On the last day of school in April my Fiction class held a party at our instructor’s home. I had joined the class halfway through the course, in January, and had always felt new and unfamiliar amongst the first-years. They started school after I took my leave of absence, and had been together since September. The fact that, since I entered the class, I had skipped several workshops and sometimes failed to provide written feedback, added to my experience of being an outsider. The first-years were keen and talented, whereas I was simply disinterested – in my Fiction, in my Writing for TV, in almost everything to do with my Masters. I spent many nights alone in my apartment, wondering why my three-semester break hadn’t done what I’d hoped. And the nights I did socialize with my peers, like that night at my Fiction instructor’s home, I also spent alone, in my head, worrying.
Everyone was dressed nice and milling about. Some people were eating steak. When I said hello to a woman, she told me she was in a shitty mood. I didn’t know what to say. I watched her for the rest of the evening. Sure enough, she only laughed when she found something really funny. Otherwise, she remained quiet, with dark eyes. I admired her, as I tend to do when I think someone is better than me. She was better because she felt crappy and wasn’t putting on a show. Later, when someone asked me how I was doing, I imagined an honest response. “I’m uncomfortable because I performed poorly this semester, and I do not feel I deserve to celebrate the end of the year with you.” Instead, I said, “I’m fine, thanks. Yourself?”
The next morning I quit my job. This was an hour before I had to hop on the train to the airport and make my way to Berlin. I had planned to stay with my employer part-time for the summer, but over the past two days we’d had a heated disagreement – a first in our six years of professional and personal relationships – that had thrown me for a loop. Neither of us knew if we still wanted to work together, and I didn’t want to leave the country uncertain. So I put in my two-weeks notice. Suddenly unemployed, my trip to Berlin was no longer a vacation, but merely the first slice of a whole summer pie. I rode the Canada Line to the airport, its unfamiliar twists and turns rocketing me southward beneath traffic. I imagined the train and this dark tunnel were taking me to a new world.
A new world it was. For the next three weeks, I spent my mornings on Christer’s orange roof, looking at a carpet of orange roofs of the city. We spent afternoons in green parks, a sharp green, so new that, in April, it shocked even the locals. And we spent nights in the winding streets with our cheap, delicious beer, with the young people, and the beer on the U bahn, and in the bar and the beer at the ping pong tables and then on the way home, always, as well.
When the day came that I had to go back to Vancouver, I found myself in a paddleboat on a pond in Tiergarten, which, at 210 hectares, is the second largest community park in Germany. After floating on the water for a few hours, Christer, David and I headed to Dr. Pong, a bar in Kreuzberg with an ingenious twist: there’s a ping pong table in the middle of the room. That night, about thirty people played Dr. Pong, the lovechild game of table tennis and musical chairs. The players rotate around the table and rally back and forth. If you miss your shot, you’re out, but you don’t actually try to get anyone out, unless you’re a jerk. Or unless you’re one of two people left playing the game.
Even though I was never one of those last two people, I still loved Dr. Pong. I loved the way my heart pounded as I got closer to the end of the table, closer to my turn. I loved the small and perfect victory of making my shot and moving on. I even loved missing my shot – how no one noticed, or cared about, my tiny little ping-pong ball-sized failure. I played several rounds, wondering if I knew anyone in Vancouver who could make this happen there. My boarding time, a few hours away, loomed like a dirty, stinky, volcanic ash cloud in the sky.
At midnight, we finished up at Dr. Pong. Christer had to go take care of some cat-sitting duties, so David and I went to a nearby park to continue our ping pong adventures. We found a vacant table under orange lamplight and began to rally. David cocked his head and looked at me with a playful smile. “Are you going to get on that plane?” he asked.
“I don’t think so,” I said, and we continued to play. This wasn’t the time to leave Berlin. In four days it would be May Day, when the city would ignite with the Molotov cocktails of angry anarchists and the MDMA-brains from euphoric party kids. And I still hadn’t made it to Teuflesberg, the abandoned spy tower built on a man-made mountain of WWII wreckage. I hadn’t danced until seven in the morning with a gorgeous German man I knew I’d never see again. I hadn’t eaten enough of the best falafel I’d ever eaten in my life. And I needed a few more moments alone within the dim, dizzy warren of the Holocaust Memorial. There were many reasons to stay, and few reasons to leave. So I missed my flight and binged on Berlin for several more days.
When I finally did arrive back in Vancouver, I boarded the Canada Line at the airport to take me back to my apartment. The train no longer felt like a portal to a new world; this was very obviously the world I knew, had known for almost eight years now. I couldn’t help but suddenly, and ruthlessly, compare Vancouver to Berlin, that magical dream of a city I’d just woken up from. At the Commercial Drive station, I turned the corner toward my apartment and glimpsed my building: its entire south-facing wall was covered in fresh graffiti. And though it was crude graffiti – just white, meaningless loops reaching upward – it still warmed my heart. A little piece of Berlin had followed me home. Two days later, when my cousin Alex invited me to move up north for the summer, I thought: yes. Something new. Something I’ve never seen before.
Fort Nelson lies a couple hundred kilometres below the border to the Yukon. In the summer, it stays light around the clock. At midnight, an orange bruise stains the northwest horizon, as though the sun hit the wall of the sky and slid down. The rest of the sky holds twilight until dawn three hours later, when the sun reappears, and makes its slower, smaller circle of day. The trees are much shorter here, because though summer burns hot, it also burns fast, and Fort Nelson receives less sunlight than most parts of BC. Things are more expensive here, like shampoo and gasoline, as though these men and women dig for it at their own expense. There are fewer towns here – ours is the last before the next one in the Yukon, almost 600 kilometres away. We are four thousand people on a piece of highway in the middle of thousands of hectares of bush.
The other day, I chatted on the phone with Christer. She told me some news about a man I had met and, for a brief moment, loved in Berlin. Upon hearing that he had fallen head over heels for a woman there, I felt a strong sense of loss. How silly of me, I thought, for he was never mine, so what did I lose? I told Christer I was fine. Of course, I wanted him for my own, but we live on different continents. How ridiculous would I be if I were sad? I’m fine. Just fine. Fine, thanks. Yourself?
Later, I crawled into bed with my etymological dictionary and looked up ‘to mourn’. See paragraph one of MEMORY. In Latin, Greek, and Germanic Old English, to mourn and to remember are, for a brief period, interchangeable verbs. Upon reading this, I started crying. Really crying. Suddenly, my mother’s face came around my mind, as though on a carousel, and then slipped, or rotated, away. Other faces appeared, faces of people I say I love. Then, faces of people I do not love. Or did not think I loved. I looked up ‘love’. My dictionary instructed me to see paragraph seven of ‘LEAVE’. Instead, I just closed the book and cried. Faces came and went, came and went, these people, in a circle, beyond my control. And I felt the light, the elation, of everything gone, everything that has passed, behind me. I also felt the deep ache of its loss. I cried for a long time, I think. I opened the blinds to look out the window and tried to gauge the hour, but it was still light out. Even though the day was over, the sky still held the light.