel genuinely freed from something that gripped our hearts and brains for years, like a long-term relationship with a difficult lover. We bond in the sensation of shared freedom as much as when we believed we were together in a kind of strange cage.
But on the other side of this cage, in the flight away from Japan, in what we’re calling our newfound freedom, our stark personality differences quickly rise to the surface. Where we once had our own separate lives and separate ways of doing things, we now have to make practical decisions together. I’m losing patience with the little things like the way she has to check every single guesthouse and barter for the cheapest deal. Sure, it’s really practical to budget when traveling, but bartering is so alien and uncomfortable for me. It feels cheap even though I know it’s expected and you’re stupid if you don’t do it. “They respect you more. It’s just the way business is done in these countries,” is the kind of thing she says and knows well having grown up in South Africa and traveled most of the African continent and Asia.
I’m feeling challenged and frustrated by her careful, well-thought-out ways but when I get my first bout of food poisoning, she’s by my side in our stuffy hotel room, quietly reading a book and fetching fruit juice when I need it. Her perfectionism is irritating but she’s so good, so kind and loyal, that I’m angry at myself for feeling annoyed. I remind myself in my journal to, “Be patient, live cheaply, just breathe! Vietnam is so beautiful and you are free!”
In the late evenings, a cacophony of sounds pour in from outside, minnows of breeze push through mosquito nets onto our red, dampened skin. There’s the sounds of vegetable sellers clucking at passersby, mothers chasing children down the street with bowls of rice, an endless stream of motorbikes like tiny chainsaws searing into hot sleep, all this raucous plastered like thin paper around the reaches of my consciousness becoming walls against the memories of what I was, unlit passageways into what I hope to be. But there are ugly thoughts once again rising through these new sensations and the broken record of my meditation seems to be returning in the vastness of time. I cannot run from my ugliest self. The “thoughts” beg to know if I’ll ever be happy, if I’ll ever be loved, if I’ll ever be thin enough or learn how to properly manage money, and the most incessant, the voice that rails on over and over, wonders if I’ll ever be as perfect as G.
We have a minor argument as we’re preparing to move onto Hoi An. We’re discussing rides to the bus station with our guesthouse owner’s son and G argues that his price is too high. We don’t have a lot of time but she runs out onto the street to check with other moto drivers to get a better deal. I’m annoyed and afraid we’re going to miss our overnight bus. Up until now, she’s always been the one to check prices and barter because I claim to be bad at it. She usually takes the reigns while I wait silently nearby but this time I yell after her, “Fuck man who cares? Let’s just take this one and go!”  5 minutes later she comes back with a cheaper ride. Both of us climb onto the bike and race to the station. We’re the last two to line up for the bus. I’m silently fuming. I’m angry but mostly because she’s always right.
Crammed with smelly backpackers, the overnight bus takes us down to Hoi An, a UNESCO World Heritage site where we’ve heard you can get clothing made very cheaply. The city and its port are immensely charming and we’re totally back on track, chilling out and shopping during the day and drinking on terraces at night. I talk a lot about Mat whom I’m planning to visit after our trip. I’m trying not to let the fantasy get out of hand but it’s hard; I just want our recent Skype date to mean that we’re meant to be together forever. I want to see an end to this love-less tunnel. The story of “us” becomes self-perpetuating propaganda since he and I have very little contact. Once and awhile I pull out his picture to give myself a little a jolt.
Getting tailor-made clothing is a total revelation. You pick a pattern from one of the mannequins displayed around the shop, the material you want it made in, then they measure you and send it away to be made in less than 24 hours. Having a dress fit your body perfectly after three hellish years of trying wear clothes made for Japanese women gives me a shopper’s high I never want to come down from. Clothing for ME that’s not too tight in the arms and hips, or strangely loose around the bust, and you almost feel famous with the way the shop women fawn and fuss over every detail. I go a bit overboard and get a pair of knee-high platform boots made in yellow leather. I only wear them only once months later at a New Years party while high on ecstasy and break my big toe.
We first see him in Vietnam in a Demilitarized Zone town called Dong Ha. G and I are on our way to Laos after exploring much of North Vietnam; we’re sitting on opposite ends of a bench seat at the back of a local bus, our backpacks stuffed under us next to huge sacks of rice and garlic. It’s really early morning and we’re sleepy and silent. She steps off the bus for some air but I stay on and stare out the window.
Our future comes stumbling off the adjacent bus with an old guitar in hand, his wild, dirty blond hair flopped over just-woken eyes shaped like fat almonds. He’s tall and broad shouldered, wearing a dirty, white tank top and ratty jean shorts: Steve McQueen meets Johnny Depp. Total babe. The driver’s attendant, a stern, older Vietnamese woman, hurries him onto our bus. “Ticket? Where your ticket?” she yells up at him. “Umm shoot they didn’t pass it on then?” he says hunching down and patting his back pockets. He speaks so softly that I can barely hear him but I detect an Australian accent. The annoyed attendant gestures for him to sit down and right before he squeezes in next to a Vietnamese man carrying a huge sack on his lap, he looks back and flashes a grin. I smile back shyly then look out the window again. G comes back on the bus and as she passes him, he looks up and they exchange a brief but sweet smile. The three of us are the only foreigners so it’s almost a required courtesy to acknowledge one another but I wonder if they’ve just had a “moment”; she’s such a natural beauty with that fit, tawny body, bronzed skin and curly hair. She’s probably his type.
I have a recurring fantasy as I sit on the bumpy bus, my stomach bouncing with each pothole, sweaty thighs stuck to the vinyl seat. I picture myself with a very sharp surgeon’s scalpel. I watch as I cut a deep incision along the bottom of my lower stomach, right above my pubis like a caesarian section. Then I conjure another type of sharp object, this one more like an ice cream scoop with razor sharp edges. I lift up the lower belly flesh and scoop out all the fat then toss it out the window. It all happens very fast, very fluidly. I just cut it all out and it’s gone. I’m quite skilled at it.
The bus stops on occasion to let the driver pee and buy food but no one else is permitted to get off. The vibrations from the motor, the constant swerving, and the slide show of repeated countryside lulls me from the fat scooping fantasy to gazing at the foreign man’s long legs stretched out into the aisle. I move from his legs up his narrow hips to a very thick torso, wide shoulders, muscular arms and a hairy neck. He’s so tanned and there are tiny beads of sweat running down his temples onto his jaw. I watch myself stand up and walk over to him, lift up my summer dress and pull my underwear aside to straddle him as he undoes his pants. He takes my tits in his mouth, moving his hands up the back of my dress. I lick his sweaty neck and pull his head back to gaze at his handsome face as he moves his farm boy hands over my meaty thighs then pulls the flesh around my hips, and in one graceful movement, turns me over the seat in front of us to fuck me from behind. Fully rapt by this fantasy, I feel G’s eyes on me. I look over and she smiles knowingly like she can read my mind. I blush. She nods towards the foreigner and raises her eyebrows. We both giggle quietly then I turn to look out the window again, carefully maneuvering my sticky inner thighs.
Following hours of the human cocktail shaker, up up up the mountain roads, past distant villages and farms, we come upon the Laos-Vietnam border crossing and the bus stops. Our asses are numb and our necks are stiff so we slowly move into the line towards a big, run-down building. G is a day over her permit so she goes inside to ask if she’ll have any problems. I wait outside and survey the area. There are groups of tourists, Laotians, and Vietnamese shuffling around aimlessly, and big, billowy flags blowing in the wind. It’s chillier at this altitude so I wrap my scarf around my shoulders. It’s weird how borders work, though it’s an imaginary line between identical landscapes, the Laotians selling wares on the other side of the border seem to be quieter cousins to the louder, brasher Vietnamese selling stuff on this side. G comes flying out of the customs office and gives me the thumbs-up then makes a dash for the bathroom. I get into line at the immigration counter behind a bunch of other white people with backpacks.
G comes back and we ready our cash for the fee. There’s one Canadian guy ahead of me and after he goes through, I ask him how much his visa cost. “$43 American,” he says then walks away. I only have $30 US, the amount the travel company said it would cost, so I tell G to go first while I fish through my secret money pocket for a traveler’s cheque.
The young immigration agent flips through her passport and says, “$36 for you,” then gestures for my passport.
“$43 for you,” he almost shouts.
We try to bargain for a lower fees explaining what the travel agent told us. “Ahhhh no no, that for Chinese only!” he laughs along with the three other agents sitting around an empty, Communist-era looking office. “I only have a traveler’s cheque,” I tell him. He looks back at the other agents and one of them makes a phone call then signals for me to give it to him. I hand over a cheque worth $100 American dollars and he looks perplexed, “43!” he yells under the window. “Can’t you just take this cheque and give me back $57 American dollars cash?” A different agent makes another call and they discuss it for a minute then the young agent reaches into his back pocket for his wallet and fishes out $57 American dollars and passes it through the window. “Thanks!” I say smiling. G and I give each other a high-five.
We decide to hang around until it’s time to get back on the bus and as we’re pulling out a map of Laos someone behind us clears his throat. “Um, excuse me ladies, I’m terribly sorry but I’m in a bit of a pickle with the visa fees.” We turn around to see the hot foreigner from our bus nervously ringing his hands.
“Hi!” we say in unison.
“Hey, hi, geez I’m right embarrassed,” he smiles sweetly. “Oh yes and I’m also Steve.” We laugh and introduce ourselves, shaking hands.
He continues, “I’m about 15 clams short for the visa fee – would you girls happen to have it? I’ll get you back in Savannakhet. You gotta a reservation somewhere?”
I explain that we’ve made a booking at a mid-range guesthouse then we both reach for our bags, pull out the bills and hand over the money.
“Thank you so much! So sorry to have to do this! I’ll stay wherever you two ladies are staying!” We reassure him with Japanese bows, “No worries, man,” G says as we make our way back to the bus. Neither of us questioned for a second if he was legit, we trusted him. It’s clear to us without saying it that something has suddenly shifted. We’re a threesome.
Our first night together in Savannakhet, Steve, G and I take beers to the shore of the river with a couple of other backpackers and he plays us songs on his rickety guitar. It’s a nice break from the shitty music they play for tourists in bars and restaurants, and I haven’t brought along an iPod or anything to listen to music on. Steve is playing all the songs I love. All of them. I swear. Fleetwood Mac, Creedence and most importantly, my alt-country sweetheart Ryan Adams. Plus he sings us many of his own songs that he’s working on for a new album. His big smile, ease of being, a sweet voice, and wild, curly hair. Dreamy. He may not be the perfect guy, but with those big, rough hands strumming the strings, he’s as close as I’ve ever seen, as we’ve ever seen. And the three of us are great together. This is the best moment of my life. Just perfect.

The addition of Steve really takes the pressure off and there’s a newfound ease between G and I.  We feel a blissful momentum towards some of other place with him. We’re slightly less exposed and vulnerable and our chemistry as a threesome is palpable. We get him and he gets us. The question of having an actual threesome seems out of the question as G and I have never had a sexual energy (we often speak about sex; me in more gritty detail) and it may be one of the reasons that our friendship has worked so well. I’ve had genuine attraction to women and had sex with women but I hesitate to talk about the experiences in real terms because expressing “them” might make me a lesbian and I don’t think I am exactly. The term “bisexual” feels so official and I’ve always seen myself on a fluid scale, my desires changing and morphing with each person or situation. With G, I’ve always affectionate but never sexually attracted; perhaps because she’s much more starkly heterosexual than I. Or maybe it’s really just our energy together; a silent fluidity between women loving and defending each other as real friends.
We’re both potential lovers for Steve but we keep this fact very hush. It’s weird because we usually talk about everything in the moment as it’s happening, but never about how we feel about each other. It’s insane if you think about it. We tend to narrate every last detail of our experience together but only celebrate one another, anything that’s grating or disturbing is kept under wraps. It’s becoming one of the things that’s bugging me on this trip, not necessarily about her, but more about our dynamic. It helped us tremendously when we were trying to make sense of Japan, but now it feels like a reflexive habit that gets in the way of just being. Maybe we’re scared to speak about it in case it hurts the other person, or neither of us want to express that we physically desire him because we understand the implications of ruining such a fluid vibe between the three of us as travel partners. The question mark is there, I can feel it, she must feel it too. The difference between her and I, fundamentally as far as the possibility of hooking up with Steve is concerned, is that I’m talking about Mat like he and I have real potential. Which we do, I guess, it’s just that I’ve made it up! G is just being free, fierce, beautiful and fun. She and I are identically suited to him because I’m also free, fierce, and fun, and maybe beautiful, but I’m not sure about the beautiful part. Plus there’s just this hole in the middle of my being, I know it’s there, others must feel it too. I want love too much.   
The next day we decide to get a room together to cut down on costs, one with two double beds. We get in the room and jump around like kids, giddy and playful, taking photos and gushing at having found the perfect bunk mates to hang with and share costs. G is a fantastic photographer; before we left Japan, she gave me a beautiful album curated with photos of our time together. It’s filled with bright shots of ceramic bowls and forested temples and joyful festivals and adorable children and strange fashion and secret symbols of “our” Japan. Often when we traveled together in Japan, it was G who captured it most of it, including last night when she filmed Steve singing for all the people in the guesthouse, a breathtaking performance that my camera didn’t have enough memory to fully capture. I’m taking fewer photos on this adventure in part because I know she has an eye for detail and makes time to take photographs but mostly it’s because I often find myself getting lost in the moment, in my own scattered, anxious thoughts, or feeling strange about being a tourist and hesitating to pull my camera out, or just simply forgetting.
Now, in the room snapping photos of our view and of each other, she puts Steve in the huge armoire and stages a shoot where it looks like we got into our room and a hot guy from our collective fantasy appeared magically from inside the wardrobe to greet us! Except it’s not that staged really. It feels like he’s a manifestation of our love-travel fantasy. That evening they leave the room before me to talk to the people at the front desk. I put on my new black silk dress, set the camera on the dresser, turn on the timer and take a photo of myself sitting on the bed, gazing winsomely out the window. It’s a beautiful photo. It looks like I’m all alone.
 We walk around the small town gazing at temples and rejoicing in the peacefulness of Laos and its people. Unlike Vietnam, the locals sit back in their plastic arm chairs and watch you watching them; few approach to sell you wares, few approach at all. We revel in this a bit too much but the sensation is such a stark change from the bustle of Vietnam and the foreigner fetishization of Japan. Maybe we can finally escape and be anonymous. Reinvent ourselves. It makes our threesome all the more special and secret and sexy because it’s not reflected in the “sell”, in the way vendors will target and appeal to your cliched desires or coupled configurations. There’s a deliberate but delicate indifference. It’s an incredible feeling of unlifting, a brief respite from estrangement.
We drink beers at a small bar and share stories. I notice how the two of them are flirting a little harder and a little longer than our friendly interactions have permitted up to this point. I jealously watch them and promptly interrupt to tell Steve about my fake French boyfriend whom I’m surely going to meet after this trip and whom I’m probably destined to marry. The telling of it has become very rehearsed. G must be feeling this but she listens attentively like it’s the first time. Steve’s reaction is sweet and fresh and it renews my confidence in its “truth”.
I’ve also told this story so many times, this very story I am writing right now. I’ve written so many drafts and incarnations and without fail, every time I get to this point in the story I get stuck, like I’m about to watch an accident, covering my own eyes for what’s about to happen. I am going to do something that is either incredibly brave or incredibly selfish and stupid. Or both, actually, and it’s hard to write it. I know I’m an unreliable narrator and yet the whole story rests on the telling the truth. So as I struggled to tell the truth in the moment while this story was happening, I also struggle to re-tell it to you right now on this page.
We take a moto trip together down the vacant, open roads of rural Laos. Steve as our driver, me in the middle holding onto him, and G behind me gripping the back bar. There is nothing to see, no trucks or messy caravans or animals in our way, we are alone on the open road - this is what travel can briefly permit the traveler, a near empty landscape to dream oneself into. The only stop we make is in a small village with one bar, overseen by a couple of locals, curious children and stray dogs. Steve sweetly engages the bar owner and his friend to a game of pool on a table set out in the middle of the square. We permit ourselves a perfect afternoon and spread out to take in the quaint life that we’ll never really have to live, a life we indulge as a forgotten throwback, a contrast to the torrent of immediate and urgent need and emotion we’re all feeling as three hungry, searching Westerners writing our stories inside an idyllic setting.
Steve charms the couple of male locals who sell us Beer Laos and cigarettes. We don’t see any women. G and I lounge around on plastic chairs along a small creek. On the ride home, a purple sunset before us, G in the middle, me on the back feeling separate and scared and free, the visions of the Mekong’s 3000 islands settles inside us and we dream about conquering them together the next morning.
“So what happened with Mat? Are you going to meet up again?” Steve asks me on the bus to the river port the following morning.
We’re sharing my headphones and listening to music, smiling at each other, taking photos. The wind is whipping around us. G sits a few seats ahead with a local, her head resting in her arms on the seat in front of her. I’m starting to wonder if maybe Steve likes me.
“Yeah, he and I lost touch for years and then one day when I was digging through my junk mail and came across a message from him asking where I was. The weirdest thing about it was that I’d been trying to hunt him down online just a few weeks previous but didn’t find anything. It was like we both got on each other’s radars at the same moment…”
“I know! So I replied immediately and we Skyped the next morning. He looked exactly I as remembered him: gorgeous, statuesque, kind of untouchable…”
“And what happened?”
“Well we promised to write to each other and send letters, maybe eventually visit. I sent him a long letter with a CD full of music, photos of Japan, random little souvenirs…”
“And what did he send you?”
“Not a lot, I guess. He sent me a CD that I listened to incessantly for months and a letter.  I mean, it’s embarrassing really, how much I’ve obsessed over him and it’s possible he doesn’t feel the same but…”
Steve looks at me and affectionately puts his arm around my shoulders, “Nah, impossible that he doesn’t love you too. You’re too fantastic.”

We board a small canoe with two other backpackers and head to one of the 3000 islands, promised very cheap hut-like accommodation and even cheaper beer. When we shore in the morning, the boat driver points to a barefoot man and we follow him to the first guesthouse on the island. The ground is silty soft and doesn’t require shoes, the sky is bright morning blue and locals stand idly by like bored parade attendants. It’s even more perfect than everything we’ve seen before it. G and I put our bags in our hut, Steve in his -- our two simple little cabins are joined by a wide terrace decorated with three swaying hammocks like white tropical vines, all of this balanced sweetly yet precariously over the muddy raging river. There are no distinct smells. We’ve just approached the gates of Heaven.
After smoking a joint at 10am, we decide to rent bikes from our hosts and tour the tiny island. We start down narrow paths near the cluster of huts and past an abandoned schoolhouse run by the French a few decades earlier, children are playing soccer in its small, patchy field. It’s high season for the river so its waters lash wildly against massive trees lining its shore. We continue through bright green rice fields and take photos of each other beaming happily in the warm sun. We share of feeling of togetherness and wonder at the discovery of this impossible paradise occupied by few people. A shimmering temple pokes up amidst the palm trees, cloud formations above it look just like the temple’s golden peak - the whole scene has been put in place for our worship. After riding around for a few hours, we find our way back to the hut and order food to eat on our terrace. Steve pulls out his guitar and softly strums some tunes as G and I sway gently in our hammocks.
That evening, the three of us stock up on joints and beers then tell stories. G and Steve inch closer together in conversation, their voices hushed and soft. I drift off into reverie staring at the giant, full moon and billions of stars, listening to their voices over the rush of the river. I fall asleep for what feels like a minute then wake and stumble out of the hammock, teetering on stoned legs. I take one last glimpse at them but try not to register what might be happening. I move quickly toward the bed, flop down fully clothed and fall asleep.
At 5 a.m., I wake alone in bed and feel panicked. Is she with still him? I listen for voices but only hear the river and my heart pounding loudly in my ears. What is this feeling? I’m gripped by a foreign ache in my body. Maybe they’ve just fallen asleep in their hammocks. I silently tip toe out of bed and peek around the door frame. The empty white vines sway in the wind. They’re together in his bed. They’ve spent the night together. They must have fucked. I lay back down. The room is spinning. What am I feeling? Am I turned on? I quickly masturbate to relieve the unease, but it doesn’t work.
I get back up, grab my journal, camera and a pen and silently tiptoe down the stairs. Everything is still and quiet, no one seems to be awake. The sliver of sun peaking over the trees and feels hot even in its infancy. I’m sick with a feeling I don’t understand. I walk down the river path and encounter a group of young children playing with a beaten up ball. The tallest girl in the group quietly approaches and grabs my journal, flipping through it. She wants my pen; there are little boys surrounding us now and they take the camera. The girl opens to the last page and runs her fingers across the pen marks where, last night in the hammock, I’d written: “He’s an angel we can only look at and enjoy. I’m learning to keep my desires honest – I don’t need have to touch everything beautiful that I see.” I take photos with the children and their just awoken father. He holds a baby in his arms and asks for a photo. I take it and we all crowd around the screen to see it again. Why have they done this to me?
I keep walking through a jungled path along the river’s edge. I’m angry and can’t understand why. Is it because they touched each other? They ruined everything. It’s all ruined. I round a corner and an old woman with a giant basket walks swiftly toward me. She’s speaking but I can’t understand her. She’s pointing to my eyes and I’m equally transfixed by hers: hazel with sky blue edges. Is she selling me something? Her basket is empty. She keeps talking but I don’t understand. I smile and point toward the path behind her. She opens her arm toward the empty trail and says something I imagine to be: go figure it out then. It’s not fair to have this feeling in paradise. Why did they ruin it? Why? I can’t be around them anymore. I’m going to find my own space. I don’t want to keep travelling with her.
I circle the whole island. I walk through jungle bushes and come upon people living in elevated huts. There are children pulling each other around in a shabby, wooden cart, their clothes tattered and torn. Why do I feel so betrayed? I hate them. They’ve chosen each other so they’ve unchosen me. I need to sit somewhere. I keep looking for a place to sit down but the small huts with men sitting around don’t look like cafes or restaurants. Where are the huts that serve coffee? I need coffee.
It’s tainted now. Ruined. I need to get far away from them. From her!

I write in my journal: if this is a test, I think I’m going to fail.

On Not Being Drunk

On August 20th, the one-year anniversary of my getting sober, I did some things I'd never done before, and one I haven't done in a long time. 

I went to say goodbye to my Grandpa Lewis who by Friday evening had asked the doctors and nurses to stop giving him water. The cancer had advanced, his body was weakening rapidly and he was ready to go. What exactly he was ready to go to I couldn't name, but I was told he was ready. Grandpa Lewis is my stepdad George's father, so technically he's my step-grandpa though I never thought of him that way. The curious and defining thing about our (my two brothers and I) entry into their family was its warm simplicity: we were their grandchildren and we were loved. Having a grandpa was a big deal as I was very attached to my mom's parents and their sudden deaths were dramatic fissures in the space-time of my childhood; like a big rip or black hole was formed in the fabric at 7 and 8 years old.

I was told that he might be gone by the time I'd fly home but I flew home anyway. I fussed around at the Shopper's Drug Mart buying skin creams and wrinkle erasers and tweezers and foundation sticks and gels that feel cool on the skin and scrubs that scrub it away and Chapstick and all the life-affirming cosmetics I could find before I got on the road en route to say goodbye. 

Grandpa Lewis is a man from a different time, or at least that's how he always seemed to me. He's elegant in his speech, gentle in his manner. He's a man of his word, kind. His memory is sharp and his person is present and engaged. He tells rich, layered stories with lots of context, technical, historical or personal -- you listen and you learn things. He's a good writer, an excellent wood worker, can build or fix whatever you need, cars to computers. He lived on farms, raised animals, built bridges. He is a loving and devoted father his children still call "Daddy". He went to church, he did tai chi once, he loved his wife from the moment he laid eyes on her until his final breath. He is flawed and he is good. He is loved dearly.

I don't think I ever felt the grief I felt in imagining a world without a man like Grandpa Lewis. It was the clear, acute sensation of loss, that something beautiful would be leaving the material plane. I was sober in this feeling. I got to his room to see him shrunken and frail; just 6 breaths a minute. His life was a breath every ten seconds. He had been up and speaking the evening before but struggled to speak now. I leaned over to tell him I was there. He opened his eyes and smiled. I cried and he struggled through one of those breaths to say, "Don't cry". A few hours later I stroked his hair, kissed him on the forehead and said goodbye. 


I rushed down the highway after our visit and drove straight to a doctor's office to get Botox. On the way, I thought about surprising a former lover, just dropping in and shocking him. Maybe crying and asking questions. Asking why he'd ghosted me. None of this felt sober, it felt clingy and frightened but directive and results-oriented. Time-defeating. As the doctor carefully measured the units of botulism he would be pushing into the tissue of my forehead, we chatted about the day. The young doctor told me about the woman he'd just broken up with who has two children. I told him about having grown up with a loving stepdad who helped raised three of us. He admitted he wasn't sure he could ever really love that woman's kids even though he thought she was perfect, "I'd already be married to her if she didn't have kids, but I want my own..." He said other things too that made me feel bad inside and grateful for my stepdad and all the words kept my brain busy while he pushed anti-aging poison into my forehead. 

My mom and stepdad were calm and stoic at grandfather's bedside, pragmatic. My stepdad had also been asked not to cry and he was keeping his word. In moments of drunken overflows, I used to resent the stoicism of my family but suddenly it looked very dignified and peaceful. The transition from life to not-life was a duty just like any other asked of a man: father, stepfather, grandpa, husband, good man, kind. 

On my one-year sobriety anniversary, I was sober for the final goodbye but later that night, after watching and dancing and singing along to The Tragically Hip show with my brother, sister-in-law and little nieces, I played in the arena of an altered state and got stoned. At first this felt nice. This was the separation from self I used to long for, getting out, getting away, getting tingly, putting a big cushion between my brain and my self. But later it got dark. I am always right on the edge of my wounds, I'm still scared of everything and substances just shrink the space between me and my fears as opposed to pushing me further away. There's sobriety or obliteration and nothing between. There's no distancing yourself from yourself in the end. You will always be right there. This was perhaps the most life-affirming part of the day: longing to be close to my clear and present self again. 

At 9 a.m. the following morning my grandfather Carl Lewis passed. I spent the day cuddling my nieces, playing in the park, going on a "nature adventure", telling jokes, laying under the sun staring at that big Alberta sky very much alive. 

The County


There is something first love about you. I am 18 again and it's summer and you're the handsomest, most earnest boy in the County.

There’s no urgency, in fact, you are so free of the primal scales I'm normally drawn to, that your normalcy almost feels out of my league. Something inside me, something young and cautious whispers 'Don't advance too quickly’.

It's Saturday evening and you are the waiter at the winery who serves our table of friends. We are celebrating B, my roommate; he’s crying tears of joy, or perhaps relief, knowing he is loved by many at 40, and especially by one. You approach the table as he weeps and say you're moved. I'm the girl trying not to want a glass of wine to cheers and be part-of. I'm a wearing a long, white, mostly transparent dress with my bathing suit underneath. I'm feeling a bit off. The bathing suit cords are lumpy. Why am I always so exposed? There are dark indigo clouds off in the distance, the sun shears through them cutting halos of light onto glistening wheat and summer grapes.

There hadn't been a kiss yet. You hadn't yet pressed your lips warmly to mine in the steam of the Hay Loft. You hadn't yet draped your muscly arms over your friends' shoulders to brag about kissing the hot girl, I hadn't yet run outside to announce “that HOT, young waiter just kissed me and got my number!" to their cheers, late into the sober night.  

I'm 18 again. Except I'm 36 and coming into a beauty I still don't understand. 

I wait all day Sunday for your message and have to hold my own hand through some discomfort. I don’t tell anyone that my mind's racing a bit, and you don't feel like a jerk, but I wade into the notion that you might be, that my radar could still be off. The whole house is rapt by the possibility of my all-night evening with your bod.

"He feels pure," someone says.

You text late. You later tell me that your day had run away on you, you were a bit hungover, you didn't think I'd still be into hanging out. I am sober. There are awkward moments in the group where I lack the lubricant of drink and I have to leave for a minute, reconnect with myself. But even with all these adult personalities mingling together in one big house, it manages to be a place of incredible grace. We are all safe. 

I contemplate how to tell the guy who knows all about Chardonnay that I don't drink.

You call me to make pickup arrangements (just like the old days on the farm!) and the intention behind your voice is so crisp. You warn me that we'll be taxi-ing around some drunk people. There's a friend from high school you need to see. You feel younger and it's OK, elements of your style and vocab say "small town " but they're familiar and instead of threatening my grownup self, these details are cotton fluff from a young, majestic tree. 

I return home to the prairies a few weeks after we meet. Driving up to my mom's house, a memory from age 13 resurfaces. I've run away from my mother's house to go live with my father and I'm back for Christmas riddled with guilt. Before I left, I rummaged through all her private letters and documents, ripping them up, then tried to hide them in a garbage bag in my abandoned bedroom closet. She found them and called me, yelling into the phone, "I hate you," I yell back. I hate that she wanted other babies. I hate that women divide themselves. I hate that we're wired to give too much and never be enough. I want to punish her for wanting more and I want her to suffer the loss of me. 

And I am so sorry.

I am sorry for being the awful, selfish child, and now grown woman some months after sending her a terrible text of mean things (in an unfurling of the hot fury of my early youth from my bones, in the sober winter when I began to thaw). I let it all drain out so it could leave my body. I didn't want to hurt her. I want her to be happy. I did take the girl out of the small town and it's fine that the small town never left the girl. My life all belongs to me now. 

You, the boy from the County, and I go to a bar and come upon a table of visiting chefs from the winery. You demonstrate your perfect French. You are torn – you want to please your drunk friend and the visiting chefs so we fumble around a bit until you decide to leave. I'm starting to feel you're delaying spending time alone with me. We drive back to the old house where you bunk for the summer. The drunk louche in the back seat comments on a girl, "She's always fucking texting me long texts..."

You squirm, anxious that the drunk might reflect badly on you, that you'll look like a bunch of winery douchebags. 

"I don't mind long texts," you say. 

And yet there we are driving to your house to have a one-night stand, something transactional. Which, frankly, probably occurs pretty regularly for you, a hot, young man in the County—and used to be a regular occurrence for me too. It's strange I'm doing this after so many safe and lonely nights but it's the youth and the heat and your body. You're my next book, my next poem, a work of art. You could be one night, you could be one life.

Hours later you and I agree that one cannot seek inspiration for its own sake, but create the right conditions for it to come along... And weeks later, as it's officially winding down, you say, "We don't even know if we're compatible" after I confess that I'd probably have your babies. I find it completely absurd that I let men into my soft body, right in, take their sex in my mouth, without knowing if we're "compatible". Maybe, just maybe, with thoughts like these I'm finally entering your normie league. 

But tonight it's hot and I'm willing to take the risk, enjoy the crispness of your kiss, painfully peel myself from one night, a night vibrating with aliveness, you say, pointing to the bugs, listening to the sleepy croak of frogs. I ask you to kiss me again. You press your lips with careful purpose, sweetly you press.

"I came back to my hometown to be a grownup..."

This is something you express in a variety of ways: the pull to care for yourself (you'd been on a 3-day birthday bender) and yet continuously finding yourself doing what the boys wanna do while catching up to the man growing inside. "Feels right when I'm taking care, working out," you say. 

And, for once, everything about you had nothing to do with me. Even your inspired beauty had nothing to do with me. It wasn't a reflection of me. I was separate. Neither of us could be possessed or consumed. 

We talk aliveness. Math. How the heart and the head can talk to each other if enough space is permitted. "I don't trust my usually picks the wrong people," you say.

"Yeah that takes time," I reply, puffing on a cigarette.

We make love. It is slow and close and sweet. Feeling. So country. After you say, "Hey, I like you with no clothes on," which makes me giggle. I tell you you're beautiful and "...obviously physically, but more in're 'good'..."

"I don't know if I believe you..." you say back as we drift into half sleep.

This is where we are now. You're exploring your goodness, unpeeling, following, fraught, racing along, loving your parents, teaching in French, wishing, afraid of feelings 'cause you've been burned.

But there are your brown eyes staring into mine, fearful and clear.

I lay there after you've come, after we've moved to the couch from the squeaky futon, after you've turned the light off but then back on again to look at me, and think about how I could marry you and walk the path from boy to man by your side, on the border between charging headlong forward and sometimes falling back. I could just walk near you for the next few years, maybe next summer we travel to Indonesia, you come to Montreal, I come to your small town and meet your parents, you come to my book launch...but, but that's not me anymore.

The mind spins but the mind does not possess me. 

It gets chilly and I shift around. We put on underwear and t-shirts and snuggle in closer under blankets. The windows are open and sounds of night grasses and snakes and arachnids drift in. Earlier you said, "I tell the truth in my journal; I'd be so embarrassed if someone read it..." I don't tell you that my whole book is a live journal, and laying beside you, that soft skin, I must hold my hand through the pain of longing to keep you, even if just to imbue you with the premise of "One Hot Night in the County": the last chapter of my first book. One long, hot, cold night; sex slow, bodies, birds, bees, let it go; this is how I give you up, tear my naked from yours and let you be like water in a crystal glass, still, clear, pretty, alone.

Perfect. You are a perfect stranger: unfettered, untouched, unsure. Un.

I tried to pull the perfection out a little longer, stretch it all the way to city. God keeps saying "Ssshhh" and "Do Nothing". So I give it back, the whole thing, all of it, over and over, the pain of too much beauty.


I Want You To Hate Me


One summer when I was around 6, my dad drove my two younger brothers and I across British Columbia in a tangerine Ford Capri. It had a black interior and burned my bare skin when I sat in the front seat in shorts. It smelled of hot greasy dust, chip bags, and melting plastic, wires stuck out from the dashboard where the old radio had been ripped out. Dad loved that car. He'd been "souping it up" for months before we belted ourselves in and burned westward to visit Grandma. 

He was in a vindictive mood. He and my mom were split up, maybe it was after their first separation, and I remember feeling his indignant air, a special malice held for those he believed had wronged him. He liked to be really righteous when the mood stuck him, you know, state rules about how people should behave or whatever, but mostly he just wanted do whatever the fuck he wanted. There was always a wild, unhinged feeling around him, like anything could be said, or done. We swore loudly, ate licorices and gas station treats for dinner, on long stretches he’d get me to drive or steer while he took a nap, and sometimes a wave of rage swept the car and gritting his teeth, he'd say things like, "That fat old bitch has NO business...what a STUPID fucking hag!" about someone he didn't like. He also liked to drop "secrets", adult stuff I wasn't supposed to know about, retaliative little bombs about my mom, or aunts, or grandparents or my two older half-sisters. Really mean, personal shit. Speeding down the snaky B.C. highway, he told me a big secret that shook my body and caused me to burst into tears. 

"Why are you crying? I thought you already knew that." I didn't know. I held that secret in my chest for years. It made me think there were always secrets being held from me. I was obsessed with secrets. "Guess someone should have told you," he said. Guess so. Guess it was always him who told me horrible things about the ones who loved and protected me."You're my best girl, my princess." 


"I’m just sitting here realizing that I want you to hate me. Like, I’d prefer that you hated me and things were clearcut in that terrible way rather than this strange, icky greyness I feel now. Could you block me? Or tell me something more concrete so I wouldn’t be able to communicate with you anymore?" This is what I wrote to a nice man I recently met. About a week previous to writing this message, my dad sent me an email with this inside: “As for me being a combined monster/asshole or either or both. Monsters are those people locked up in jails for serial murder, those who have molested, raped and abused and tortured children.”

I never mentioned any of the above, but he has a point:

How to measure our monsters?  

I recently learned about the term "emotional incest" and it's like my whole inner architecture suddenly made sense. I've had 35 years of being open and porous to a very sick, broken man. I’ve either been the absolute epicentre of his happiness, or the point blank reason of his pain and sorrow. A princess or a piece of shit. He makes others responsible for everything that's wrong with him and his latest wife is the reason he's 'good' again. He's a vampire. He uses whatever open being to either soak up goodness or as a receptacle to spread his poison. I carried his sick for years. Long after my brothers and sisters were exhausted and boundaried, I held his sickness and I tried to cure it.

When you cut off a parent, people in our patriarchal culture love to tell you to suck it up and respect them as they gave you life. Fuck that. What's a child supposed to do when the parent fucks with their head year after year then dumps them? This is what a breakup letter from a pathetic, weak, spineless man reads like: 

“I spent most of boxing day lying in bed, weeping and heartbroken about my children. No more. I have a family here who loves me and respects me, including grandsons who are respectful.

I now need to focus on those good things in my life. I'm busy and happy and productive. I do love you all and miss you all but this is not working, and evidently there is no possibility for reconciliation. You'd all rather prefer to demonize me. So be it. I'll deal with it and the pain will subside eventually....and our lives will go on.

Be well and be happy.

Love, Dad”

Always the fucking weeping: we all got it in person, over the phone, in emails, I even got one of his weeping episodes over Skype. He never sought out help, never thought anything was wrong with him. He was too rational and levelheaded, of course: like so many blind men, he was smarter than his sickness and his sadness. 

I used to like men who really loved me in moments, then cut me out completely. There are plenty of special people like that, sick ones and married ones, they were perfect. My dad has rejected me in so many effective ways. Words, gestures, but mostly words. Poisonous words. I've tried to turn the words inside out -- is that why I'm a writer? Are these little shields against him? Monsters versus Monsters. Booze used to help soften these kinds of truths, all the variations of self-hate I acted out in relationships. I meet a nice guy, we spend some time together and I find myself hoping (demanding) he'll love me forever (before really knowing me) then as I reveal more of my personality, I start wishing he'd quickly hate me and cut me off (before really knowing me).  

I thought I could change him, that he'd finally change and look at himself, get help. I thought it’d be different after my last letter to him. I was so compassionate, clear. I wasn't drunk. I just asked him to please respect me and not speak badly of the people I love. When I need to tell the truth my heart pounds. It pounded as I wrote him that letter asking he please respect my boundaries and not speak ill of my loved ones. It's pounding right now. 



The Longest Letter

In dreams, your silence is just the time it takes to get all your thoughts on paper.

I see you in dreams hunched over a thick pad of paper writing. You're writing me a very long letter in dreams. We silently pass notes to each other through a friendly interlocutor in dreams while the prelude of Wagner's Parsifal plays. We smile softly in dreams. You look to me for quiet complicity in dreams. There are no walls in dreams, there's no touch either, but there is tenderness. In dreams is my sometimes silent softness, the kind I sometimes showed you and sometimes wish I'd shown you more. The kind you show me in dreams. 

Your silence is the longest letter in dreams.  

I Believe In Love

“Thing is, I hadn’t learned,” I’d say to you if you were listening, “I’m just learning, right now this second, how I used you like a mirror to see myself.” The harder and more crystalline the person, the better, because if you’re too soft, I have nothing to reflect on. I mean, isn’t it why you liked me too? I always reflected your desires, sometimes really basic ones like cuddling and talking about books, but sometimes looking into my eyes was seeing your own spirit wound tightly and lovingly to mine like ancient tree roots. 

That’s probably not how you’d express it, you don’t say it in words, you just hold me like you’re about to fall off a very steep embankment. You tried to make space for me by clearing off a table and buying new sheets, but that’s not the kind of space I’m yearning for; everything you do is a closely controlled surface sweep. I want to go deep. I had a hard time asking you for what I needed because performing the minimum seemed to be so difficult for you, I didn’t want to ask for, or be, “too much”. You thought kissing passionately meant I was counting each and every kiss! That’s an absurd idea — like, duh, I just wanted to tumble headlong into ecstasy because although I do believe in the searching, fearless work one does for oneself before truly loving another, loving another is the only true means to restoring a state of oneness. It’s the immaculate will, life’s longing for itself. 

So yes, to answer my own question: I believe in love. 

It’s a revolution to see myself and hear my own voice, to love myself. She says ‘yes’ to difficult conversations, she asks for what she needs, she also says ‘no’ when enough is enough. She looks in the mirror and says, “You are enough.” 

We have to look into ourselves to understand what plagues us, what follows us, what has made us, and why we may be stuck performing Sisyphean feats that fatigue us. You once told me you have a very active internal dialogue — what’s it saying? Does it spin in eddies or flow forward? Open the door on the past and honour it by looking closely. There will be many, many stories contained there. Read them. That makes me think of all the little roadside shrines in Japan where people light incense to their ancestors saying “thank you for bringing me here, I will try to honour you”. I hope you use your exceptional will and power to unearth whatever’s gripping you —dislodge that sludge and move into it. Don't be afraid to change. I love you, I do, but I need a year. 365 days without you. Can we see where we've grown then? 

What follows is the rest of the story. This is how I got here.

Lizard Brain

In my previous life I would have gone out last night and got really fucked up. I laid down around 3:30pm with that impending wave of destruction coming on and slept through it, then slept more, and more. When you texted I had been hiding in my room for several hours and debauchery had moved into depression. I don't reach for substance anymore but I still really want to disappear. I was afraid we would get on the phone and I'd just cry selfishly and dump out all my feelings and wouldn't be able to give you the space you need, be sweet and listen and give. That's how I feel all the time with you lately, like that raw nerve who's going to spark against your raw nerve and injure us both. I sent you all that crazy stuff in email and immediately after sending it, felt revolted with myself for unleashing. 

I wish I had cigarettes and a like a couple bottles of wine but I've locked myself into my room where there's no chance. I’ve been reading a nice book that says the reason we seek romantic love is because we're striving for the relaxed joy of pre-existence, of the warm womb, of the universal pulse and it's through love that we return to it, heal the perceived threats that our basic primordial brains have sealed in to “protect” us. Feeling "rejected" we hide, retreat, defend, run. Such raw primordial nerve endings sometimes, you and I. 

To soothe this lizard brain, I might think of us on the couch coiled into warmth, at the movie holding hands, eating too much food, and sometimes I return to that place where I'm snuggled into your body and you're holding me so tight that everything disappears, every fear, every break, every thought, every shame, even the room, and we reach a state of stillness where I feel like I could stop breathing and still be alive. 

I keep hearing myself apologizing to you "I'm sorry" but then I witness how I'm giving myself what I need to survive right now without burning the whole world down, unleashing a pent up rage which feels like my own plus the inheritance of entire blood lines, all these stoics and alcoholics who fought their monsters and lost. 

I've figured out how to lock the monster up for a few days before it does some damage. It's come down to basic survival and I'm learning to slow it down, not go on a bender, emotional or alcoholic.

Underground is where I live now. I'm in the blood and dirt, the roots and strength. I use you like shelter from the storm, like a cave in winter. I curl up to sleep beside you with barely a heartbeat knowing our warmth will keep us alive until thaw and new pathways appear under all that ice and snow.  

Straight-Shooting Connector

This chapter dedicated to Ziggy Stardust who inspired me to see my persona as magical, mutable, and mouldable like clay. 

Harold and I learned some good things at the “Change Your Life” seminar — primarily what self-sabotaging assholes we were. I take issue with these “fix your whole life BUT only if you do all the things we tell you, plus keep buying books, coaching sessions, and attending seminars!” weekends. These programs, and the people who run and profit from them, acquire a list of your deepest fears, blocks, and secrets then reassure you that the tools to resolve and clear them away are in their hands — Scientology does this ingeniously — and with your fragility in their clutches, you’re locked in. In the dispersed fray that has become our modern spiritual lives, they’re essentially doing what religious and philosophical doctrines (and their institutions) have done in some form or another for thousands of years, now just throw in new age brainwashing, some convincing psychobabble, a bit of Zen philosophy, mention the soul, and voila! in just one weekend you can turn your life around! If only, right? But then, maybe

There are many different kinds of people who attend these seminars —self-help junkies, a lot of women, people who have come on the behest of born-again partners or friends, Pollyanna Midwesterners and bitter New Yorkers, or people who are simply searching, like I was, for a lubricant to move through the sludge of their unhappiness. I believe if you’re looking for answers you’ll find them whether they’re handed to you on a piece of paper at a paid seminar, or at an AA meeting, or in a church sermon, or in a book, or while out walking the dog, because if you’re brave enough to travel into your pain, or even your joy, and figure out how you picked 'em up, and you’re wiling to trace the origins of your life with open eyes like a marvelling traveler, then you’ll inevitably arrive at the sticky points, and if you’re willing to be loving, you may unstick those memories, reshape and reform them, and even love them for what they’ve offered you.

Gather them all up like dense clay and smooth into the shape of a seat, like at the beach when you pull wet sand in around your hips, the material no longer an impediment or weight; you stop trying to run across the sand or through it, but rather sink into it and make it your own.   


After Harold and I had our conversation at the donut shop about our illicit lovers, he decided to be honest with the seminar group and change his tune about why he's there.

“You know, I initially came here to save my business but I’ve realized that I’m here to get honest about an affair I’ve been having with a younger married woman...” The crowd squirmed in their seats, some looked down at the floor, the women seemed especially perturbed. He looked so vulnerable standing there, his mouth sort of half open, his big, blue eyes searching for validation of his honest confession. I exhaled a long sigh on his behalf. 

A few hours later, Rachel the seminar leader gave us our “good trait” and our “bad trait” in front of the group. Harold got his before me and I kind of laughed: his good trait was “trustworthy leader” and his bad trait was “slimy liar”, the theory being that your essential bad trait was the inverse of your good. The word “slimy” did not sit well with Harold and he stuttered out a response, “Um, well, I mean, I know I gotta change but she’s really such a great girl and this connection we have…” 

Rachel cut him off, “Integrity, Harold! Integrity in your relationships and in your life will bring you integrity in your business — become a trustworthy leader again and you’ll have success!” Boom. Words are so potent, like low-level sorcery, and in these sessions you’re wide open to hear the simple truth. But these hard-hitting one-liners are reductive which is why they follow them up with a longer sales pitch: “This is just the beginning, guys. You’ll all need one-on-one coaching for at least two more years.” 

One of my worst, oft-repeated errors is injuring and/or protecting myself with words, misusing them. What were those rhymes we learned in grade school to ward this off? “I’m rubber, you’re glue, whatever you say bounces off me and sticks to you”, or “Sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me”. If only. 

I’d gone into the seminar being super honest about the affair I was having, and all my shitty substance abuse, and it wasn’t because of the man or the obsessions or any specific qualities of the stuff I was engaged in, it was the patterns I felt desperately locked into. I geared up for my bad trait: was it going to be “snaky sex goddess” or “heartless hussy” or “desperate other woman”? Rachel looked over at me, “Carmen, it’s your turn, hon.” 


I was born right in the middle of two families, after girls and before boys. I’m the oldest, I was briefly the youngest, and I’m also the middle child. If you value the significance of birth order, I’m basically everything. I’ve managed to have relationships, or least some contact with extended family on both sides and that's no easy feat: we grow up, we drop off, we make our own families, and eventually our own worlds. But in this way, I often feel like a visiting family diplomat which is a nice self-appointed position to have, especially as a writer because I love the histories and personalities of both sides, the Capulets and the Montagues, their legacies and downfalls -- that shit is rich learning material. Pride and addiction are certainly woven into my family, but so is talent and adventure, so are flour bombs from Cessnas at events called “fly-ins” (Kings), and my small town’s first family orchestra (Murrants). 


The Kings

In rural Alberta in the 1950’s and ’60’s, an organization called The Flying Farmers, a group of farmers who owned and flew planes, would pick an airport and host a fly-in. This was basically an excuse to fly their planes and have a big party. In 1959, they coordinated the Rocky Mountain House fly-in with the local rodeo — my Grandpa King being the brazen, fun-loving man that he was, came up with the idea of a flour bombing contest. They poured a giant three-ringed target in the middle of the grounds (also made of flour, this being the golden era of cheap commodities) and with three runs each, planes would fly in with sacks of flour and try to nail the bullseye.

My 10-year old dad rode in a Cessna 140, holding the sack of flour out the little window to launch it. On the first bombing run he got closest to the bullseye, on the 2nd he missed the bullseye and hit the windshield of his uncle’s ’59 Buick and went clean through. As he says, “When we got back they told me ‘You won the prize but you also wrecked your uncle’s car’ — they drove back to the city with a 6-inch hole in the windshield, the interior of the car covered in flour.” Living out loud those Kings: easy targets. Eugene King, an introvert who drank to quell his shyness, became a menacing, boisterous personality who filled a room under the influence. So is the power of the snakeskin. With no filters, and no respect of boundaries, both he and my father became easy men not to like.  


The Murrants

The most beautiful times of my childhood were spent at my Grandma and Grandpa’s small farm just outside our town. Daring, intelligent, and a dashing man of his idyllic era, my musically gifted Grandpa Murrant, born and raised in the Maritimes, moved his wife and five children across Canada in a train to the West of cowboys and promise. His children were also musically gifted—my mom and her siblings played various instruments and started a little family band which became the very first orchestra in Rocky Mountain House, now an established group who still performs at Christmas concerts and plays.

As soon as I could talk, I sang and danced while Grandpa played the piano, then later my grandparents would take me out to the barn to pet the horses, or gather eggs. A nurse, my Grandma was at the hospital when I was born. Life in their house was a celebration with neighbours, family and friends, laughing and drinking and dancing and music. When I wasn’t joyfully singing or dancing, I was being lovingly passed from adoring relative to adoring relative. Life at the farm was grand and the Murrants were fun-loving, and like most of their post-war contemporaries, they were also stoic and stubborn, the kind of people whose shame was much harder to see. They died with their stubbornness intact. 


“Carmen, I’m afraid you’re the only one in this group who’s lucky enough to get TWO bad traits —are you ready?” 

“Bonus! Yeah go for it.” 

“Dramatic brat and disconnected victim...” 

The first one makes sense to me but the second one is bewildering: “Really? Disconnected victim?” 

“Yeah haven’t you noticed how you shrink inside yourself and disconnect?” 

Bullseye. I’m right in the middle. 

"What's my good trait?" 

"Straight-shooting connector." 

Running Away

How do you control? 

I control by running away. I control by shrinking inside and waiting there until I think you’re gone. I control by throwing potent words around, fixing a wall between us, sometimes comprised of overzealous fantasies, sometimes of toxic sludge. I control by making you the enemy and making you stupid. I control by thinking I know best. I control by imagining I can impose my will on you. 

Believing I have control is so quaint, so naïve, so childlike. 


How do you lose control? 

I lose control by dissolving into slushy, spillovers of lust. I lose control in another glass and another, and one more, and just one more and puff, puff, fuzz. I lose control on a street between two bumpers at 5am while you fuck me — were there passersby? I lose control when I focus on you and only you, letting my brain whip around your qualities, dissolve in their salty pools, figure you out figure you out figure you out figure you out figure you out figure you out figure you out figure you out figure you out figure you out figure you out figure you out figure you out figure you out figure you out figure you out. 

Believing I lost control is believing I’ll wake up with it all back, everything intact, all figured out. 


How do you heal? 

I heal by letting myself grow. I heal by focusing on my growth alone. 

And in this I do believe. 


G and I meet at a gaijin, Japanese for ‘foreigner’, social gathering organized by some of the teachers who’ve been in the town longer than both of us. She’s a bit scraggly and frightened; a newbie’s disposition I empathize with immediately. Freckled, lithe, with curly, brown hair that halos around her head, she’s a beautiful-tough South African babe. She wants to know where she can get some weed and I know a couple of dudes in a nearby city. She’s not embarrassed to talk about how uncomfortable her first week has been, a subject many of us hide with big bravado and a bit of beginner Japanese. On her 2nd day in, an old Japanese farmer pulls over and parks his tiny truck in her path then gets out and asks her something she doesn’t understand. As she’s flustering out an answer in English, he unzips his pants and pisses in front of her. She runs in the other direction as he yells, “Tissue? Tissue?” as if all American-looking women carry tissue around in their bras or something. She’s grossed out but surprisingly bemused by the interaction -- it all just seems like part of the total queerness of the place.  

“This place fucks with your head,” she says. We set about becoming inseparable. 

G and I tell stories. Impeccable, wonderful, intricate, winding tales that recount the profound and banal details of our world travels, the puzzling and harrowing compositions of our childhoods, and most importantly, the men we loved, or hope to someday love. Her man will be strong, mine will be artistic. Storytelling and smoking weak Japanese hash cigs are two of our favourite activities on our nights and weekends off. We usually meet on Friday after class to vent about our students and weird jobs then launch into the epic tales of where we came from. She from South Africa and I from Canada, with the majestic Alps off on the horizon, we’re bound together on the rooftop of Japan in the middle of the main island of Honshu amid electric green rice paddies, flowering apple orchards, and asparagus fields. 

To me, G embodies Discipline, a concept I lord over myself like a drill sergeant. “I lack discipline!” is one of my frequent journal scrawls, my favourite quote being: “The pain of discipline is short, but the glory of fruition is eternal”. That quote gets me out of a bed sometimes.

What I do embody though, albeit without fully understanding it, is Abandon. I worship Discipline but my real life philosophy is: “Jump first and ask questions later”. Though we seem to embody opposite states, her and I are very complimentary within the softly walled structure of gaijin life. In fact, we’re so solid, it feels like we live even further outside the walls than other foreigners. Our bond is strong and we feel protected by one another through the raw adventure. We enjoy the freewheeling lifestyle we’re permitted as young, foreign teachers in Japan yet our individual styles never overshadow each other.

We are alone together and our bond is constantly strengthened by our differences, our stories, and our shared future dream of falling in love once we leave Japan. She and I never make a move without consulting the other; we are the storytellers and the stories and we hope to write ourselves out of isolation. As we spend more time together, my words become our words, become our essays and our theories. This bond of mutual understanding is an impenetrable force field around us.  

Our analyses take us in circles as we try to dissect Japanese culture, concluding time and time again that we live on the moon. The only narrative that has real momentum is the future one, the ultimate story that gets us out of Japan and into the wider world where adventure awaits. We drive around in the sunshine smoking and listening to our favourite bands. We cook together and visit public baths where we’re exposed to each other’s naked forms. We go over all the details of our epic Asian backpacking adventure we’re planning for at the end of our teaching contracts. We decide we’ll follow a loose itinerary starting in Vietnam then see where the wind takes us.

Both of us are saving for the trip though she's killing it. Her rent is basically paid where mine isn’t, her salary is more, and she works constantly in a ton of private teaching gigs. Basically, whe’s banking major cash. I’m sending a portion of my savings back to Canada to pay off my student loan but I am thrilled at my burgeoning ability to slowly put some aside for our trip.