Messages in Bottles

gaining perspective

I remember the moment I decided it would be a better investment to drive across Canada than to pay for my next semester’s tuition.  I was going into the final year of the concurrent teaching program at the University of British Columbia.  But then I saw the balance owing.

I packed a few bags, and I was off the next morning, towing the Vancouver sunrise behind my Civic, towards the eastern most cliffs of primordial Prince Edward Island.

Canada, I learned, is like a sleeping woman.  Her beauty is in the slow transformation of the landscape — in her ability to make a shift of the body something more significant because of how seldom it happens.  The same wheat field spanned all of Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba.  The six days it took to drive those three provinces were sewn into an epoch, a period, in geological time, that lasted about as long as a yawn.

All in all, the trip across took fourteen days.  I wasn’t in a rush, of course, and the drive back seemed shorter absent the weight of the question I had set out to answer.  Now I had proof.

There was something to be appreciated in the most gradual of changes.

for love of country

There was something unsettling about the way she handed me over to the media, unceremoniously, like tossing dirty clothes into a hamper.  Especially after what we had gone through up to that point.  Especially since I was finally starting to believe that just maybe we had gotten away with everything.

She was Susan to me, but by then she went by Susie.  Susie had spent years planning, plotting, and scheming her ascent up the social ladder in Ottawa.  She endeared herself to the right sort of people, and like a mountain climber after testing his footing, would elevate herself by the greatness of those around her, until finally, she found herself near the summit, as the mistress to a man who couldn’t afford to have one.  He was going to run for Prime Minister that year, and might have won if she hadn’t told the press.

Susan and I were both from Dryden, Ontario, population of eight thousand, so we knew what it was like it be on the outside looking in, riding the outer edges of the social solar system, fighting for a moment in the sun.  Susan, to her credit, had this beauty that could have translated to cash in any of the major cities around the world.  That sort of beauty could have stamped her ticket to anywhere, and would have, I suppose, if not for the kindness in her heart that afflicted her with the most unfortunate of temperaments: too trusting a nature.  Susan, you see, believed she wouldn’t always be the other woman.

I wasn’t so handsome, so instead I had to be ruthless.  I studied hard, and made friends, too.  My mountain culminated at Parliament Hill.

I might have made it to the top.  I would have made a good Prime Minister.

But I needed to know why Susan started going by Susie.

highly suspect

My law class is composed mostly of guys that look like me, and of girls who look like they might be our cousins.  Sometimes I think admission is really about recruiting for a family tree.  Those with dark hair, dark eyes, and different skin colour, they’re the same as us, too, if not in appearance, then crucially in the belief that we could each be the best in the class.

If I plotted everybody on a Venn diagram, enough would exist in the overlap labelled “acceptable human beings” for me to find friends among them.  Thinking of it like that makes it easy for me.  I just have to avoid the people who would sell that friendship to stand on my shoulders, and the people who are far too nice to possibly be any fun.

Beyond that, the thing to know in law school is that you should never sleep with someone in the cohort unless you’re alright with everyone knowing what finishes you off.  If you’re getting into the pool, you’re sharing the same water.  It’s a critical part of the contract.

Greg and Holly didn’t mind.  Part of me believes their having sex on the first night of orientation was strategic, to announce that they had no objections to extracurriculars, provided they came without commitments.  Others, Brad and Kim, for example, wanted to keep it private.  But once you’re in the water, a ripple can be traced back to its source.

So Kim went and told Holly that Brad liked to take it in his ass, and Brad told Greg that Kim needed to be choked before she could finish.  Word of it spread until the class was a drunken Friday night away from making it the after school topic of discussion.  And if there’s a third thing to know about law school students, it’s that every last one of us drinks.

purple prose

I blow smoke rings out of my bedroom window.  They remain intact as they pass through the screen.  The far side of the sky is the colour of a grapefruit cut in half, and the sky still above me is a deep, primordial darkness that I more easily relate to.  Somewhere down the street the silence dies when an engine turns to life.  I lift my fingers to my lips, inhale through my cigarette, and contemplate how I could have missed the closing of a car door.

Unemployment is the undoing of insomniacs everywhere.


I’ve been making origami since I can remember.  There was never much money at home when I was growing up, so my father, instead of buying me toys, would teach me how to fold paper until it became more than a flat plane and its four corners.

First he showed me how to fold a paper crane.  For this you needed a square piece of paper, but the sheets he would bring home from the paper mill were always rectangular, so to make each side equal, he would lay the sheet so that it was longest vertically, bring the upper left corner to the right side of the rectangle until it was perpendicular with the edge, and then fold it down.  The unfolded portion at the bottom, that bit he would tear away, leaving behind a section as perfectly square as his folding was accurate.  This simple first step meant everything.  If the sides weren’t equal in length, the subsequent folds were impossible.

When I did well in school, my father would present me with a new creation that filled me with both a sense of pride and wonder.  The good grades became a means to an end, the true prize taking the shape of a frog, or perhaps a flower that I hadn’t learned to fold yet.  If I misspelled even a single word on a spelling test, it meant I would have to wait until the following week for the newest addition to my collection, and what a wait it was for a child.

By the time I was getting ready to leave for college, my father was still folding me figurines of this animal or that one, though less often than when I was younger, if only because I no longer held my accomplishments to his face in exchange for a reward.  The dwindling frequency with which he presented me something, like the miniature paper palm tree that heralded my departure to California, made each creation that much more meaningful.

My father is now retired.  When his gnarled hands aren’t trembling, they’re aching with arthritis.  Every time I come to visit, he has something folded for me.  It breaks my heart that he goes to such trouble, but that has always been, and will always be, my father.

stockholm syndrome

The summer came all at once.  That isn’t to say that it came quickly.  As late as the first week of June, I was still wearing a sweater to sleep.

There were warm days, but winter was like a smoker’s cough, unrelenting, and the mornings when I did wake up sweating, my pillow damp, my armpits moist, those uncomfortable moments were so seldom that the season of spring failed to impregnate the fertile heat.  So it stayed winter until recently, when not one, not two, but three days of warm weather finally coaxed the barren trees to sprout accommodations for the falling rain.  Those three days contained the entirety of spring, making it possible for summer to come all at once.

I was bound for Alberta in the fall, but that was months away according to the calendar.  I had some money saved from the night shift at the gas station, saved some money only eating tuna for a few months, so before commending myself to the oil rigs out west, I decided I would take a trip.  I notified my landlord I was leaving, paid the final month of my rent, and sometime in the middle of June, I left for Toronto with two weeks remaining on my lease.

There are fifteen thousand people in my hometown of Kenora.  There are more stoplights in any kilometre of Toronto than in all of my hometown.  As soon as I stepped off the bus at Union Station, smelled pot for the first time, saw the CN Tower, obnoxiously tall, the middle finger on a fist formed by the skyline, I knew that I had come to the right place.

A couple of months living here — with the noise from constant construction, within proximity of homelessness, beneath light pollution — and the oil sands would seem a sanctuary.

the right to reserve

Money is the same as every other resource.  I remember watching this video of a Saudi prince at a private concert once.  He was seated beside a million dollars in cash, spoils with which to shower the singer he had purchased.  But also in the prince’s employ and immediate vicinity was a man with a nice, black suit, so instead he was the one to “make it rain,” as they say.

What interested me about the entire thing wasn’t what interested most people: that the prince had paid someone to pay someone else.  That’s capitalism.  What fascinated me were the four equal stacks of hundred-dollar bills, arranged two-by-two on a plastic table, of all things.  Here was the motivation behind overtime hours, of Saturdays sacrificed to the office instead of spent with loved ones.  Each quarter was a small fortune, more than most people made in a year, but not one of the stacks measured even a foot in height.

43 inches spread over four piles.  At that rate of rainfall, it took less than 20 minutes to spend the entire contents of the cash cloud.

I don’t imagine it mattered to the prince.  He was worth billions of dollars in crude oil at the time.  What would the evaporation of a puddle matter when you could make it rain like that?  Like I said, money is the same as every other resource.

When he watches the recording of himself, I bet he’s really looking at the number of hits.

I abandoned the video about a minute in.

exact change

I live my life abiding two simple truths.  Everything will end.  And the greatest motivator is fear.  Love, powerful as it may be, is merely the ability to fear for someone else.  It might seem like a bleak outlook on an existence already fraught with so much heartache and disappointment, but the reality is that the sooner you accept your lot, the sooner you can start to make it livable.  Once you understand that fortunes can and will shift for no reason in your control, and that the things you fear losing are outside your power to preserve, you begin to realize how foolish it is to keep appreciation in your pocket, or to squander the precious few moments that should be kept for yourself.  These rules may outline our limitations, but between here and there is enough room to manoeuvre, and without boundaries we have no framework for satisfaction.  Knowing all this — that love is but an exercise in letting someone go — I have only to fear that she will not delay our goodbye.

I drink my coffee black, with the darkest possible roast.  I used to think it would make me more appreciative of sugar and cream, but it’s only made me less used to it.  I suppose that’s in keeping with what I said earlier about everything coming to an end, and that my reason for taking coffee black has been transformed to a matter of preference, but that’s skipping straight to the end without a middle of this story.  Anyways, I drink my coffee black, and one morning before heading into the office, I made my usual order at The Java Joint, a little café on the corner of Dundas and McCaul in downtown Toronto.  This new barista, his name was John, asked me who he should call for when my coffee was ready.  I told him my name was Sam even though it’s really Eric.

John, as I said, was new at the time, so he wasn’t aware of this little game I played, whereby I would give whoever was taking my order a different name than I had given the day before.  The other baristas, they all knew about it, but the subtle smiles they shot me as they pulled this lever and that, it meant that John had been kept out of the loop.  No big deal, I figured.  He’d catch on soon enough, if not the next time I placed an order with him, then the time after that.  When he finally called for Sam, I thought John had mixed up my order.  I didn’t order a cinnamon roll, but it turned out that Sam had.

Sam, Samantha, a stranger up to that point, is now my wife.  A lot has happened between then and now.  Our children, for one, and her cancer for another.  Her decision to stop receiving treatment is the latest development.  The constants have remained throughout, but even if this fear will always feel new, at least it can be counted on to come to an end.

between tick and tock

It’s three o’clock on a Monday morning.  If I filmed the last fifteen minutes of the view from my window, it would look the same if I had taken a picture instead.  There’s no breeze on this side of sleeping Mississauga, no slight rustle in the trees planned and planted along suburban Dovetail Crescent.  It’s too early for the chirping of the early birds, and in the quiet wait between the passing of cars, I become aware of the absence of crickets.

I half consider speaking out loud, to fashion for myself a companion of sorts, but words are hard clay, unwilling to take shape at this hour, and a companion in my image would have nothing to say now anyways.  True silence is that unsettling.  Imagine you’re stranded on a deserted island, and you can’t even hear the ocean.

night blindness

I have done everything I can, but standing here, on the eastern edge of Rice Lake, watching as the sunset shatters across the surface of the calm water, it makes me ache for the companion that I might share this with.

I know in my heart that the moment is mine alone, to treasure or tarnish with wishes of what if, and that the deficiencies in its beauty are but the limits of my vision reached.  For what could she add to this circus of light and shadow but a presence to divert my attention from the trapeze, away from the sun as it tiptoes on the horizon?

The answer is nothing.  She could add nothing, for she is nothing, and nothingness craves for company the way that I crave for her — with impatience and a stubborn sense of entitlement.

Whoever she is, we have yet to meet.  She who is shaped from my inadequacies, fashioned as a crutch to fit the armpit.  Perhaps it will be that we never do, elusive a creature as my happiness is, changing like the sky above these eyes of mine that won’t adjust.