You've Been Drowning It For Years
On longing and terror, and intimacy between strangers
Photograph by Christopher Martin
The woman beside me looked exhausted, but in a strange way also completely alert, as though she was so used to feeling worn out that it was just normal to her now. She gazed at the road ahead of us as she drove, shooting me quick glances now and again as we spoke quietly. Outside the car, a dim rust-coloured glow was just starting to illuminate the endless Saskatchewan prairie stretching out around us in all directions. In the back seat, two other women snored gently among their piled-up belongings. The three of them had been driving nonstop for days, sleeping in shifts, having left their rural New Brunswick village to visit one of their daughters in Edmonton, 4500km away, for her newborn’s baby shower.
I’d been standing on the highway by a gas station in Upsala, Ontario (human population 200, deerfly population 2 trillion, claim to fame: was once a refueling stop for trains back when trains were a thing) when they’d pulled up beside me. One of the three grannies had rolled down the window and hollered: you better not kill us or we’ll kill ya back! Get in! I threw my stuff in the trunk and squeezed in beside them, where they proceeded to tease and lightly sexually harass me for the rest of the day, delighted at having snagged themselves a real live hitchhiker. When dusk rolled around, they informed me that it was my job to keep the driver awake. I complied cheerfully, grabbing myself an extra large double-double next time they stopped for Tim’s and settling in for the long haul.
The woman sitting beside me had spent her entire life caring for others. She’d forgone higher education to care for her ailing parents, then older siblings, and then married and became a housewife, taking care of her son. Her husband worked in the oil fields in Alberta, visiting her less and less until he stopped altogether. The money he sent home shrank too, and she suspected that he was spending more and more of his paychecks on drugs. She got cancer; after her surgery, he came back to visit and while he was there, stole her pain medication. Now she was getting old and fat, and was still dependent on him. She had never worked much outside the home, and had few employable skills; anyway, nobody much was hiring around where they lived. She’d felt her life pass her by. As the summer sky slowly lightened from wine-dark to plum streaked with amber, pop music playing barely audibly from the car stereo, her friends asleep behind us, she murmured to me about her fear. She told me that she had always been afraid. She told me that she always wanted to travel. She told me she would give anything to be as brave as me. For a dizzying moment I saw myself as she saw me: confident and unencumbered, strong and free, easy and proud, like a character from a movie, like a story come to life.
I told her that I am not brave, that I am wracked with fear. That I spent years in thrall to addiction, preferring to blot out the whole entire world than to face my terror head-on. That I am still so cowardly sometimes that it feels like a physical knot in my guts, a boot on my head. But then I told her that that is not the only thing that’s true about me. No one is unitary. The monolithic mind is a myth. We are collections of parts, systems made of systems. We have whole ecologies of thought and feeling inside us. For all my avoidance and neuroticism and fear, within me there really is a part that is the way she sees me. I spend a lot of time trying to connect with that part. But that means that within her, there is that part, too. Within all of us there is the capacity for change. I see it all the time. People will just wake up one day and transform their lives completely. A lot of the time, all else being equal, the only thing truly stopping us is ourselves.
It’s never too late to do anything, I said, as much to myself as to her. Your son is grown. You own your home. If you wanted, you could sell it and wander the world for years. You could go to university and learn anything you wanted. You could move to Saltspring Island and live in a yurt and never go through a New Brunswick winter again. You could drive right to your husband’s apartment and hand him the divorce papers. But even if you didn’t do anything, and stayed in your comfy home in the town you grew up in, you can seek out that part of you and make friends with it. You’ve been drowning it for years, decades, in the darkness of your own mind weeping and shoving it down again and again every time it tries to surface, saying to it I’m sorry, I’m sorry, we can’t, we can’t, it isn’t safe.
She cried silently as I spoke. When they dropped me off outside Saskatoon she got out to give me a hug. I’m giving you my number, she said. You make sure you text me when you get safe to Vancouver. A few days later, standing on East Hastings, I took a picture of myself with the mountains behind me and sent it to her.
This is an excerpt from my zine, What Else is There to Live For 3. You can get the zine at the Fucking Cancelled store.