Friday, January 2, 2015

Sun in an Empty Room

I always think about moving away from Hunter street when I think: Moving Day. I didn't live there for very long - just 16 months, I believe - and I had about ten roommates during my time there so it felt too transient to ever feel like home. But I think it was significant. I think I lost and learned and changed a lot during that time. I made some very significant choices that might have been the wrong ones.

In the year 2001, after spending a few months travelling across Canada, I moved back to Halifax because that was where my heart lived. My boyfriend Sean joined me there a couple of months later, because it was lucky that we both wanted to leave Toronto for the East Coast. Or we remained together in Toronto because we both knew we were going to leave, together. I don't know. I loved him, but not like I loved Halifax. I had known immediately, intuitively, that Halifax was my soulmate.

I wasn't conscious of what building a life really meant when I moved to Halifax, either the first time, in 1997, or the second time, in 2001. I experienced Halifax as authentic and freeing and creative and wild and beautiful and kind and these were the things that mattered to me when I was in my early- to mid-twenties.

Luke and Claudia had found the apartment. I had lived with them for a year on Moran street, in 1998, and they had been great roommates and friends. Sean and I had decided to live with other people to save some money and because it was initially unclear when he would actually be arriving. It was a large 4 bedroom apartment on the top floor of a house in a beautiful part of the city. They were a couple, as well, and so we had all kinds of extra space. It was nice before Sean arrived, but it was awful after.

I don't remember all the details anymore, but I will accept the responsibility for the deterioration of that living situation. I think I felt like I was trying to be a peacemaker and felt pulled in a couple of different directions. But I knew how stubborn Sean was and I knew in my gut as soon as I got back to Halifax and was reunited with my old friends, that Sean would not be a good fit despite Luke and Claudia being super easy to get along with. Luke and Claudia gave up the apartment a few months later, found a place of their own, and for the next year, Sean and I lived with a succesion of temporary roommates.

Dan was the best because he was hardly ever there. He spent most of his time in a cabin up north or at his girlfriend's house. I think he just wanted to maintain his own address and a place to store his stuff. He had band practice there in the kitchen, and his band was great, and he also made wine there.

Dimitris became fast friends with both Sean and I. He was always on and hilarious and kept up with (or at least put up with) our drinking. But the friendship was brief, one of those crush friendships, where everything's exciting and new and fun for a couple of months but starts to fade just as quickly. When Andrea and Margaret moved in, his friendship affections shifted to Margaret, and I think Sean and I both felt a little jilted. We liked Margaret a lot too, though. She and Andrea were a couple that seemed close to ending; Margaret spent way more time with us than with her girlfriend, and that felt kind of weird.

But the people, the timeline, the details, everything is hazy. It was a big turning point in my drinking career.

Sean was into a concoction he called "green death" that year, made out if some kind of green pop and probably rum but possibly gin. On his days off, he would start drinking as soon as he got up, and I remember knowing that this was going too far. He was my barometer then. If I worried about my own drinking I would rationalize that I didn't start drinking as soon as I woke up.

I remember setting limits for myself then. I was doing homecare work at the time, and I saw one of my clients at 9 am on weekdays, and I knew I couldn't be drunk while I was doing this, so midnight became my week night cut-off time. I was always drunk by midnight. I was always hungover at work.

I used to siphen off some of Dan's wine when no one was home and the fridge was empty.

Before too long I stopped doing homecare work and I got a job working at Propeller, a small local brewery, on the bottling line. An enormous perk was that our fridge was always filled with free beer. Rationalizing that I didn't have to be on my game the same way to work at Propeller, I got rid of the stupid cut-off time rule.

I was miserable at Propeller. It was a really physically exhausting job, and I was always doing it hungover. I started socializing less with people outside of my home becasue I was always so exhausted.

I still said I was a social drinker because I was, you know, socilaizing with my boyfriend every night. And Dimitris. And our friend Kelly was usually there, too. But I knew, then, that I had turned the wrong corner.

Something happened to the dynamics of my relationship with Sean during that time, too. I felt like, before, and especially when I was travelling, I was in control, and I was choosing. But it started to feel like Sean was in control, like he was choosing. I didn't want to leave him but I knew then that I didn't have the power to make him stay. And I certainly didn't have the gumption to turn our little world on its head. I opted for a less dramatic living situation and just the two of us. But very little changed when we moved to Allan street.

On moving day, Sean and I got stuck with the brunt of the cleaning. He let me sleep while he did much (probably most) of the work, and woke me up at dawn on moving day to finish the job while he got a few hours of sleep. He'd just gotten the new Norah Jones album, Come Away With Me, and he set it up for me before he retired. I cleaned the front room with that on repeat, the only soul awake, considering the past 16 months and the future, and I felt alone but a remarkable sense of peace.

We'd stay together for a couple more years, and when I moved out of Allan street it was drawn out and devastating. The break-up is a scene I remember but the moving day is not. The Hunter street move was far more dramatic and certainly a sign of things to come. Although it's Norah Jones that ruled that morning, it's The Weakerthans' "Sun in an Empty Room" that I'm choosing in hindsight.

Sun in an Empty Room - The Weakerthans

Now that the furniture's returning to its goodwill home
With dishes in last week's paper -
Rumors and elections, crosswords, an unending wars -
That blacken our fingers, smear their prints on every door pulled shut

Now that the last month's rent is scheming with the damage deposit,
Take this moment to decide (sun in an empty room)
If we meant it, if we tried (sun in an empty room)
Or felt around for far too much (sun in an empty room)
From things that accidentally touched (sun in an empty room)

Hands that we nearly hold with pennies for the GST
The shoulders we lean our shoulders into on the subway, mutter an apology
The shins that we kick beneath the table, that reflexive cry
The faces we meet one awkward beat too long and terrified

Know the things we need to say (sun in an empty room)
Have been said already anyway (sun in an empty room)
By parallelograms of light (sun in an empty room)
On walls that we repainted white (sun in an empty room)

Sun in an empty room
Sun in an empty room
Sun in an empty room
Sun in an empty room
Sun in an empty room
Sun in an empty room
Sun in an empty room
Sun in an empty room

Take eight minutes and divide (sun in an empty room)
By ninety million lonely miles (sun in an empty room)
And watch a shadow cross the floor (sun in an empty room)
We don't live here anymore (sun in an empty room)


Andrew and Katherine said...

Hi ameila! That was powerful and beautiful. Thanks for sharing it. And the song is utterly brilliant.

Take care,
Andrew and Katherine

Katherine said...

Hi Amelia. Andrew read me this latest blog entry yesterday evening while I was in early stages of falling asleep. I issued the instruction that he let you know our impression in brief, crude measure: "that we thought the writing powerful and beautiful". Upon waking, it struck me that I ought to have said more. Your piece - expert, I would say, in its simplicity - contains a moment of radiance. It is radiance to whose complexity more complex language would have done less justice. Alice Munro writes that way. She leads us, directly and even humbly, straight into the subtle centre of what phases of a human lifetime can mean. As we tingle, it makes its modest, its beguiling departure once again. In my own writing, I labour for this very effect - and my labour is in too great evidence. My writing becomes congested with wanted sophistication the way one's head becomes congested with (unwanted) mucous during cold infections. Also, of course (and this is an inevitable contributor to the difference between our styles) my personal essays illuminate a philosophically pent up and fragile protagonist. Yours reveal you: a sensitive person but one of serene resource and utterly frank, pure, and just relationship with the world. Please share more: I'm your biggest fan!
Love, K

Amelia Chester said...

Thank you so much for reading, Katherine, and your thoughts on this are greatly appreciated, as you are one of the best writers I know and you also, of course, have a great insight into many of the things I talk about in this blog.

I have not done a great job keeping up with this, but I did start this blog in 2008, and have many more entries from earlier years. I mean to write more, and am glad I could start the new year off doing this thing I have been meaning to do! The second last entry, Thunder Road, was written largely about Richard, so you may be curious to read that one. It was written a couple of years ago though!

Sean said...

It's interesting for me now, all these years later, to hear your inner dialogue from those days. I was not aware back then of these deeply personal thoughts, feelings and impressions of yours.

Like many couples I think we often fought and argued over the little things like household chores and the dynamics of with living with others let alone ourselves. These were difficult times indeed, financially, personally and socially. Upheaval was in the air. Things were changing. We were witness to a shift. And it was cold.

9/11 had just happened and the entire world had grown paranoid, uncomfortable and uneasy. A dark cloud was hanging over us in Halifax. My income had been cut in half. I was making minimum wage which, at the time, was $4.90 an hour in Nova Scotia and the record store chain I was working for was on the brink of bankruptcy.

The three months of endless hours spent serving customers picking the bones off a once proud record store wore us down day by day and damaged our psyches. And then one morning we awoke to the strange news casually uttered through the speakers of your crackly clock radio that George Harrison had died. The world and that little dark space we occupied in it was closing in. I found it hard to breath.

We mourned George and faced the very real possibility that our time together in Halifax was coming to an abrupt end. Once the record store had been liquidated I would be out of work on a cold January morning in a frigid snowbound Halifax with no money for rent let alone oil to heat our cold apartment. So much for “a new career in a new town”.

Back then the move to Halifax appeared to be an utterly devastating failure. Everywhere I looked I saw nothing but despair and hopelessness. These were truly trying times, some of the most difficult and stressful I have yet faced. And so the self medicating began to a degree not previously known to myself.

The friction was unmistakable and present between us but I don't feel that we ever truly faced it in the honest, open and direct way in which you have addressed it here. Perhaps at the time that would not have been possible. Perhaps a measured distance from those times and events was necessary for a proper perspective.

Thank you for having taken the time to write it down. Reading it for me was a dreamy if not uneasy visit back to the ether of a shaded past. I have always been interested in your voice as an author and have delighted in hearing it. You should write more. You have stories to tell.

Amelia Chester said...

Finally responding to your comment from forever ago, Sean, which was much appreciated and, I think, a good description of where things were at.

I definitely have a different perspective on our relationship and on you than I did when I was so close to it, and so much of it has to do with getting older. It's pretty amazing to look back on those things and recall that I was just in my mid-twenties, and you were in your mid-thirties. Things were a lot heavier for you and we were (and are)in many ways the same kinds of people with the same kinds of values. When I was that age I really wasn't thinking about a career or being responsible of any kind of a future. I know I should have been, but of *course* I wasn't. I still felt like - and I still was - so young.

But things started to feel more serious in my early thirties and I knew I had to get my shit together. We were of course long broken up and in different provinces by then, and although we have always stayed close, we weren't always in each other lives every day like that, so we really know each other and remember each other best at a really specific time.

You were so unhappy and I really didn't get it, I just didn't have the experience. I think what you said here is so true: "The friction was unmistakable and present between us but I don't feel that we ever truly faced it in the honest, open and direct way in which you have addressed it here. Perhaps at the time that would not have been possible."

It is so awesome how we made it through all that and now we talk like this about it.

Sean and Katherine, I love you both so much. Grateful all the time there are people who know me so well.