“I must get out.”
Impulses like that come out of nowhere and one must listen to them.
I had worked hard the entire day [NIGHT?] and was completely exhausted. andshould have been content, but a persistent frustration gnawed at me, from inside; so, I left the apartment, then the elevator, then the building, then my frustrated state of mind.
A particularly intense such episode occurred to me on the fifth of March, sixteen-O-three, seventeen-1-1: evening no.1
The transition of previous night into morning of that day was seminal and seamless as l, by music entranced, danced for hours in the company of drunk, sweaty bodies and dark faces whose unintelligibility escalated with each glass of alcohol. Through the empty streets, I stumbled home and marked a street corners of my territory with my strong,urine. At every step, the liquid silence of the night drowned in the continuous roar of a mounting winter storm in my head.
In the elevator, a profound disbelief and, later, doubt filled me as I watched little white square with numbers painted on them turn on and off in sequence:
I didn’t believe I was actually moving.
At home, I got into bed without washing and tried to sleep without emptying my mind, but my ears throbbed and pulsated to the music within them that never ceased to boom-boom and keep my reddish dry eyes wide open. I knew that that night I wouldn’t sleep, so when the clock struck four-O-one ante meridiem, an impulse (much like the one that would come again and again) percolated through my mind and materialized into words:
“I must get out.”
The evening outside was gorgeous. There was life in the streets of the city, the sidewalks bustling. The air was mild, warming. It was eight-thirty or something like that, way past the kids’ bedtime, and international student young adults were roaming the streets, filling restaurants and coffee shops with laughter, erotic tension, life.
I wanted to be a part of that, but I couldn’t. I had errands to run, groceries to buy, things to pick up at the mother-in-law’s: I had work well until eleven at night (the time when the Real Canadian Superstore at the northern foot of the Iron Workers’ Memorial (“Second Narrows”) Bridge would close), at which point I would return home to shave, shower, maybe cook something (or go to sleep “early” to be able to cook in the morning, at six).
I wanted to be a part of that life. I felt it in my veins, remembered it—it wasn’t that long ago (well, now over six years) that I had lived that life, in the city, just off Robson, then off Davie, then off South Granville (mostly in the futon-bed of her highway house on a chicken leg that stood in the middle of a four-lane highway that connected two vast royal cities).
Now, though, I lived in a beautiful suburban prison, as I bitterly called by life with two kids, because, even though it was beautiful, harmonious and what I wanted, I felt like a prisoner in the evening, staring out the balcony window, with the kids in bed and asleep by eight-thirty, at the young local people strolled lightly down Chesterfield Avenue, without a doubt towards the epicenter of the Lonsdale Quay, where the Seabus took them to the edge of downtown, the heart of Gastown.
“I want to get out,” I kept repeating in my head, night after night, while looking out the windown, feeling the ferment of my Christ’s years in my veins; but, the dining room table wasn’t cleaned off yet, the dishes not loaded in the dishwasher, the counters not wiped, the lunch for work tomorrow not prepared… the laundry not yet done, the bills not yet paid and the accounting-budgeting not yet discussed, the daughter’s school not yet decided on (because we were having ongoing issues with finding affordable daycare for the school we wanted, while the school right across our street—with affordable daycare—was ranked something like thirty-fourth worst (out of eight hundred ad
I got out.
A sharp, early morning air that drifted in from the Bay of the English Colonialists pierced my awareness; I stood on the sidewalk, immersed in silence that only the distant cry of a gull perturbed. Motionless, I remained standing there, waiting for the impulse, my guide.
Only in complete stillness of the mind, I reminded myself, would it come.
And then, out of nowhere, it came: southeastward, uphill.
“Go up,” I did not hear. It said nothing; silence persisted. There was only the mute attraction of the invisible fog that daylight clears.
“Go up,” once again I did not hear, and once again I did not refuse.
A few blocks, later, I turned left.
Perhaps it was the scent of the waking sea a little further that attracted me—one can never know these things.
The intersection of two faceless streets approached me, not vice-versa, in this waking dream. A white Aerostar van idled at the curb while its driver placed the day’s newsprint into grey, unmarked bins that blended with the sidewalk in the daytime. A group of young Latino students, foreign, well-funded,, filled a coffee shop across the street with a human warmth the frigid indigenous couldn’t imitate: joy danced in them and I, yearning for their joy, watched them.
Like a lone, homeless man wandering empty streets on Christmas Eve, full of yearning for a home, I peered into those lit-up windows that radiated human warmth and happiness and yearned for their company.
But, I had grown up lonely, frigid, and so I quickly left, so I turned right and I resumed drifting.
He started stirring, then whining. He was waking up.
“I am worried about his gums,” she said and got up from her laptop.
“Yeah,” I replied, put my laptop on the coffee table and got up.
We reached the hallway, absent-minded, and met there, at the same time.
“Are you going?” she asked.
“I’ll go,” he said, “you put him to bed.”
I slowly opened the door of the darkened bedroom and heard him stirring. Sulking. He was stirring, lying on his stomach, his bottom in the air.
“Shhh,” I said. “little guy…”
I thought about the Latinos in the coffee shop.
I stroked him head slowly, felt his forehead for warmth: no fever, but I was worried about his gums, too. This morning, she noticed his left upper gum was swollen, a little bloody. This evening, I noticed while patches on it. She tried to phone the dentist, but he had a day off.
I told her it could be because he’s sucking the pacifier so much, but we barely gave it to him. We spent the entire weekend in Queen Victoria Park, just five days after federal Queen Victoria Day , and he was munching on twigs and grass for hours: maybe he got an infection or something.
“We shouldn’t give him the pacifier so much,” I thought, “I will stay up if I have to, almost not sleep tonight.
He started getting crankier, wasn’t calming down.
I didn’t want him to suffer, wake up. I put the pacifier in his mouth and left the room quietly.
At the corner where a fire hall stood, the south side called to me from beyond the gentle swell of the hill. I turned towards it and started to advance and, only a block later, at the S-shaped curve that made First Mate Gonzales Lopez de Haro into Premier William Smithe, a gray outline of a person in the night gaffed my hypersensory interest and I followed it. A few steps down the street, however, the void of my mind swallowed its shadows and the gull’s hysteric shriek grew louder and louder.
A block later, I crisscrossed an ex-parking-lot plot of land that would soon metamorphose—after the winter monsoon rains of the turbulent Quiet Coast would cease, a new building would sprout and grow and embrace the vacant piece of sky above it—into ferroconcrete temples of commerce: shops, cinemas, underground parking, aboveground living and, precisely at ground level, landmarks that anchored memories of the past to a present-day reality, erased and soon forgotten.
“Didn’t I use to play here? No, no… yes!? Perhaps? I cannot remember. The bulldozers tore from me that what the dust there whispered to the drops of acid rain as they came down and I cried, but not from joy. Wasn’t there something else there? There must have been! There was!”
“Is it any wonder I don’t know who I truly am when even this place cannot remember who I once was.”
She came back in the room. I promised I would give her foot massage last night, but I literally passed out in the darkened bedroom putting him to sleep. I felt sorry, but I actually craved massaging her feet. I found giving pleasure. strangely pleasurable
I did not linger there either. I backtracked up the same wide street, toward a hospital built in the name of the Saint with a Tainted Past, past the Dal Grauer Substation that purred quietly in the night. A block ahead of me, on the street, at a bus stop, before a souvenir shop at the Wall Street Hotel, three cop cars encircled a homeless man; I watched them from a block away.
Nothing happened, though, besides the stock harassment of the underclass, the blood-thirsty CEWs and their CEO hounds not that far away. So, I turned back down Captain Sir Harry Burrard of the Navy Street, went past Premier William Smithe Street, past Robsonstrasse, past Her Majesty King George the Third Street, past Captain Daniel Pender of the Navy Street, all Western, towards the north side, towards Puckahls.
On a canvas of white, towering sails and the steel blue night, a young Asian woman came into my path a little ahead of me and signalled my future. Her direction, her pace and perhaps even her mind frame were the same as mine. (Peering from high above, down at the earth with eyes of celibate satellites orbiting the globe, we equaled to two grains of dirt in fluid motion in a concrete expanse of illuminated darkness.)
There was just her and I and no one else on the streets of an empty downtown. Just her and I, and I had certain thoughts about that, about her and I.
“Is it significant, archetypal? It must be, if I am here at this hour and she is here at this hour and no one else is here at this hour, walking from here to there, in the exact same direction, at the exact same speed, breathing the exact same piercing morning air—an intimate significance…”
This weekend was Democratic Constitutional Monarchy Confederation Day, a long weekend. Since my daughter finished school a day and a half early—early dismissal was on the last Thursday of June, at 13:30 (originally, the school newsletter stated an early dismissal of 14:30, then a last-minute email corrected it to be 13:30)—I took half the Thursday and the entire Friday off. My mother-in-law, who took care of the toddler, took off as soon as I got home on the Thursday, and I took care of the two children for a day and a half while my wife was at work.
It used to be that I could actually have down time on my “days off”, but those days are long gone. These days, I don’t even have the luxury to recuperate (in bed) on sick days.
The woman kept walking. I maintained her trajectory and then she entered an office building with much haste and I watched our brief anonymous intimacy dissolve with amazement on my eyelashes.
I watched her until she was out of sight and, with the fourth chakra swirling, I headed east again.
The morning was pushing five thirty. I reached a little plaza at the foot of a concrete building at Puckahls that housed a single newsprint entity with two separate heads. A deep desire to remain there overcame me. Captain Sir Harry Burrard of the Navy Inlet, the northern shores of Indian reserves and former indigenous territories, the eastern municipalities of Ulksen and the sky all spread out from the plaza at my foot like roads out of Moscow.
There, a slow metamorphosis of the eastern sky mesmerized me. I stood in one place, as if bolted to the ground. I did not dare to move, not an inch, not an ounce, not a pound, and for an hour I stood there unmoving.
I thought things would slow down, stabilize, but they didn’t.
Summer finally arrived on the cold, west coast in the middle of the first week of July. Until then, we had an extended cold (wet) spring, with systematically unpredictable weather that was presided over by a raw, primordial sky that did not behave at all like a coastal temperate climate sky I had gotten used to in the last twenty years.
Then, the twenty-year-old beater of a car I (“the head of the household”) had inherited (i.e. bought for $600, half the market value) from my faultless, eager-to-help mother-in-law
Then, morning came, like leaves of spirituality steeping in a hot lucidity of Soviet steppes invigorating the dryness of one’s soul. I felt life energies vibrate, swirl, pulsate within me. The slow, deliberate hour of wait spanned an infinity, yet I could not remember an instant of it. Feet of mine became extensions of the earth, like two trunks of a single oak, as air inhaled my lungs and stripped them of all they did not need to know. The world—the physical illusion around me—dissolved like effervescent fields of poppies floating upwards in solitudinal winds of Capricorn. Surge upon surge of veils and veils of light washed over everything that my eyes affirmed as real until I began to see through the illusion of the illusion into another illusion. And even my perception of it being an illusion within an illusion was an illusion, because one loses touch with the very illogical grounds upon which the fear-fueled circus of humanity builds its shredded tent every morning, day after day, with the same mistakes, the same ignorance.
And, even that concrete realization was an illusion.
Close to two thousand hallucinogenic seconds after the light of the sun first touched the back of my eyeballs and intoxicated my retinas, the impulse to depart came to me again—the space ahead of me attracted me like a magnet might iron shavings, and twenty or so meters later, for no particular reason, I looked to my left and there, to my left, saw an entrance to a building that I, in my ten years of passing past, never noted.
I saw a man leave the building, proving—somewhat—that the building did exist. Step by slow, unhurried step, I entered it and walked down its steps, into a large, cavernous hall at its heart, and realized that, in its past life, it had been a station, the terminus of a trancontinental railway (and, before that, Puckahls). Its floors gleamed with polish, its walls shone with recent paint and light, billowing morning clouds hung fluffily just below the ceiling, touching it ever so gently with their white tufts. (And, was that a creek I heard gurgling in that far comer…? A faux eco-idyllic.)
Along the perimeter, on the walls just below the ceiling, here and there—where the clouds dispersed enough for me to see—I saw gloomy oil paintings depicting spectacular landscapes along a railway that once connected vast colonies. At once, Lake Princess Louise Caroline Alberta and Castle Mountain became visible, then the Sawback Range peeked from behind a white fluff of clouds and Athabasca Chipewyan Nation River appeared, but only when the fog lifted.
Unrelentlessly, a St*rb***s was there, too, with an unrelentless queue in front of it. Commuters arriving from the northern reserves and former territories lined up and I waited. behind an obese woman who studied the overcast ceiling and mumbled something under her cave-aged mustache.
My turn came and I blurted out a phrase that was incomprehensible: sounds, words, phrases, sentences—I produced them, but it wasn’t me, it wasn’t my “I” who spoke. The real “I” was somewhere else-perhaps in ………. and I, the machinating “I”, was there, attached to Puckahls by a silver cord.
And, thus came about the birth of a moment of intense awareness. I saw people as moving pictures, as orchestrated artifice shows of indigenous cultures flickering past me through dirty celluloid window panes of an old wooden cottage in a petrified skanzen village at the outskirts of a forest where roads go nowhere, somewhere at the eastern threshold of my maternal country, but not quite there.
I was a tourist, and I was surreal.
The moving pictures scuttled back and forth, up and down stairs: blank faces whose eyes, like the window panes I gazed through, bore unintelligible stains. Eating breakfast, I listened to the hushed whisper of their soles coming in contact with the ground that was as quiet and discontenting as the quiet and discontenting rustle of cockroaches roaming in the night along the walls, kitchen floors and counters and beds with a continuous discontenting rustle that caught you at the threshold of sleep and wouldn’t let you sink further—much like the last year in our first apartment in Ulksen.
The whistle of a steam locomotive pierced the air and the cockroaches dispersed. People, their images in black and white, threw their hats into the air, A brass band at the terminus of the first track played a freshly manufactured anthem. Coal-smoke rose into the air, billowing steam enveloped the entourage, until they and their dreams blended (and one could not distinguish where one ended and the other began).
The railroad had reached them, spanning a stolen country, and joined the West with the East and a new era was born…
…while the commuters, in vibrant Technicolor, rushed by these forgotten dreams, oblivious to them, their triumphs and their crimes. Then, for a short short second, and only for a second, the Technicolor mixed with and bumped into the monochrome and their puzzled minds tangled and tore the cloth of heavens.
I sat in one place, the same, unmoving place, for an hour, perhaps more. Time became timeless, malleable. Then, without fanfare, I simply left and stepped out into the street. Outside, everything around me buzzed, roared, twisted, gyrated, vibrated, mated. I was part of it, yet apart from it (and I could no longer see the gull nor hear its shriek). There, amidst the movement, I could not avert, although I tried hard, an involuntary spasm of speculation:
“Are they—they who witness the transition of day into night and night into day in its uninterrupted entirety—are they derailed into another stratum of awareness?”
In a sea of images I flowed, I glowed. The deeper I went, the less sense it made. My mind was abandoning me, and I could not make any sense of anything. I walked into a coffee shop of a newly-built hotel on the north side: I stared, first at its blank walls, then at the empty display cabinet where a lone, cold, dead panini lay and then the white, phosphorescent glow of the cabinet drew me in and hypnotized me.
I stared at it for a few minutes before a voice, perhaps of a server, brought me back. Dazed, I walked out and up towards the city centre. I could not remember how I got there, but I hit Robsonstrasse and it awoke me.
The street was nothing like four hours ago. The chemical composition of colours, the geometries of architecture, the properties of solids, liquids, gases, they were all more intense, saturated with a Disney-like falseness.
Perhaps, this narration is becoming tedious; perhaps, it’s time for another.
“Where the soul needs to go, there it shall be taken…” uttered Vata-hruska.
Evening number two was different, yet the same, like all things. The air was briny, lucid and orange-tinged. I went up my street, then down. When I reached the fire hall, I turned right and walked uphill, southwestwards. It was just before the park where the urge that moved me ceased, and I stopped to face an alley. Bare-backed, it stared back at me: on one side, a strip lawn bordered a property, on the other, an old, brick building.
I looked further ahead and saw a woman I knew from somewhere far off, whom I once desired but never got to know due to my homegrown fear of closeness. A more perfect opportunity to strike up a conversation and enter her intimate world of sadness and wonder once and for all could not have presented itself; therefore, instinctively, I turned into the alley and as far away from her as I could, fear tightening my chest.
She tried to smile at me, but I couldn’t dare to look at her. She passed by and I sat on the grassier side of that strip of lawn, under an arthritic oak. I looked across the alley and peered into the windows of the adjacent brick building. Inside, all rooms were dark, except for one, and that one, too, was empty like the rest. I sat on the moist grass and thought about the day that passed.
The empty, lit-up kitchen attracted my attention. I stared into and my mind became like that lit, empty kitchen. Then, recto-verso, my mind became that lit, empty kitchen and the kitchen became me.
I sat there in silence for hashish knows how long. The evening’s softening sounds had a calming effect on me and I melted into them.
Then, without a warning, with a lisping whisper, green stalks of strange plants began to emerge from the ground around me. Within seconds, they grew to the height of one meter, their stalks thickened and fenced me in. From the soil, moist, dark brown roots emerged, coiled around my ankles and pulled me under.
The earth had swallowed me and no one noticed. It was as I had never lived there.
The kitchen across from me remained empty as ever and no trace of my presence remained. The orange-tinged air was turning burnt-orange and deep red by the minute, and the city had already forgotten half the life I had given it.
The roots pulled me through a sandy, rocky soil. Here and there, I felt small and large rocks grate my skin. The earth slid past my skin like dense, lugubrious water. I closed my eyes and felt the darkness come fully over me.
The earth became black, moist and warm and I swam just underneath its surface. I inhaled the acrid darkness of the prairies while roots of wheat tickled me as I glided silently past them… and the graveyards and their open, freshly dug graves. The graves, still empty and giddy, blurred by me like windows that opened up to the hazy, cumbersome sky above.
I felt myself slowing down, yet everything accelerated, and so I left the New World soils behind.
I glided along in azure waters, moved ahead by a current. The roots released their hold of me and the briny ocean washed out my burgundy wounds. Above, the white sun danced and threw its beams unto the darkness where I was found. Illogically long stalks of kelp lubricated me, balmed me, and I heard the far-off laughter of dolphins ringing in my ears.
Seagulls shrieked above me and announced nearby land and then, seamlessly, waves gave me over to a river and, while I lapped at its banks, the old roots found me again, coiled themselves around my ankles anew and the earth took me into her once again. The boreal soil masticated me for a while longer before I reached a forest. Deep roots of stunted trees slashed my skin and I bled into the earth.
The earth was hard and made of silt-clay—I was nearing my maternal home. Every cell of my body called out to that soil. I inhaled it but it choked my nostrils. Its subtle, acrid humidity filled my lungs. I tried, I wanted to, but I couldn’t stay. The roots moved me along and I left that forest behind.
Then, it got colder, the soil heavier and darker, and the earth pressed down on my chest. It suffocated me, and I was losing consciousness.
I lost consciousness while I was still in motion. When I awoke, I lay on the ground, coiled like a fetus in the womb, lying on my side, no longer bleeding nor hurting. My eyes were still closed. I smelled the evening air, absorbed its deafening roar.
When I opened my eyes, I saw that I was lying in an immense field-less field. The sky hung in “the eternal silence of the steppes”, right above me (right above me!) and I inhaled its vastness.
“Where am I?” I asked myself, out loud.
“The steppe,” a soft, hypnotic feminine voice answered, “you are in the steppe.”
I closed my eyes again. Silence filled my ears. I felt warm water wash my bare feet.
“Where did I lose my shoes?” I pondered naively.
When I opened my eyes a second time, I saw that I was standing in a stream that a string of small, grass-covered islets punctuated.
Thick grass stroked my feet and the shore was near.
“Where am I?” I asked again.
“What river is this?”
Silence, ever the silence; everything began and ended in silence.
I walked out onto the shore and began to distance myself from the river. The further I got, however, the more intelligible the whisper of the stream became, as if it was trying to say something.
In the shade of the thickets, where there was no one before, sat an old woman. Her hoary white hair draped over a simple dress of pale satin. Not too far from her, a young boy swam in the stream, crossing to get to the other bank. He swam past me, on his back. I stood above him, looked straight into his eyes. He looked at me, through me; the immense blueness of the sky reflected in this eye.
A thought stirred my mind, and I was, once again, in that vast field-less field, alone, as always. I inhaled the air deeply, let it fill my lungs. I felt the need to scream, to let my confusion out, but I didn’t.
There was no use screaming when even you couldn’t hear yourself; there was no echo to validate my existence, no reverberation to carry my voice. The steppe swallowed every sound. I couldn’t even hear myself sigh.
Far ahead, a man-made embankment disturbed the emptiness of the horizon. Curious, I walked towards it. I walked rhythmically in the bleached light of the day, not feeling hunger, thirst, sadness nor joy. I just walked and in my mind I repeated a mantra:
“I am walking. I am walking. I am walking.”
When I reached the embankment, I saw that it supported a narrow-gauge railway. To both sides, the rails traveled off far into the horizon and the rail bed was overrun with wildflowers (their profusion dampened my solitude).
I laid down onto the dry grass, again. Its blond, anorexic stems sang folk songs and danced their folkloric dances across the expanding expansive blueness of the heavens and me. The warm air drugged me and I drifted off to sleep.
A voice stirred me out of my sleep.
“How good it was before…” it began.
I stood up. I walked over to the railway. There stood a man, in his thirties, his gaze hung on the blue-tinted mist of the evening in the east. I came close, faced him, looked him in the eye. He did not see me. His moist eyes reflected the darkening evening sky behind me. His dry, cracked lips did not move, but I heard his voice crackle in the cooling air. It came from an old gramophone that lay in the grass near to where I had just risen from…
“I believed…,” the voice resumed, in French, with a thick, Russian accent (I understood it all). “I believed the train went off to an unknown destination, toward snowcapped mountains, toward a nocturnal sea where the paper lanterns on the boats mingled with the stars. Now I know that this train goes from the Saranza brickworks to the station where its trucks are unloaded. Two or three kilometers in all. Some journey! Yes, now that I know this, I’ll never again be able to believe that these rails are endless and this evening unique; with the strong scent from the steppe, the immense sky, and my inexplicably and strangely necessary presence here beside this line with its cracked sleepers… at this precise moment, with that coo-coo-coo echoing in the violet air.
“Once upon a time everything seemed so natural…” *
They weren’t my words; they were his. His words, as he looked into the void of the steppe. Only my presence was postmodern, which I despised. I heard a high whistle echo somewhere far off and I turned my gaze towards it. When I turned back, both the man and his gramophone weren’t there anymore.
And then, I wasn’t either; I never was.
*Passage from Dreams of My Russian Summers by Andre Makine.