It gets you thinking about shelter, these late-night walks this time of year, looking into people’s apartments, cubes of light set in the dark, and inside them, squares of light: television, computer, aquarium. Last night in one apartment building, a movie was being projected—an entire wall writhing with a bright sunny day in the 1950s—while in the room directly above, a teenager brushed her hair in a mirror. The way she moved her body, it was easy tell, even from down in the street, that music was playing.
People often have paintings of landscapes on their apartment walls, of rugged west coast beaches, dark rainforests. If you lived involuntarily on a beach or in the woods, you’d imagine a warm apartment, and if you were brave, these paintings on its walls.
For a few nights in my twenties, I slept under a bridge. I could have done better, but this was during the years that silence enveloped me, and I could find no channels from inside to out. I was assaulted there too, under the bridge—mildly, easier to shrug off since the man did not “love” me.
A wonderful shelter I had, for only one night, was after driving all the way straight from Winnipeg to the outskirts of Gatineau. My passenger, Karl Wendt, and I had met through
a cork bulletin board at the local cafe, as things were done then. I’d advertised for someone to share gas on a drive east. Karl, it turned out, was a poet, with schizophrenia, a brilliant wanderer and old hippie who smoked so much his fingertips were yellow. We lived in the same Nova Scotia neighbourhood for the next three years, and these days, when I have to remember that he is dead, my marrow seizes, and weeps iodine.
Karl was the one who pushed me to drive a couple more hours to the outskirts of Gatineau, because he had acquaintances there, old friends. There’s no story to it: I was all but blind with exhaustion, stumbling into the small, leaning house, and led immediately to a room with a single bed, grey with darkness, where I fell asleep—a kind of coma—to the sounds of voices in the kitchen. Thirty years later, I remember the short, melting chain of seconds during which I feel asleep to those sounds.
Perhaps the sounds are what socked the memory so firmly in my mind. As the youngest of five children, a large family, I often fell asleep to sounds in the kitchen, voices remembering to shush once in a while, tea being poured. Enormous trust. So enormous you do not know that you have it, it is larger than you, larger than the dark, a country, a universe.
But I also remember that night, I’m sure, because I had to gamble—trust strangers, people I’d never even seen through clear eyes. They gave me just what I needed. A bed. Rest. I was a traveller, passing through. I was no one, and everyman.
A few years later, I was living in a small fisherman’s cottage on Nova Scotia’s south shore—the first to live there and not fish for a living. Rent was $150 a month. At about noon on a Sunday in the middle of January, I ran out of wood for the stove. I was so young and stupid, I must not have taken note of the dwindling pile. The house was cold within two hours, as if it had never been heated, ever. I darted desperately into the spindly Nova Scotia forest outside the door looking for wood. There was nothing. Buddy finally arrived at dusk with the cord of dry, split logs. I’d found him in the slim local phone book under “firewood”. He stood inside the door, his truck backed up along the never-used, icy driveway, engine running, and said he did not take cheques. I considered offering him something else. Maybe I did offer—because what I remember is him taking the cheque, LOL.
Back on the west coast, years later, shelter was my lover’s arms, open for me when I was still ten feet from the bed. The same lover who in the cabin on the Gulf Island could not get the generator going, and night was coming, and we were still soaked from our foolhardy hijinks on the ferry deck in the winter rain. As the cabin—the word is grand here—sank into a deeper chill, I eyed my lover hungrily—a man of girth, formidably hirsute. A natural furnace. It makes sense to me now that he was the one who decided we boot it out of there and run through the dark forest back to the dock to catch the day’s last ferry; at 125 pounds, I didn’t have much to offer.
But that man could make no promises. Which may be why I loved him helplessly at an age I should have known better. He had absolute ease in the world, basted with arrogance. I fell in love on our second date, with the way he tossed his keys on the restaurant table. The thing is, he had a problem with object permanence. He’d be tagged on social media in photos where he’d have his arm around a woman at a play, or eating supper with an ex-girlfriend and her aging father. The thing is, he never mentioned these outings to me. Once, when I asked about one of the women in the photos, he said, “Oh yeah. It’s funny. She’s always in a relationship when I’m not, and then she’s not, when I am.” He never did anything with the women, I guess, but once I asked, “What if she called you up and said, ‘Hey, come on over.’ What would you do?” He answered, “I don’t know.” I finally had to decide that the shelter he offered was not reliable enough. I got tired of standing out in the cold.
Shelter keeps the wind off. It insulates, but you’ve got to question it. Last night there was a terrible storm, and everyone was having a strange day because of it. My young friend said, “The wind was so bad, we couldn’t get any fresh air because we had to close our window.” This makes me laugh, being from Winnipeg, and it being December.