The Americans won their revolution in 1783 and British loyalists, who some Wikipedia articles refer to as refugees, fled North. Red coats and wrong side sympathisers hacked through forests, upsetting native populaces until they ‘founded’ Toronto in 1793, after some negotiations with the Mississauga tribe.
Not the most sophisticated summation of a nation’s founding history, but you’re rarely asked about Canada in pub quizzes. The capital is Ottawa. The Great Lakes are Superior, Huron, Michigan, Erie and Ontario. Done. That’s all you need to know. Trust me, I’ve been there.
I ended up in Toronto for a few months at the tail end of 2010 until the Spring of 2011, because of Canadian literary giant Margaret Atwood. I had wanted to study abroad for my third year of university. It was to be potentially seminal, a future chapter in my biography.
A law school in Atlanta, Georgia was my original choice. Even now, the word Georgia trips off the mental tongue as heady, fun, full of possibility. A taste of the Deep South was going to be the making of me, I decided. I would develop freckles and wear a letter jumper.
While still in college in Dublin, I met up with a girl who had lived in Atlanta the year before. Over coffee she described keg parties, football players, Friday night games at neighbouring campuses that turned into weekends, backyard pools. I smiled, a bobbing back-of-the-car dog ornament to her every rushed anecdote. Words like ‘class!’ unleashed when she finished sentences, but inside my blood stilled. This is not my future she’s describing, I thought. This doesn’t sound like opaque-wearing me. Freckles would ruin the alabaster skin strangers complimented. I look awful in shorts. I can’t swim. Combine that with early twenties drinking habits and a rented home with a pool outside - I’ll nab an obit article in the Irish Independent. Facebook photos of me wearing matte foundation with an overlay of gloopy Benefit highlighter, striped in the approximate direction of cheekbones, would litter cheap paper. An ignoble legacy.
Which brings me to Margaret Atwood. After the fright of Georgia’s prospects, I scrambled for a new plan and hit upon a college on the outskirts of Toronto, Atwood’s home city.
I thought me and Maggie were on the same wavelength, like every other 20-something-year-old female in further education. Following a proposal of marriage from a chalkboard-grating boyfriend, her heroine in The Edible Woman begins to see food as a living entity she cannot stomach. Every time I roast sweet potato, I think its puckered damp flesh reminiscent of bubbling skin. When I read The Handmaid’s Tale, I, like the protagonist, got distracted from the grim dystopian plot by the sexy mechanic. Sweeping 20th century epic The Blind Assassin is about a woman with secrets, and an argumentative sister. I have sisters.
Canada became a ‘that’ll do’ goal, a suitable making of me with a pared back but hopefully intriguing narrative. And yet, I made no clear impression on that chunk of continent. If I landed in the city tomorrow morning, I’d have two people, tops, who could provide me with a couch.
My Toronto was a flavourless guidebook. I tellingly pronounce the city’s second ‘t’. When I wandered the streets I invariably ended up in Starbucks. I didn’t develop a taste for Tim Hortons. I forget the name of train stations I used frequently travel through. When I think about Canada I feel a betrayal of sorts, a treason against myself.
There are stand out memories. A Scottish guy in the exchange gang made it his short-term mission to be the funny one. For Halloween, he dressed as the Joker, easily two to three years after the Batman movie was released. When he knocked on my door requesting red lipstick, I asked him was his outfit ironic. “What?” He would get in touch months later because the other Irish girl, who he fancied, wouldn’t reply to him on Facebook. He was worried she had disappeared.
There was a guy in my Law & Literature class who chose to analyse his own screenplay for our end-of-term essay. I was ghosted by my History of Criminal Law study group after submitting free-from-critical-analysis notes to the email thread. An Australian taught me how to play poker. However, I never had an ‘adventure’.
There was a fleeting chance of something when I roomed with an uneven-in-number girl gang on the college ski trip, and two attractive guy friends they snuck in. One was immediately arresting. A young James Spader look, awful sunglasses, he told actual laugh out loud stories – a rarity in that part of the world. I found the fact he tried skiing in jeans and was bleeding from the knee when he first sauntered in kind of cool. I stress the fact I was 21-years-old at the time.
The other guy was a less bombastic soul, a tall wavy haired brunette who kept trying to chat me up. I shut him down with bare responses as I sipped my gin and tonic in a very careful manner. I was seeing an Irish guy long-distance. Something I felt compelled to tell every man who breathed near me. He very kindly introduced me to everyone at pre-drinks and acknowledged any awkward attempt I made at entering the group’s conversation.
A few weeks later I was walking through the city with a friend. That same quiet handsome man saw me and called out. He jogged a little bit, caught up and asked me, breathlessly, if I wanted to join him at a party in a nearby bar. Looking back, him shouting my name while gulping cold evening street air ranks among My Top Ten Sexy Memories. Me telling him I had to go home to Skype my then-boyfriend ranks high in 2011’s Stupid Decisions. In the flashback monologue of my life, this is the part where Now Me freezes the frame, breath moisture hanging in the air, and says: “That was your fucking adventure, Jeanne.”
As we strolled away my friend asked me who he was. Just some guy, I said. Which is true, I don’t even remember his name, but in retrospect he was my chance at something, even just one night of mere drinks and proper flirting. The next time a man expressed interest in me in that city was my last night in Toronto. A stocky Corkman approached me in a bar to tell me he was impressed I ordered chicken wings. I was different from other girls.
For all these memories, the only proper imprint is my hatred of snow. I despise it on a scale I’m certain no one else can understand. Snow belongs in movies and on illustrated Christmas cards. In Canada it belongs everywhere. The rumble of ploughs accompanies dark AM rituals. Your bank account vomits funds because quilted coats which seep stray feathers come March are a necessity. Toes become unfeeling bullets. Box-dyed hair verges on snapping with the indoors-out change in heat.
In the city, I avoided the slicing aboveground air with underground shortcuts. That’s what the Toronto snow was, something to be avoided. It drove you into hiding, protected and subterranean. I never witnessed a vast frontier with an unforgiving landscape, swathes of silence, and a suspicion of wolves. That was the Canada I imagined, a never-ending inaccessible countryside.
Instead I got a dead campus on the outskirts of a polite city. In my eyeline were three fellow highrise apartment blocks built with rectangular windows like sad eyes. Beyond those freestanding impositions, university housing ran out like matchboxes. The April day I moved out to journey home to Ireland, a young woman was murdered by an angry male acquaintance in one of those houses. Her boyfriend was on a video call and witnessed it all unfold.
It wasn’t until my last week there that I finally met my next-door neighbours. Turns out they had the quietest toddler in existence. I never heard the child wail.
One December evening we were evacuated because of rapidly dropping temperatures and a fire that screwed with the campus-wide heating. As I waited in the hallway I had my one proper conversation with a neighbour. She wore blue jeans, a practical cushioned winter jacket and sensible work boots, something on the Timberland scale. We chatted. She told me she was a mature student with a background in activism. She worked on developing SVU in Toronto. I was like, “The television show?!” She explained, that no, she helped the police department in the city develop new standards regarding victims of crime. She also revealed she was a few weeks pregnant and introduced me to the father of her child. She was so happy and proud.
Less than a month later the fire alarm in our building was set off and residents gathered outside in the snow, wearing layers and boots. We sensed nuisance rather than threat. She was there so I shuffled up to her with a greeting and queries. The conversation ended with an awkward hug. She had miscarried in recent days. A few months later, an email arrived from the law school dean announcing a student’s unexpected death, a between-the-lines suicide.
She died in that apartment building. I wondered if she had a room similar to mine – a stiff foam mattress, bathroom lighting evoking all imperfections and making pale skin look like puddle frost, a humming fridge in the corner of the open plan. Her Twitter account still exists. It wasn’t too active back when she was alive and working on developing SVU. There was a terse reply to Charlie Sheen during his Tiger Blood days, a few comments about essays. In 2014 her account was hacked by Russian spammers. A glut of Cyrillic outbursts dashed through a February.
In the end I met Margaret Atwood, not in her hometown but two years later in Dun Laoghaire amid a clammy seaside drizzle. She was speaking in the Pavillon Theatre at a sold-out event. My younger sister had secured a ticket and I tried my hand at a cancelled one. The box office girl told me some seats had freed up because of Seamus Heaney’s death.
I didn’t tell Margaret Atwood she was responsible for eight months of my life. Because she wasn’t. It was all me. I merely smiled as she signed a copy of The Blind Assassin. My intent, wordless focus prompted her to widen her eyes and frown as she stared down to finish her inky flourish.