Julie Mannell writes her final post as guest editor of the Town Crier
This is the third instalment of Julie’s “Small Town Asshole” series, and her final post as guest editor for the Town Crier. Find the first two parts here and here.
Young Julie and Grown Julie are sitting in Fonthill together at the peak, the highest point of the village which is, I think, the only vantage point in the whole wide world where a person can see Niagara Falls and the Toronto skyline at exactly the same time. We are mostly looking at Fonthill, though—a single tiny block of a whole big planet framed by beaming metropolitan lights.
Young Julie: Why did you bring me here?
Grown Julie: You followed me here. You follow me everywhere. You’re like a ghost.
YJ: Well, I don’t think that’s fair. I think about you all the time. I hope that you’re ok. I try to make sure that you’re okay.
GJ: I’m always trying to live up to these big weird standards you set for me. You want me to be a writer. You want me to be a good person. Yet, you still want me to be us and us isn’t always good. Sometimes we feel badly about ourselves and rightfully so, because sometimes we behave very badly.
YJ: That doesn’t change?
YJ: What does change?
GJ: America has a black president and we end up with a kind of sexy prime minister.
YJ: No no, what does change about us?
GJ: Honestly, not very much. We still keep saying the things that people don’t want us to say. We are totally incapable of sitting on our hands. We are always getting in trouble.
YJ: Yeah, but are we cool? Do people like us?
GJ: We were always cool and not cool. People always liked us and didn’t. I don’t know how much of that really comes down to us.
YJ: What does it come down to?
GJ: Whether or not we can figure out how to be a little more forgiving of each other.
YJ: I don’t really understand what forgiveness is?
GJ: I don’t think I do either, TBH.
YJ: What is TBH?
GJ: It is how people say “to be honest” in the future.
YJ: The future sounds scary.
GJ: The future is only ever as scary as the past.
GJ: No. It is much scarier. Terrible things have happened that neither of us can even fathom yet.
Young Julie starts to cry. I put a hand on her back. I know why she is crying. I have cried as her over and over again in many loud and annoying ways.
GJ: Lots of great things happen too, though. Plenty of great things.
YJ: Like what?
GJ: You get to love people and know what it is for someone to love you back. You get to go all over and sense things so outside of Fonthill you can’t even imagine them yet. You get to write stories down and read them in front of people and some people like your stories and some people are really impacted by them. You grow. You grow so so big, and I know that you don’t know this yet so I’m going to tell you: all of your dreams come true because you don’t even know how big dreams can be. The possibilities are so much wilder than you could’ve ever imagined. You haven’t even learned to imagine yet. There are books that haven’t been written that you will read and they will change your life. There are so many songs you haven’t even heard. There is a golden era of television.
YJ: Wow! A golden era of television?
GJ: Yes, it is wonderful. You watch it at whatever time you like and on a computer that you can carry around with you and …
YJ: But, Julie?
GJ: Yes, Julie?
YJ: Are you happy?
Alone in my room and it’s Christmas, 2015. I’m reflecting on how messed up my semester has been. Before I left Toronto to go to Fonthill I went to a Christmas party with a whole bunch of CanLit personalities:
I keep introducing myself to people and they keep reminding me that we’ve already met before. I feel embarrassed. I feel like there have been so many new faces, too many new faces, and I can’t quite remember.
“I can’t believe you did that,” says the voice of another young Canadian writer. “Don’t you know he founded [insert big word] movement in poetry?”
He starts explaining who everyone “is” in the room to me by listing their accomplishments like a living curriculum vitae. He even knows stuff I’ve done: “I loved your [insert innocuous compilation of words] in the [magazine that matters to maybe 500 people in Canada].” I feel really awkward when he starts talking to me about my personal brand and my networking skills on the internet.
“I was living in a walk-in closet in Montreal and just killing time.”
“Oh really, well I mean the feeling of not caring really comes across which is why I think people like it so much.”
I hate this person. Then I look around and notice people hovering around other people. Everyone seems so hungry and pointy-toothed. I kind of wonder when it got so far away from the actual work and became so much like high school. Avoiding this kind of weird behaviour is why I left Fonthill in the first place. Yet in retrospect I can see I’ve been just as guilty. I’ve been sacrificing work all over the place for tears over lovers or jealous schemes against girls who threaten me. I kind of wonder why we want each other to stop making art so badly? If our work is good then why do we have to schmooze people who we might otherwise just not care for? There is a fakeness in it that I know I am guilty of too. I see the hypocrisy in me wanting to be friends with writers I admire as writers, outside of the world of being a likeable/loveable person. I sometimes wonder if it comes from earnest desire or this stumbling fear of possibly being left behind. It’s like a game I feel I have to play. I felt that way as a teenager when I rode Kimmy’s identity for awhile. I rode her identity because I’m very bad at this game. I know being alone with my computer. I am frequently unlikeable because I’m rude and obnoxious and moody and sensitive and drink too much to make up for it but always always end up making it worse. I feel scared of a world wherein people get platforms not based on the quality of their work but on the endearing charms in their personality. I fail at that game, always. I very obviously fail at that game. I fail so badly because I keep trying but I keep failing and then word gets out about all of the ways I have failed over and over and over again.
Anyways, so I’m alone in Fonthill on Christmas and this face pops up as a suggested friend on Facebook. I swear I know it from somewhere. I’m not sure where, though. I notice our mutual friends are authors. I figure I maybe met him at some point in Toronto and forgot. I add him and a few other faces as friends thinking maybe I know them and maybe if I add them on Facebook then they will become part of a narrative on the internet that I internalize. Then I won’t run into the problem of repeatedly insulting people by introducing myself to them. Then I will seem more informed, more aware, a good CanLit girl. Fuck. Oh well, it was an idea …
Anyhow, so I pull out the stupid baby Jesus from under my bed again. The classified document detailing the crimes I’ve committed against the Virgin Mary and my hometown. The thing about committing crimes is that for the most part it doesn’t really matter what your reasoning was, how hurt you felt, how justified you perceived yourself in committing the act—a crime is still a crime, a wrong is still a wrong. My own little truths about ways I’ve been a victim does not sanctify me a vigilante of heart hurts. As silly as it is—it is pretty fucking silly—I really had to take a difficult look at myself through that stolen baby and know that I was just perpetuating the weird hateful acts committed against me. Even if they were silly and nobody would know, I would know.
I tuck the baby Jesus into my purse yet again and walk through my front door, where I discover winter has finally arrived as a thrashing mess all over my exposed cheeks. I trip on bits of ice and see Pacey’s light is on and Dawson’s light is off. “Dawson’s at Mossimo’s,” Pacey informs me while half-giggling. He knows all about me and my history of eerie behaviours every time I’m back in town.
“Wanna go for a walk? I stole this baby Jesus and now I’m going to go return him to the mayor.”
“Sure,” responds Pacey.
“Also, can you lend me a scarf? It got real fucking cold and I didn’t know.”
“Yep,” responds Pacey as he reaches for his jacket.
I put my arm in his and together we venture towards South Pelham. The slope of Fonthill is so slippery and all I brought with me are these gorgeously terrible heels I insist on wearing everywhere. As we get closer and closer to the little town hall building he reminds me that there might be video cameras so I should cover my face—ya know, in case the two guys who call themselves cops in Fonthill go searching for Christ (a decent short story idea). I put the scarf over my face and lay the baby Jesus by the door of Pelham town hall—I can see a set of stairs through some rectangle windows.
I pull out a pink post-it and write a letter to Mayor Dave Augustyn. I write (something to the effect of—this is all loose memory, I don’t have the post-it on me):
Dear Mayor Dave,
I want you to know that Fonthill needs more poetry. Fonthill is a poem. I am telling you that Fonthill is a poem that needs to be written.
(AKA: Your personal lord and saviour, etc.)
Pacey is laughing at me. “Why did you have to do that?” he asks.
“I dunno. I felt like I did wrong by Mary and I’m wanting to be a good person, a better person. This seemed like the easiest first step.”
“Haha, you’re fucking crazy. You know that?”
“Yes. But I want more poems in Fonthill.”
“You think you’ll get ‘em?”
“Only if we write them.”
When I was 12 my father forced me to go to sailing school because he raced sailboats and he was dying. I did it but I didn’t like it. I didn’t really like much of what was going on. I wanted to go to the place where people would love me. I got into so much trouble all the time at sailing school.
I knew one boy maybe had a crush on me. I knew he would maybe do whatever I told him. I waited a couple of weeks until I’d learned to rig the dinky boats. I convinced him to be my partner. The water was choppy that day.
It was when we were out on Lake Ontario that I informed him we were moving to Toronto together. He was down. So we sailed across the lake towards the CN Tower—we went far away from the bush-hills of Port Dalhousie, then we went by the big bridge and the smoke factories of Hamilton and Burlington. The waves were massive white caps trying to swallow us. We had no motor, only this little tiny sail.
“What are we going to do in Toronto?” he shout-asked me from the back of the boat as I pulled the ropes attached to the sails.
“I’m going to be a writer!” I proclaimed.
“How’re you gonna do that?”
“I’m just going to walk into a museum and let them know that I am a writer.”
“Like … who? How do you do that?”
“The way I figure it is that all of the artist people live in the museum together with their art. So if you are a writer then you can just walk in and say you are a writer and they will know. Writers just know. So if they try to kick me out or whatever, I can quote to them some of my poems and stuff, and then they will look at my face and know I am a writer.”
“Wouldn’t a writer be in a library?”
“No way. That is just copies. They are in the museum and people are building statues of them and everything!!! They are in the city and people in the city love writers. They’ll know me. I know they’ll know me. They’ll have been waiting.”
“Yes, I’ve read all about it. The problem is that I am a writer and I’m not in the city. Nobody gets me here. They wouldn’t know a writer if they tried but all of the big magazines and paper houses with all of the paper, the ones who cut down the trees, well they are all in the city making paper and putting words on it and they know writers. So I walk in and I know they’ll take a look at my face and see that I’m a writer!”
“How much have you read about this?”
“I’ve read the entire Pelham Town Library and none of the writers ever fit in where they are born. The only way they get to being loved and special is by going to the city and finding the other writers and then they have wonderful lives and don’t have to write anymore because the book is over. Also I get super good grades and work really hard at school. All writers get super good grades and work really hard at school, and that’s why there are hardly any spelling mistakes in books.”
“Well, I mean, I’m not a writer. What do I do?”
“Well, maybe we can get married but I don’t know if I want to marry you. I sort of have this soul mate named Dawson.”
“Dawson? Who is Dawson?”
“Dawson is just the guy who is my soul mate and I am in love with him. Maybe I will be in love with you but I don’t think so, but I think the writers will be nice to you because you are my friend and you helped me find them. We can get a fancy apartment in the city and have a whole beautiful life there.”
“I don’t know if I want that. I’m kind of mad at you for not telling me about Dawson.”
“Okay well maybe I will marry you. We’ll see. But of course this is what you want. This is what everyone wants. I’ve read a lot of books and this is what everybody wants.”
“How will we afford a fancy apartment?”
“Like the writers on Oprah always have a lot of money, that’s how we get on Oprah. If Oprah has taught me anything it is that writers are some of the most well paid people in the world. In the city they will throw money at me when they see that I am a writer. Trust me, everything tells me that.”
“Will I ever see my family again?”
“We will come back when I finish my first book. We will be heroes.”
As we reach the docks, our camp facilitators zoom toward us in their motorboats. They firmly tell us that we have to sail back to Port Dalhousie and we are in big trouble. I feel defeated. A kid in the camp—I want to call him “Piggy” because he looks like the character in Lord of The Flies—is so excited to see us approaching the docks that he falls into the terrible harbour where they dump the piss and shit of Niagara.
The boy and I never really get in trouble. Our facilitators don’t want their supervisors or our parents to know that two preteens were able to successfully steal a sailboat and nearly make it to Toronto. Nobody asks me why I want to go to Toronto so badly. I begin, in my head, to hatch another scheme to go to the city and be a writer.
Young Julie: Are you happy?
Grown Julie: Well, I’m happy about maybe being a real writer in the city.
YJ: PLEASE TELL ME MORE!
GJ: The hardest lesson I’ve had to learn is that all good writers are not necessarily good people and all good people are not necessarily good writers.
YJ: But how come? They make such nice stories and poems out of words.
GJ: There is a difference between making good things and being good to other people. It gets very complicated.
GJ: Being a good person is being good to other people, even other people who hurt you, and even people who hurt other people. Being a good person is making the complicated decisions that may make the world a better place and sometimes at your own expense. Being a good writer—maybe you have a seed of talent, maybe you write a decent sentence but being a good writer is just the same as being good at anything, it takes really hard work, and even if you work really hard and even if enough people think you are good there are still always people who think you are bad because different writing means different things to different people. You can make all of the right choices in life and never write a thing worth reading. You can write a million amazing books and never treat a single person with empathy.
YJ: Are you a good writer?
GJ: I don’t really know for sure but I try to be.
YJ: Are you a good person?
GJ: I don’t really know for sure but I try to be.
In the summer of 2015 I embarked on the Worst Case Ontario poetry tour. It would be my official exit from the life I’d lived in Montreal for the last eight years and signify the start of my life in Toronto as a graduate student in the University of Guelph’s MFA program. “Worst Case Ontario” felt like a fitting title since I’d found myself living in my friend’s walk-in closet after I lost my job due to language laws and lost my wealthy boyfriend on Skype while dressed as a bear because he believed I didn’t make him happy anymore. I’d run away from Fonthill to Montreal in 2007 to be a writer and become, by some minor success, a writer. I’d made writer friends who were like family to me. My whole world there was consumed with making art, not just out of words, but out of my lived experience to other writers. Entering the Montreal writing scene was a bit like discovering my own kind of animal. I had intense familial feelings around my friendships there—friendships that maybe in the context of what I’ve known so far in Toronto would be probably maybe get consecrated “networking connections.”
The thing about being an Anglo in Montreal is that most of us are broke. People have award-winning books but also clean houses for a living. Young writers populate call centres and, on break, show each other the weird poems they wrote while conducting telephone surveys about grocery shopping habits. From my little room in Montreal, I insisted we stop in Welland for a reading. I insisted that people would come. Welland and Montreal were my readings to book. Montreal would be my farewell show and, I thought, Welland would be my welcome home.
In front of an audience that includes two local musicians, a Niagara poet and her friend, my little brother and his friend and his friend’s girlfriend, I had a melt down on stage. Here I was buying into this artificial narrative that writers come back as heroes. The audience was empty except for those I mentioned, a single barmaid, and a few old men betting on ponies. Some crackheads had gotten into a fight outside and their bloodstains in front of the entrance foreshadowed the failure of a show we were about to put on. “You tried to kill me and you failed,” I said to an audience of nobody. “Now I got a real big scholarship and I’m going to go to grad school in the city to complete my novel! I win! I win!” I shouted into a blank abyss of a couple TV screens and the odd cough. I read from my novel to mainly my tour mates. I am 26 years-old and still looking for their approval.
I am hurt. I hurt in loud and obnoxious ways in front of the microphone. Nobody really hears but the unsettling feeling stays with me as we drive across North America. Somewhere between Pittsburgh and Brooklyn I realize that even if I made it—really made it—even if I had a best selling novel at Coles in the Seaway Mall—people in my hometown would still pick it up, look at my author photo, and call me a loser. Like they were in on a secret that nobody else in the world could know. Once you are one thing in a small town, you are that thing forever.
Claire Boucher, better known by her stage name, Grimes
Sometimes I think about the way Niagara seems to circle around either Dallas Green or Dan Romano like they have an orbit. I wonder if they know that they have an orbit. Then I think about Montreal and know that they orbit around Claire Boucher in a similar fashion. I wonder if these musicians know that their bodies have a force that makes others gravitate toward them in both good and bad ways. I contemplate the complicated relationship artists have with their own power.
In 2012, from my apartment in Montreal, I went on a rant about issues I was having with Welland/Fonthill/Fenwick, blah blah blah. Hometowns. I ended each sentence with #WellandProblems. A close male friend from my hometown suggested I start a Facebook page and a Twitter account called “Welland Problems” and I didn’t really know how to do it but he helped me set up the page. Every day I would log in. I would frequently post updates from my novel. Pretty soon the page ballooned to thousands and thousands of followers. I watched as people from my childhood “liked,” “favourited,” and “retweeted” my writing. I watched people who hate me say about my writing, “This guy is so fucking funny.” For the most part they assumed I was a man. They didn’t know it was me and so that allowed them the freedom to appreciate my writing outside of the context of my own popularity, or whatever. It was meant to be satire and shed light on the sort of bleakness that permeates childhood there—to be specific but also universal. I allowed my male friend to make a few on his own. He made very few in general and they were frequently misspelled. He bragged that he had “started Welland Problems” and I didn’t really care about it. For me, it was more about the fact that I was touching on some nerve that was alive. I was telling the truth. I was in conversation with other people who maybe wouldn’t otherwise have given me the time of day.
I wrote Welland Problems while interning at the Summer Literary Seminars in Lithuania. I wrote Welland Problems when I was back in Montreal and far away from my actual Welland problems. I had a short affair with the boy who’d set up my page and then it had ended after a single conversation in which he let me know: “You think you’re special but you’re not fucking special.”
So I responded: “Ok. When I wake up tomorrow I’m going to have a degree from McGill University and my own apartment in the city. When you wake up tomorrow you’re going to be unemployed and living with your mom. You can have special.”
I guess that pissed him off. So while I was interviewing an author in New York City over Skype, he deleted me as the admin on my own writing. He claimed he owned my writing. He said that I got “too feminist” with my posts which weren’t feminist at all and are still there as a testament to that. He said, “Calm down, it is just a joke.” The joke is still going on today because I still don’t have control over my work. He refused to give me my writing back and even goes so far as to claim he “doesn’t know how to delete the pages” even though his area of expertise is as an IT person.
My point is that even while I explore forgiveness, there is legitimacy to anger at those who have wronged me. I was made fun of for my inability to keep my hand down. People hurt me. They really really hurt me. People continue to hate and mock me. Some people will forever, but I had this singular beautiful space to anonymously write my truths to people who think I’m unloveable. Because they didn’t know that I was the voice behind the writing, they were able to allow themselves to like me back.
I had to struggle and work hard to write. I did it. Then they still found ways to take it away. It makes me angry. It hurts me. I hurt loudly and annoyingly on that mic in that empty room in Welland.
The face of the person I think I know pops up on my Facebook on New Year’s Eve.
“hey thanks for the invite Julie. can you remind me where we met?”
I feel a little nauseous. I don’t even know. I can’t remember. This is exactly what I was trying to avoid.
“I actually really can’t! (I’m sorry) but you popped up on my “people you might know” and I had the distinct feeling that perhaps we had met and I’d forgotten—then I noticed our mutual friends and became a bit flustered at the prospect of seeing you at a literary/art event and you saying “Hi” and me having no idea. I just moved to Toronto from Montreal and have met maybe a million writers and, unfortunately, upset maybe a billion people by earnestly not remembering them. It’s super uncomfortable for me but Facebook, as strange as this sounds, sort of frames people as characters in a narrative that I can keep tabs on. Does that make sense? I assure you I’m a normal person in the arts who just wants to avoid continuing to awkwardly encounter the same people over and over again and consequently miffing them with my obliviousness. It’s entirely possible we never met and so maybe adding you is inappropriate but I’m not sure how to be ethical about forgetting, especially when people seem to get especially upset about being forgotten.”
He responds sweetly.
“I’m prolly(sic) just as likely to re-meet someone and do the same thing.”
We get to talking very intensely about our lives. For the sake of this essay I will refer to him as “Dr. Love” and you should know that Dr. Love is a professor of writing and literature and cultural studies and love in a castle, on a faraway island, on another planet, in a different galaxy, that has a separate timezone.
I send him the beginning of my small town essay. He sends me a video of himself reading a poem while pouring liquid on his face and dancing in a restaurant.
I like him very quickly.
I find myself confessing the difficulties of my move to Toronto to this internet person. We end up talking about how the terrible conundrums of my life relate to gender politics. We talk and talk and talk. He tells me he is polyamorous.
Most of the people whom I’ve met in polyamorous relationships sort of use polyamory as a way to sidestep the issue that their relationship is ending. I am so confused by what I could mean to him but the conversation travels forward. When he messages me that he’s finished reading what I have of my essay, firecrackers go off in Fonthill: it is 2016. The whole horrible 2015 is over. I wait for 2015 to end in his alien time zone. He tells me about the first girl he ever loved. He tells me about his first kiss. He tells me about how once he asked a girl to go watch Wayne’s World with him and he bought her a single rose and didn’t want the rose to die and didn’t want his parents to know so he hid it under a stairwell. I like that he is someone who would hide a flower. It all sounds so fiercely and obnoxiously Victorian. I used to most like writing when the power was off and our house was full of candles because it made me feel like a real writer. The way that writers were before laptops.
I know why I thought I knew him. I feel embarrassed. A classmate brought a magazine to school with him on the cover. The brilliant and mysterious Dr. Love. “What a joke,” I’d laughed. Who does this pretentious fucker think he is? “Fuck, that guy on your mag keeps bugging me with his face … it keeps looking at me … ” I tried to cover Dr. Love’s face with my own book. It was too much. I couldn’t stop giggling. People were looking at me so I slumped in my chair like a teenager. Fucking, Dr. Love, Dr. Love, Dr. Love …that fucking face! That stupid fucking face. I tried not to look at the classmate and instead looked at Dr. Love who gazed out from the cover. At lunch I put one picture of his face on top of my own face and said to others, I said, “Hey! Look at me! I’m a big Canadian author blah blah blahhhhhhhhhhhhh … CIRCLE JERK AROUND MY WORD ERECTION BLAHHHHH!!! So serious, fucking Gwendolyn MacEwen Dark Pines serious fucking shit. BLAHHHH!!! Suck my dick! Blahhhh! Canadaaaaaaaaaaa!” I picked up the photo and walked around the room in Humber with it on my face, “Suck my dick!” I said to my peers who didn’t know me very well. “I very much care for the state of poetry. Blah di blah blah! I have won many awards and am praised in several reputable journals. Blah blah blahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!!!”
Oh fuck. Now here was Dr. Love giving me his evening and really being the first person outside of Montreal to really earnestly listen to my weird experience as a student. He was so caring and considerate and open. I’d been such an asshole, such a bully, and I didn’t even know him.
I told him the story about the terrible thing I’d gone and done with his photo in the magazine. He laughed. It’s different when people aren’t really people, just photographs that you can project your frustrations onto. I look at his videos on YouTube that not many have viewed. 21 views for him pouring yogurt on himself. 21 views for him badly singing a Nirvana song at Karaoke. 21 views for him chewing gum at a serious panel. I get it though. I like it.
As the night rolls into morning our conversation moves to the phone and turns very sexy. Only words—okay, okay, to be honest a little Skype fun—but for the most part only words. Sex with this alien machine is like creating a list poem of things we’d be doing to each other if he lived on my planet and the list poem moves and moves and moves until we are fast asleep on the phone with each other.
Dawson wakes me up in the morning. Dr. Love is gone but when I first wake up I feel distinctly that he is there. Dawson is helping me move all of my childhood furniture out of my childhood bedroom and to Toronto. He has a truck. Dawson is a good man who delights in hard labour, as does my brother, kind of. My brother is there anyhow, helping. They take apart my childhood bed first and put the pieces in Dawson’s brown pickup. They take dresser drawers and desk drawers and a dresser and a desk. Sections and components vacate the alcove of my younger self until it is only four walls. The emptiness of the room makes me scared. I used to have such distinct hiding spots designated for each specialized variety of secrets. Now there is just dust and a bookshelf with old notebooks.
I watch my brother and Dawson heave a tarp over my possessions and then lock them into place with thick rope. I climb into the front seat. I am ready to leave Fonthill forever.
Dr. Love messages me, “I hope that moving is treating you as well as it can.”
I message back, “Today I was all smiley and the edges of shapes seemed softer—I think that means I like you.”
Dawson pulls the truck into a gas station. As we drive by the tanks, Dr. Love messages me back, “I think that means that I like you too. :-)”
A couple of girls who I went to elementary school with happen to be in the parking lot (small towns are called small for a reason). I remember them. I remember everyone and everything that they ever said to me. I remember the one girl especially well because she was, like Kimmy, one of the girls who boys were allowed to date. There were maybe five or six girls who were the only dateable girls in our school. She was (is) very pretty. I remember her because she is the reason my favourite colour is yellow. I would look at her in front of this window in the seventh grade. From about 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. the sun would shine on her blonde hair in such a way that it actually made it glow and all of the little dusts floating in the beam of light swam around each other like strange otherworldly creatures that would be goldfish if they were birds—goldbirds. And the way it would come from the back of her head it would make all of her golden except her face. Except her face. I used to look at her and just feel kind of dazzled that a normal person could be born and, for no reason in particular, become that beautiful. She looked to me like the colour yellow. I would save yellow things—starbursts, soaps from my bathroom, stickers, wrappers, crayons—and I would slip the yellow things into her schoolbag and she never knew. I thought the yellow things belonged to the beautiful girl with the golden yellow hair. I even remember she wore yellow to school one day and I got so stoked. Fuck I’m weird. I’m so weird that yellow is still my favourite colour because it reminds me of how I felt about her then, unjealous appreciation of a girl I think is so, so beautiful.
So two girls are in the parking lot: one girl is my favourite colour yellow and the other girl is fine and nice enough but I kind of thought she was a dick when we were younger. Anyhow, they start laughing at having caught Dawson and I running away from Fonthill together in 2016. “Has nothing changed after all this time?” laughs Yellow.
“I guess not.” I say and it feels a little like a lie.
Yellow asks what I did for New Years. I don’t tell her about my sexy chat with Dr. Love. I tell her that I spent it alone because I don’t have any friends in Fonthill.
“Fuck,” says Yellow. “I should have called you. Everybody, like, every. Single. Person. Got together and we had this whole bash. I mean we’re going back there if you and [Dawson] want to come? The whole old gang is there, there’s …” For the most part the people that Yellow are naming are my childhood bullies. They still scare the shit out of me. I cannot imagine a more unnerving experience than going into a basement and acting like everything is chill with the people who made me want to kill myself when I was younger. I tell Yellow, “No.” I hug Yellow and Yellow’s friend. I tell them to have fun with the people who still make me want to kill myself. As they open their car door, I say, “I know that I’m with [Dawson] but he’s just my friend with a truck okay?”
“I am different. I am different now.”
“Tell them, tell those people, tell them I’m not a loser anymore. Let them know that I’m not a loser.”
“Oh Julie … ” says the girl who isn’t Yellow.
“I don’t know if they really care about that anymore, Julie,” confesses Yellow. “We’re all grownups with jobs and lives. I think they and everyone else are just happy for you.”
As she drives off I know that I love Yellow but I think, then why didn’t anybody come to my poetry reading?
I think about how she thinks elementary school was for me; how detached her experience is from mine; the ways in which her social status made her privileged and mine did not; the way those privileges inform the sort of nonchalant way she invited me to hang out with people who told me to go kill myself. Didn’t she remember anything about me? We’ve known each other since we were three.
Fonthill and elementary school don’t exist in a vacuum. The schoolyard is a micro-version of the rest of the world. Classism, racism, ableism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, and all of the bad and hateful phobias that have fuelled some of the most disgusting moments in our history happen in small ways in towns everywhere. They happen in their schoolyards. They even breathe into the way innocent and inexperienced children use language.
When I think about the way I was spoken to then as the person I am now, I can recognize that the language toward me in those instances was coded in sexism. Part of why I was an easy target, why it was so difficult for me to raise my hand, why I perhaps have had a problem with expressing anger, is that telling the difficult truths often means taking up space. I talked a lot in class, I told the truth, I took up space—so much space that they saw me, they saw me loudly, and so I was targeted. Part of the hate went beyond what they could ever conceive was influencing their narrative in which I was the loser. One consequence of them telling me to not take up too much space was that I would go into my room at a young age and self-injure. Mutilating myself as a woman meant making myself uglier, it meant hurting in silence, and it meant not speaking back to anger or hate. It meant that I could control it quietly in my room and punish myself for the space I took up.
When I think about the way I was spoken to then as the person I am now, I realize it is from a position of relative privilege. I don’t really know if I still qualify for the working class. I don’t know what to call myself as a broke writer with an education. Still, I have a university education and so I at least have the ability to disseminate the systemic pressures that informed violent acts against me when I was a young girl—things that to this day inform the ways I may be insecure and how I take out that insecurity on other people.
I was raised in the Catholic faith which is beautiful in so many ways. It is beautiful in its love for stories, it is beautiful in its emphasis on forgiveness and empathy, and it is beautiful in that it is a source of healing for many many people. However, Catholicism, like nearly everything maybe, is deeply rooted in patriarchy and often reinforces that women are the lesser. Consider the ways we treat priests in contrast to nuns. Consider the pressure of performing as a good wife. Consider the misquoted phrases that emphasize not only that a woman has no right to her own body but that women and men have no right to love whom they want to love. It is the basis for many many cases of sexism, homophobia, rape, war, and violence. Really it is only a book and perhaps religions are just very very devoted book clubs, but reading and misreading the Bible has allowed many people to justify violent hate against others.
I think about the way that sexism is glorified in various forms of pop culture. I think about how it takes up so little space in our history books but is one of the biggest wars we’ve fought and continue to fight. I think about the big picture and the little picture. What resources does Fonthill have to educate us about feminism? What resources does Fonthill have to teach us how to stand up to racism, homophobia, ableism, and all the isms and the badness that we live with? We have good pizza. We have a parade on Canada Day. We just got a new pho restaurant in what very obviously used to be a donut diner. Throw this against a socioeconomic backdrop where the generation of my parents were convinced to leave high school to go work in factories and then the factories left before they could collect their pensions and had no real skills to re-enter the job market. So there are essentially a lot of people who are very angry at being very poor after working incredibly hard. On top of that, they threw away their educations for a dream they were supposed to have—buy a house, get married, have a family. For my family, there was always a looming threat that General Motors would close down, and then what would we do? My father’s death preempted his inevitable unemployment. Many other families are sort of stuck there and don’t have access to the words to describe what happened to them.
There isn’t a language for words outside of the systemic forms of violence that our language grew out of. How can I hold children accountable for the crimes they were taught to commit by the world they grew up in?
A bully recently wrote me. I’m still finding the words to write him back. One thing I want to tell him is that he still scares me. I remember his face and I remember looking into his eyes and wondering if he had a soul, really wondering if he had a soul. I also want for him, and everyone who was ever mean to me, to know that I kind of get it. I don’t excuse it but I get it. I am like you too. We are all just these flawed people walking around and trying our best and failing sometimes. Maybe some people fail more than others. I fail a lot.
If I write him I will probably ask why Parks and Recreation is his banner photo because I love that television show too. I will probably ask him about the times he’s been in love. I will probably ask what his most embarrassing moment is. The best way to get over an idea of a person is to give them room to simply be a person to you and, after all, he is just a person.
Young Julie and Grown Julie are having a conversation in Fonthill.
Young Julie: Am I very beautiful? Am I very smart? Do I grow up to be better than them? Are we better than them?
Grown Julie: Yes, you are beautiful. Yes, you are smart. You grow up to be one of the sexiest people in all of Canada and everybody knows it. No you are not better than anyone. You do bad things like everyone. You try hard like everyone. Your life is like everybody’s life, it gets real complicated and you get confused and you frequently fuck up.
YJ: I have so many bullies, though. I need you to tell me it gets better.
GJ: I can’t tell you it gets better because the truth is, it doesn’t. The truth is that the bullies in your school grow up to become, for the most part, actually really decent people who think about you kindly and cheer you on as you succeed. The truth is that you end up discovering other bullies. Life is full of bullies. Your landlord bullies you for the rent. Your boss bullies you to meet impossible deadlines. Your coworkers bully you because they think your success takes away from their success. Cops bully you when you try to stand up for your rights. The government bullies you because you are poor and you are a woman and you are expected to thank God for that because, guess what, most people are even more bullied than you are. Your whole life people will tell you to put down your hand. Your whole life people will try to fight the truth you have to tell because it will inconvenience them. They will try to starve you out of it. They will take away every configuration of stability you have—they will try to censor you, blacklist you, and physically hurt you, just because your little truth is that powerful and that threatening.
YJ: Are we brave?
GJ: The only thing that makes us brave is that we were afraid in the first place.
YJ: How do we fight this? If this keeps happening, then how do we fight this?
GJ: You need to remember when people tell you to shut up. You need to remember that you are smart, you are beautiful, you are a person and therefore worthy of speech. It won’t always be kind. You won’t always be right. I can promise you that we both try our best, though, and we are worthy by virtue of our being human. Sometimes we think that people are trying to kill us and that is because they are trying to kill us, but I want you to know that for now we are alive.
YJ: And what does that mean for us?
GJ: It means we have to stop hating ourselves because others hurt us and because we have hurt others. The greatest threat we have is that we forget how human we are and therefore never fully appreciate our complexity. We can feel shame, sure, shame has a valuable function. However, for right now, we have to stop trying to kill ourselves because we are imperfect. After many attempts, I can tell you that killing yourself is not a hobby you are proficient in. We will always be imperfect. We need to try to be better. Sometimes we will fail. When we fail we cop to it, you and I. Oh man, we can be assholes sometimes—in ways that are both understandable and probably sometimes unredeemable. Say you are sorry when it counts. Don’t say you are sorry when others ask it of you and are undeserving. We both have to be a little less hard on each other because the memory of you is killing me and the dream of me is destroying you. It is too late for that to be better but I’m trying to make it better. I promise.
YJ: The dream of you is how I live through today.
GJ: The dreams I have are just as significant as your dreams but they have grown, they are bigger, and they keep getting bigger.
I wrote a letter to the person who stole Welland Problems from me. I wrote them a letter because they took my writing and I had worked for years at being a writer and lines from my novel are still not under my control. I wrote the person whom I call “Welland Problem” and I wrote the following:
You and I both know that just because you *can* do something does not mean it is the right thing to do. Just to be clear, “technically” it was a collaborative effort inspired by stuff that I wrote and you then made a page because I did not know how. It operated on a basis of mutual trust and support; you then terminated that trust when you deleted my admin role. The fact remains that that is my writing, whether or not there is capital to be earned, it is still my intellectual property. You then terminated my control over that work by violating the terms we agreed upon. We agreed to run Welland Problems as a collective effort with both of us as equal contributors. You violated that agreement when you relinquished my control over my intellectual property. I would never have agreed to write under the current terms and conditions. The entire operation was enacted because I trusted you, the same way the various editors of the publications I run social media for trust me to support our efforts, not hinder or impede them.
What I find especially problematic is that you posit that the relinquishing of my role was contingent upon my poor reaction to a supposed “joke” or effort to “try and be funny.” You adopt this sort of mantra of superiority whenever you are implicated for unjust behaviour. I saw this at the cottage when you would say something personally offensive to someone—somehow the weight of your words was determined by the intention. Jokes are funny because they make people uncomfortable; this discomfort comes from revealing a certain truth and the taboo of that truth entering into discourse through speech. What was the intention behind the “joke” of deleting my admin role? The joke was in the fact of your power, namely that you had the power to subjugate my control of my own role. When I questioned your action, you didn’t change it back even when I expressed that I did not find it funny. You then stopped responding. This showed that the joke was not one for me to laugh at, instead I was the subject of that joke—meaning the joke was at my expense for your own gratification at any cost. This is both selfish and inconsiderate. I changed the password on Twitter and your reaction was comparatively tenfold, you blocked me from both accounts thereby impeding any potential control I had over my own work. Furthermore, I find it incredibly suspicious that after such little involvement in any of the alternate pages, at that moment you happened to be on the Twitter and the Gmail account. All of these things taken into consideration necessarily dictate that the “joke” was meant to imply ramifications for me, and not you. Finally, your subsequent anger was the result of your actions having consequences, not my behaviour or inappropriate reaction.
As for your criticism of my “calling and crying to a bunch of people,” these friendships are independent of my friendship with you, and my feelings are my own and consequently are not subject to your criticism or manipulation. As I’ve mentioned before, I find your critique of your actions surface-level. They ignore the larger implications of power and control. I view this analysis of my talking to my friends as a further effort to control me.
Welland Problem, your life seems to be full of convenient excuses. You have some outlandish explanation for every selfish act that receives backlash. This argument between us is not a single, isolated event. Whether you are sick, or your technology is broken, or it’s a joke, or you’re drunk, or you’re high—you are never responsible for your actions. Since you feel you can never be held accountable, you are never humbled by these experiences and you never learn or grow. It is a self-perpetuating cycle that ultimately makes you consistently the victim of yourself.
The aforementioned are facts and these facts are self-evident. If you care about me, if you care about our friendship, then you should care about how I feel and how you’ve hurt me. These feelings are valid and justified. I have been a good friend to you, I have been kind to you, but I feel this is a pivotal moment in our friendship. Friendship is contingent upon trust and mutual respect. Here you have a choice: you can choose to have me in your life or not. That is the reality I have presented to you, and now it is your choice what reality you’d prefer to will into existence.
I was never given back control of my own work. Every once in a while a Welland Problem pops up on Facebook or Twitter and it isn’t me. It is an impostor. The success of their words is built on stealing mine.
Welland, Fonthill—I know they like my writing but they don’t like me. I am whatever they made me a long time ago. I guess that’s cool. I know better than to accept those terms as ways I define myself. I know that they liked my writing when they didn’t know it was me. I know when I showed up with my work to The Rex nobody came. I know that I could write the greatest book in the world and people would still laugh at my author photo. I know I did that to Dr. Love before I really knew him as a person. I don’t blame anyone. It’s just unfortunate that all of us are so mean to each other sometimes. This includes me. We all keep hurting each other and then gnawing at the hurt parts—even passively, we gnaw.
With the exception of the fight between Kimmy and I, I always got good grades in creative writing in high school, though maybe not always in English. I remember I took a test with multiple-choice answers. One answer was “cruelty” or something to that effect and another answer was “mordacious.” I knew what mordacious meant and I knew that to be mordacious was to be cruel. I raised my hand to ask the definition of the term “mordacious” because I wanted to know what it meant to the teacher so that I could choose the right answer.
“Julie, how are you going to be a writer when you can’t even read?”
The class laughed.
I responded, “So would you say that you’re being pretty fucking mordacious right now?”
I got sent to the office.
“What is it this time, Julie?” asked the Principal.
“I called the teacher mordacious.”
“Is that all you said?”
“I said fucking mordacious.”
Anyhow, with this exception, I was pretty confident in myself as a little writer. When I got to university it turned out that lots of people wanted to be writers and were plenty better than I was. For a solid three years I was rejected from every workshop and student journal and got bad grades on my essays. It seemed like nobody really thought I was a good writer except for me. It turns out you just don’t walk into a museum and be a writer. It takes a lot of hard work.
I read books I was supposed to read and still, nothing. I even tried slam and that is a chapter I would never like to reopen. When I was rejected from the only poetry class at McGill, I started the McGill Creative Writing Society so that I could workshop anyways. After my first year of workshopping in my own workshop I got my first acceptance. I realized it had been four years since high school and I had worked on my own for a pretty long while at this little idea that I had something to say.
Writing is only sorting words in a way that makes electricity. Sometimes the words don’t light up the way they are supposed to. I’m still pretty terrible at spelling and punctuation sometimes. I learned unfortunately late in life that I actually have a learning disability that explains this. I also never used it as an excuse. I found people who were both strong in the areas I was weak and were kind enough to not see any future success on my part as a threat to their own. They became my editors and are a little annoyed with me this week and so—I guess I will use it as an excuse—the learning disability comes out a bit in these long essays.
It happened really quickly. I received an internship at Concordia and suddenly had to write fiction when I’d only written poetry since I was 17. I had four days. I told myself if the workshop didn’t like it then I would keep writing but would maybe have to accept that I wouldn’t be a writer. I’d spent my entire undergrad trying to write in the style of TS Eliot, PK Page and, fuck it, Charles Bukowski (I still maintain that if we accept marijuana is a gateway drug then Charles Bukowski is gateway poetry). The rush of the assignment forced me to write in my own voice which turned out to be the voice of a young girl from Fonthill, Ontario. I wrote in a dialect that I’d spent many years at McGill trying to cover up because I felt that it made me sound dumb. I thought the way I wanted to say words like “Toronto” as “Tahrahnah” was less valuable and people had been shocked upon witnessing me after a few beers slip back into my childhood vernacular—maybe they thought I was mentally ill or having a stroke. Grown Julie and Young Julie were simply drunkenly colliding as one.
I wrote my first successful story that went on to be published in Matrix Magazine about a girl at a prominent university who gets tricked into a pregnancy by a boy from her shitty hometown and requires an abortion. I kept writing like that about my hometown and I started getting published. I was Grown Julie writing as Young Julie. I started having access to resources that allowed me to write poems and stories as someone other than myself, still in my own voice but more calculated and free from the stories of my lived body. It was years of only rejection before I got my first success, and I keep getting successes and I keep getting rejections. I did not fully become a writer by being victimized and then surviving. No real life experience entitles me as a writer. Even this little bit of success I have to tell you about doesn’t entitle me as a writer. Being a good writer is a lot like being a good person. You have to work really really hard, even when everything says you are bad. You have to work really really hard for the sake of it. I work really hard and I still get rejection letters and that is okay. Not everybody has to love me. Some people have good reason not to. It’s chill. I just pick myself up and start the next chapter.
When I was on tour I carried the weight of the failed Welland show with me to every reading. The support of our project had gained nearly $4,000 in donations from both the CanLit community and people from our rural communities who believed in our poetry and our lived experiences as poets. They wanted us to succeed as witnesses to all that had taken place in our bullshit never-talked-about hometowns. I still felt a little odd about the ordeal.
Montreal was my goodbye show before I officially left to be a grad student in Toronto. I know that many people have varying experiences of poetry scenes, and Montreal is no exception to this. My reality does not overwrite anyone else’s reality—it is simply my own.
After many years of loneliness I was able to find people who loved me in the Anglo writers—young and old(er)—who lived there. Maybe it is because we were all poor and struggling in an economy that didn’t really allow us to have conventional jobs. Maybe, it can be said, our poverty forced us to rely on each other.
The Montreal writing community for me: when I was hungry they gave me food, when I was homeless they gave me places to sleep, when I was sad they curled in bed with me like a sibling so that I could sleep, when I was fucked up and drunk and emotional at 3 a.m. they took my phone calls. When I needed to get my heavy books from this apartment to that one they helped me move. When I was dumped they let me know I was beautiful. When I couldn’t buy the nice clothes to make myself more myself, they let me tour their closets and they helped me find something to wear. They cut my hair. They listened to my story. They tucked me in. They didn’t stigmatize my mental illness but instead saw it as a gift and wrote poems, stories, and songs about it. When I fucked up badly and had to apologize, they trusted that I was earnest and accepted my apology without weird strings. When I was hurting they believed I was hurting. They let me sit at their table. They told me to keep writing. They liked me as the person I was because the person I am is a person they happen to like—despite the unpleasantness of me sometimes. They believe me and believe in me.
Was Fonthill ever really home? I don’t fit in there. A part of it is home and another part of home remains forever undefined in the great space between right now and forever.
When I closed the reading in Montreal I stared out into a sea of kind and familiar faces. Every face had attached to it a story of kindness. Maybe what I’d been looking for all along was here. I’d found it in the freedom to be what I am and not whatever weird definition some dink in elementary school decided to doom me to forever. I felt loved. I felt so loved. I still feel love every day when I’m on the phone with them for six hours, each writer switching shifts as witness to Julie Moves to Toronto: The Documentary.
For my closing bit I read a poem I wrote in somebody else’s notebook as I travelled with four other poets through New Hampshire and Vermont. I remember that as I wrote it JC Bouchard looked out the window at the sun setting behind some hills and said, “This is God’s land.” I remember that we all laughed at the grandiosity of the circumstance and how JC is sometimes able to say the most brilliant and ridiculous things at the perfect moment so it is enchanting in a way that is so old-school-photograph but also so on point that it makes you feel like you’re part of some very cheesy epic and in 2015 we couldn’t help but laugh at the thought.
As I wrote the poem I contemplated about the way that I hadn’t wanted to phone Fonthill, phone my mother, and, after years of saying I was going to the city to be a writer, tell her that I needed help as a writer in the city. I knew that it wasn’t a good poem to be read on paper—stylistically uninteresting and maybe a borderline prose piece. I read it at the Montreal reading as my Goodbye. I think it is the type of poem that is meant to be only read out loud. It will only be published here. I read to my friends, my fellow writers, who had become my family, the following terribly sentimental poem composed in the dark backseat of a moving car with only my cellphone for light:
I was born a cob of corn in a town where everyday is Thanksgiving—the holiday of devastating eaters and bird martyrs. I didn’t want to be a thing to be swallowed by my father with a glutton’s glare nor my mother and her 300 lbs of historical meals. I crocheted myself a husk lace dress with twined Niagara grape vines.
Doing my best impression of a human person, I hopped a Megabus and rolled into you, into Montreal, with a few grain-shaped scars for kernels fallen from my body smashed against the brick walls. My fallible corpse carried the marks of newsworthy meth problems and newsworthy meth heads at The Rex, meth heads at The Bear’s Den, and meth heads at The End, The Mouse Trap, Handlebar Hanks, Iggy’s, 20/20.
Rue Prince Arthur in Montreal
Montreal, I have floated along your brown melting snow banks in spring like a discarded rag doll who chain smokes. On the prestigious grasses of McGill University I was your unloveable froshy with too many peculiar stories. Rich boys drank slimy shots off my body. They got their kicks and I cried in the rare books library. I was 18 and had barely used the metro. I was 18 and new to the cobblestone walks of Prince Arthur and loud talks that ring through Saint Sulpice like the ever agitating calamity of drummers in the park on Sunday. Where the tourists go. Where we all went once.
NEVER CALL HOME
I remember the old poet who trailed my ass outside Bifteck as we watched Musique explode into a mushroom cloud. The catastrophe of crowds running down Rue St-Laurent with their half-finished pints as cops took a moment to step out of their cars in their sad but earnest protest pants and shake their hands. How does one know how to arrest a cloud of smoke? I would like to un-know the sensation of pepper spray in my eyes but never forget how the colonial walls echoed with the electricity of sharpened words. That time where all of us got real political real fast. That time when we hammered casseroles and each cry was a call and everyone made a choice. That time when each choice held the significant and fundamental key to unlock our negated awareness of the self as individual, as hyperconscious, as fundamentally autonomous. I would like to un-know the sensation of pepper spray.
NEVER CALL HOME
Montreal, you were the circle of sad angel girls who held hands in my bed after each abortion, each road picked and walked. Eating poutine with my head on your belly and your head on her belly and her belly on mine. You were my boyfriend and my girlfriend—burning out smokes in each other’s palms, tattooing my name on your foot, climbing through my window so you could watch me sleep, making love to me despite all that I am and all that I lack. There was the feeling of cold when our wet spot in the centre of the bed dried up and you were gone. The consequential trips to the cop shop to explain the unexplainable truths of how we’d sinned against each other. I had a big mouth they could stare into but all of my bruises were curtained by fabric. The trips to the hospital where you or I waited and wondered if we were going to kill ourselves before we could murder each other. “You are pretty when you are angry,” you told me outside of La Petite Idee Fixe, “And you are always angry.” We kissed and slid into each other’s lives for a while, one of the many consistent vacations one takes inside of other people, within a city who is always swallowing and expelling citizens like an irritated digestive track. That is you, Montreal. I am in you and I know you. That is you Montreal, I have loved you and I have hated you, Montreal.
NEVER CALL HOME
I have paraded through your call centres like rock stars in the movies. I have sold your clothes and warmed your coffee and been fired consistently. Montreal, I have raised your babies. Montreal, I have raised your babies and sacrificed my softness and seen the insides of your homes and cleaned them and cooked you dinner. Montreal, it was I who destroyed your cashmere when I’d never touched cashmere, and taught you poems when I’d never been told poetry can be a crime. It was a minimum wage mentality that was ripe with bruised memory and pregnant with reckless purpose. I carry each family’s routine of waking and sleeping with me like a suitcase with a strange surname tagged to the handle. Montreal you have a weight and my arms are tired.
NEVER CALL HOME
When you raped me on the front steps of my apartment building on Avenue du Parc I didn’t scream. You turned my face into the stone block and the tiny pebbles pricked my cheeks and I watched the wedding party outside Mythos and I thought of the perverse nature of dancing. You were the large dogs of Hochelaga barking at my heels. You were the car that ran me over twice. You were the inconvenient last call on St-Zotique. You were too many calls to Salonica, you were too many mornings in the bathroom after Salonica. You too, were the angel perched on the cross of Mont-Royal that guided me to bed each night with your incandescent glow of thick warmth.
NEVER CALL HOME
I am not angry, Montreal. You gave me a room. You grasped my sweaty hair as I puked. You dressed me when I was lying sideways and crawling like a spider on the walls. You pulled my gown over my breasts and hips and politely explained gravity. My heart had been so light that I nearly floated away like an oversized helium-filled orange. You stripped off each coat of my bitter skins and then I let you have my full fruit. I wanted you to. I am not angry at you. I love you and I think that you are beautiful.
The truth is that though I’ve tried, I have never been a neon light nor a downward floating snowflake. I haven’t ever been a pair of uniquely-shaped sunglasses and never ever have I ever called a city skyline by my name. I have always been a chipped and brandished purple cob alien from its own stalk and out of place on the hard cement sidewalk. Thank you for not resenting me for the strange soils that bore me and thank you for being the one swallowing me. Thank you for trying to gulp and smile graciously at once.
I love you, Montreal.
Thanks for the room.
I love you, Montreal.
Thanks for the drinks.
I love you, Montreal.
Thanks for the poutine.
I love you Montreal.
Thanks for the conversation.
I love you Montreal.
Thanks for letting me sit at your table.
I love you Montreal.
I am laughing. Thanks for laughing with me.
I love you Montreal.
I know we will cry.
I love you Montreal.
I am scared and I am small but I am resilient and I know you.
Au revoir. Au revoir. Au revoir. Goodnight.
I am five years old and in kindergarten. I can read a little but (haha) not super well. I still spell my name with some of the letters the wrong way. I am walking around my classroom with a crayon and looking at pictures and writing down the words that correspond to each picture, trying to know the words.
“Julie, what are you doing?” asks my kindergarten teacher in a festive vest.
“I think I have a story I want to tell.”
“Well you can tell me if you like.”
“I want to tell it but I also want it to be a book. I want it to be a book so that people in kindergarten can know my story even when I’m in grade one and grade two and even in grade three.”
“Well I can write your story.”
“No! No! You can’t! It is my story! I am trying to teach myself to read today so then I can write it today.”
My teacher puts me on her lap. “Writing is very hard and it takes a long time to learn. I promise you that if you tell me what to write down then I will write it down exactly. I know that you can’t know it is true but you have to trust me because I am kind to you and I want people to know your story and not my story.”
“Well, if you write the story down then can I draw the pictures? Can we make it so the words are on some pages and the pictures on others and they are my words and my pictures and can we put my name on it so that people know it is my story?”
I wrote my first book that day and it was published in my elementary school library. I don’t know if it is still there. I remember it was called something like “THE MOON IS SO CLOSE” and it was about a bear that wanted to build a rocket ship to fly to the moon. When he reached the moon he realized it was a very close rock and crashed into it and broke his rocket ship. He had to go back to earth. Then he was sad and his friend Cindy cheered him up.
Whenever I wanted, my teacher would write down my stories for me. That was the first time that I believed that I could be a writer. Learning to read would be hard work but I really felt like I had stories to tell. It is because a single teacher believed in me that I am now sitting in an apartment in Toronto and chain smoking and having a beer and writing this piece I am telling to you now. Okay, writing the piece is the only thing inspired by my teacher. The beer and the cigarettes we can count as battle wounds.
I am outside of Hank’s (a local bar) in Welland with mostly artists and writers from Niagara who have also come home for Christmas. There are a lot of people from high school. I feel nervous about the environment. I’m wearing a black dress and a floral shawl. A man with a beard that I don’t know asks, “Why are you wearing your pyjamas?”
“Look, you look like you are wearing your pyjamas! She looks like she is wearing her pyjamas!”
“Why do you look like you are going to murder a young girl in the woods and they will make a true crime documentary about your life?”
I slip outside for a cigarette. There is a pretty girl there. She is about my age, maybe a little younger. I always remember her because she has always been pretty in a way that I wanted to be pretty. She asks if she can sit with me.
“I just wanted to tell you that I read all of your Facebook posts. I really love your writing and I really admire that you can be so honest on social media.”
I kind of think about how I write poetry, fiction, and essays and I’m not super open on Facebook. I mean people can never know the things I haven’t said. “Thanks so much,” I decide to respond, realizing that otherwise I’d be projecting my insecurity onto her and she’s just trying to be nice.
She tells me that she works at Canadian Tire but she secretly writes poems on her phone. She says that she also has a dream to be an actress. She says it so quiet because she doesn’t want any other person except for me to know about her tiny dream.
I’m not angry. I’m not jealous. I tell her about my own rejections and how it is a little bit nicer being rejected in private than in public, the way musicians or video artists are. I tell her my stories about how sometimes I’ve been poor and other times I haven’t. She doesn’t read me her poems but just shows me that she’s been secretly writing poem after poem after poem. I tell her about the value of workshops. I tell her about submitting and keeping a calendar for the submissions. I tell her that her dream is okay and I hear her. I know that I know her.
There is an empty room in Toronto that I am moving into in January, 2016. Dawson and I exhaustively carry the furniture from the truck into the room and slowly the components come together as a singular space that represents me. It has parts from my life in Fonthill. It has parts from my life in Montreal. It is in Toronto. Dawson builds my bed. I fold the sheets and the blankets and put pillow cases on pillows and put the pillows onto the sheets as best represents my personality. I am messaging Dr. Love. We don’t have a hammer so we use a Norton Anthology of British Literature as a hammer. Dr. Love asks me to make a video of it. I get Dawson to take the video of me hammering away with the anthology—right, borderline unethical, kinda fucky, I am an asshole. Let us never forget the many many ways in which I am an asshole.
When I layer the final blanket, Dawson rips open my shirt and kisses me. “Let’s live like we’re husband and wife,” he whispers in my ear before we have very normal, quiet, conventional, missionary husband-and-wife sex. I don’t really dig it as much as I have in the past. Back in Fonthill the memory of him and I when we were younger had been so strong that I didn’t really need very much other than simply him existing and being in me to get me off. However, now it’s like whatever fire was there before was somehow extinguished when we crossed into Toronto.
We said that we would live like husband and wife so we decide to go on a dinner date at a place with food that Dawson has never eaten before. “Dufferin Street,” says Dawson looking at a sign with a sparkle in his eye. “It looks just the way I imagined it from the radio!”
“Wait, Dawson, have you never been to a city before?”
“Well, there was that one time we went to the ROM.”
“Dawson we were ten years-old … ”
When we went to the Royal Ontario Museum 16 years ago, we looked out the window at the entire population of Fonthill crossing a city street. There were men in suits who had great big cell phones. I’d never known anyone who owned a cellphone. The kids on the bus had a tally so that we could count how many homeless people and squeegee punks we could scout. It was the first time many of us were made aware of just how small Fonthill is.
Now, walking with Dawson who has never been to the city, it’s similar to a George of the Jungle type film but more outlandish because Fonthill is only a two-hour drive from Toronto. We go into an Ethiopian restaurant and I realize we both have run out of things to talk about. I text Dr. Love under the table. I’m a bad wife and we’re only hypothetically married.
“So what do you do for fun in the city?”
“What do you mean?”
“Like do you go to clubs?”
“No. Do I look like somebody who goes to clubs?”
“In television about the city it seems like they are always at a club.”
The walk home is sort of bizarre too. Someone says, “Excuse me,” and Dawson says to me, “City people are nice!” I try to explain to him that there are lots of different cities and lots of very different people within each city. He gets very excited when I tell him that we should go to Walmart tomorrow so that I can pick up a hammer. He is most excited to see what a real city Walmart looks like and compare it to the Walmart in Welland.
I ask him what he thought about dinner.
“Well, I can’t wait to go back to Mossimo’s and tell them I got to eat Ethiopian food. They’re gonna think that’s nuts.”
“What was your opinion of the meal?”
“Well, I guess now I do have an opinion on Ethiopian food and my opinion is that I don’t care for it much.”
We take a bath together. He washes my back. I feel blank. I look at the wall.
That night, when Dawson is asleep in my bed in Toronto, I back myself in the corner so that I can look at the big picture of the room. I put my hand on my mouth.
All of my dreams have come true.
It almost makes me vomit. All of my dreams have come true. It makes me feel sick. I have this really cool apartment in the city. I am a writer. I even have the boy I thought I was going to marry when I was younger in my actual bed pretending to be my husband. All of my dreams have come true. I got everything I ever wanted. I am still so unhappy. The idea of staying in this room with Dawson and that being the end of all the love’s possibilities is stifling. Being inside the actual dream is very different than being the person who thinks up the dream that is so very far away.
I remember that in Fonthill, only weeks earlier, I had stood with Dawson in front of my house and honestly asked myself if I had dreamed too big. Now in the room with all of my dreams in front of me I realized that I dreamed too small. The books I had access to in Fonthill allowed me to imagine a world outside of Fonthill where I was lovable. The narratives made available to me controlled the possibility of all future imaginings. They said “monogamous husband who you grow up with like Gilbert Blythe,” they said “move to the city,” and they said “be a writer.” Yet, all those things were so superficial and had nothing to do with me as a person. The dream in this moment was a shell that kept me from thinking of myself and my life in bigger ways.
I love Dawson. I will always love Dawson. I tiptoe back into the bed, over my paisley brown bed cover, and look at his face sleeping on the silvery pillow case. I can count the ways his face has changed at different times. However, I accept that he doesn’t know me now. He can’t know me now. I will always love him, though, because he carries with him a little secret that hardly anyone but him can tell. He knew, really knew, and loved Younger Julie. I put my lips close to his right ear. My hair falls a little over his face but he doesn’t wake up.
I whisper something.
The curse is broken. Something has been lifted. I looked the dream I had in the face and I was grateful but I knew that it wasn’t the all of it. When the dream shatters it allows me to think outside of the contexts and limited possibilities I imagined when I was younger. My new world of dreams is very exciting. The new dream allows me to romantically be with men and women and all the lovely “they”s that exist both in the middle and outside of the poles. The new dream has me writing all kinds of stories and poems I never knew I could write. The new dream is mainly a dream of space, endless clear space that I can move around in, and a lightness that illuminates my good parts and my bad parts, tells me what I like and what I don’t like, humbles me so that I can apologize when I am wrong, and pushes me towards bravery when I know I am not wrong but people are wanting me to smile while I eat their shit. The new dream is full of self-love despite inevitable failure. The new dream has all of the people who love me and more room for me to feel loved.
Nothing really changed. I fell asleep in the bed next to Dawson. He leaves the next morning. I still have all of the same problems. There is just more room to love others. There is also a boldness to stand up for myself when I feel people are attacking me or trying to bully me. Forgiveness, I think, has to do with letting go of the fact that the past could’ve been different. I don’t even know if I came up with that just now because I’m exhausted. I actually have the weird feeling that Oprah said it. Oh well.
I would like anyone reading this to know that this is not a manifesto of hate for others. These are creative investigations into who I am as a person and how I can be better. None of my feelings towards others are objective—they are in fact extraordinarily subjective. They are feelings. I can tell you that right now I feel very happy and content for the most part. I am peacefully sitting with my cat. I can tell you that I do not wish anyone physical or emotional harm. I have been honest and tried to be considerate, but the fact is that sometimes, when you tell the truth, it hurts people’s feelings. I think the fear of hurting others is maybe one of the strongest arguments in favour of keeping secrets. If anyone thinks they know any of the unnamed people in this piece and use my writing as a justification to hurt a person in anyway, I want you to know that you are missing the point of this essay and I wish you hadn’t read it. If you use my writing as a reason to reject a poem or a story or an article that is good because you think that somebody has been mean to me—I want you to know that I view that as a form of violence. I do not agree with censorship in any form. I do not even believe in censoring people who continuously attack and try to censor me. I am not a threat. If you use this piece to harm others then I wish you’d never read it and I hope we never meet. That isn’t what this is about. You are why people keep secrets. You are why people feel nervous about expressing anger. You are why we cannot have honest conversations about the complicated nature of complicated people living with other complicated people in a world that is complicated by complications.
Dr. Love talks into my heart through a machine I lie my cheek on, through the little hole in my ear that circuits into my brain and then falls into my belly.
He says that he will tell me the lovely things he thinks about me. He names the lovely things. Dr. Love says: I think you are smart because you have something that can’t be absorbed into the drabness of what’s around you. There’s something that wants more. It’s irreducible to what people expect.
Dr. Love says: I think that you are someone I reach for, even though there are ways that we see things differently. I am in denial, I think, about how I tend to share most deeply only with people whose ways are like my own. But you are beautifully sincere and that means a lot to me. I think that the way you make yourself vulnerable is beautiful, and you risk things, which is beautiful too. I want others to treat you well, with dignity. I am deeply glad that we have somehow come to know each other.
I stop having the bad dreams about the girl. I start waking up feeling distinctly like Dr. Love was beside me. We call the person I imagine in my room “the you that lives in me,” and Dr. Love has a “me that lives in you,” and they do things completely separate from both of us but are not lies about what we want to do.
I worry I am solving men with men. But then my best girl friend reads my essay and calls me: “You are beautiful and smart and I love you so so much. You make yourself sound like a dick in this essay. Why do you do that?”
Another girl friend calls me up: “Julie, dude, people are going to think you’re this awful person. I love this essay but you are so hard on yourself. Everyone is going to think you’re super scary or something.”
I can still hear my mom all those years ago: “Why do you want people to hate you so bad? Why do you always feel like you need to work so hard to make sure that people hate you?”
I don’t really know. I don’t even know if I’m still doing the same wrong things. I don’t know if I’m solving men through other men. I kind of think all we can do is solve people through other people. I don’t know how much it matters that I stole the baby Jesus. It probably matters some. What matters more is that I gave him back. I think that is the more important part of the story. I think the more important part of this essay is less about the ways I feel I’ve been wronged and how I’ve justified being hateful to others. It is that despite these things, and I know this only makes up a tiny piece of this body of words, many people love me and I love them back and our love isn’t something that hurts. Our love makes each of us brave. Our love makes each of us strong. Whenever I think about how angry I am or how badly I hurt, it makes me aware of the capacity I have to love. I now have bigger dreams of larger spaces where I want to always raise my hand and speak my truth and take up so much space with my ideas. Hopefully those ideas are tools for understanding. I know once I put words out into the world there isn’t very much I can do about who reads them. I can just ask, use them to love yourself and love others, please.
Young Julie and Grown Julie are sitting in Fonthill looking at all the funny people walking around.
Young Julie: Are there others? Are there other Julies?
Grown Julie: Yes, there are many others.
YJ: Can you tell them to me?
GJ: There is a figure skater who likes to spin really fast. There is a punk who stands indifferently on the wall, tapping one foot at hardcore shows. There is a loud and angry activist who goes all over the world. There is a struggling novelist who is trying to learn to tell her story. There is an ex-girlfriend who is an absolute nightmare to deal with. There is an ex-girlfriend who is still a best friend. There is a best friend. There is a seriously messed up chick who calls herself “Scrappy Coco” and she smack talks everybody without giving a fuck about the consequences. She likes rhinestones and tequila and is a bit of a monster but people write poems about her. There is a shy recluse who has been writing in her room alone for the entirety of January, 2016. There are so many Julies I can’t even list them all.
YJ: So what happens to all of us? What happens to us when you leave Fonthill?
GJ: You die?
GJ: Chill, I was joking. I pick you up and I eat you and I take you with me wherever I go.
YJ: That’s nice of you.
GJ: I need to ask something of you, though. If you don’t say yes then know that I will fucking leave you here in Fonthill to rot, because I am really really tired and I’ve been in a lot of pain.
YJ: I mean, I guess, but it isn’t like I have a choice. I don’t want to stay in Fonthill. I want to go be a writer in the city.
GJ: Okay, so we can both be writers in the city together and do that. You can pop up and tell stories to people, I’ll let you … we can chill in my room and have long chats about our feelings. The thing is that I really need you to go a little easier on me. Can you do that? If you keep holding me to the standards Fonthill set for us then our dreams stay small and our identity is only defined in relation to this place which is just a tiny place. I need you to go easier on me, because if you don’t, then I stay in Fonthill too. Everywhere I go, I stay in Fonthill too.
YJ: I will try my best.
Then Young Julie and Grown Julie watch the world from the top of the hill. I’m pretty sure Fonthill is the all places in the whole wide world. All places and hometowns have a vantage point through which you can view the whole world in a group people. I look out and I know that somewhere out there Dawson is making the best pizza in the world. Topanga is watching her baby grow while holding her lover’s hand in a warm living room. My mother is lying down on the couch to watch The Real Housewives of A Place I’ve Never Been To. My brother is counting numbers in an office. Kimmy is making art in a studio. Blossom is teaching children how to cope with anger. Pacey is just walking around and wondering. My possible soul mate is out there. All of my possible soul mates are out there and the only thing they all have in common is that they are having sex with people who aren’t me. There are people who are very angry at me and my truth. There are more important people who need my truth right now, and if you are reading this and you feel it then I want you to know that I love you. Dr. Love is walking around an office in a castle on an island on another planet in another time zone and any second he will message me “Hey Julie, you’re beautiful,” just so that I remember. Dr. Love is making plans to get on a machine that can punch through clouds so that he can come to Toronto and make love to me. Then we can both try to write poems about it.
Somewhere, somewhere, Damien Caissie has a knife and a love and is still running away from New Brunswick. Chris Bailey’s father Arnold is in PEI doing something other than read this essay because he would probably hate it as much as Green Gables. Eric Schmaltz is riding the TTC and initiation doesn’t scare him. Rudrapriya Rathore’s parents sit on a couch in Erin, Ontario, and she doesn’t know if that’s home for her. Ali Pinkney is cuddling an incubus like a weirdo. Mellissa Bull closes a window so the alley cats don’t come in but leaves it open just a sliver so Jesus knows he’s welcome. JM Francheteau is reading poems by a fire and whispering names of places to a girl he likes. Up higher than me, way way up in heaven, JC Bouchard’s father and my father bond over the novelty that they are both named Gary and they both died at inconvenient times for their children. Our dads split a beer and look at us travelling in a little car across North America, “Well, we fucked that up,” they say while watching us go, go, go. “Now we’ve turned them into fucking poets!”
Somewhere Fawn Parker is waiting for me to submit my 17,000 words written over the course of the last five days and she knows that it is her job to edit it. She already knows it will be a long night. She knows that I need line edits probably more than most. We are both tired and I imagine her pouring a cup of coffee and shaking her head, saying, “Oh Julie—your life, your life, your life … oh Julie …” And she already knows that I will probably ask to make my author shot a titty pic. And I already know that she will tell me “no.”
Thank you for allowing me the space to tell my story. Thank you to the amazing staff at The Town Crier who have given me the space to tell my long and weird story. Thank you to the contributors who chose to be brave and share their own stories. Thank you to everyone who sat through and read every word. January is over and I’m out. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.
It is called The Town Crier because we are all just crying over our hometowns.
Keep the passion burning.
Catch you on the flipside.