Kim Aubrey writes about Toronto, her adoptive home, soon to be left behind. Vet visits, bed bugs, in-laws—and the silence and melancholy of being uprooted and leaving loved ones and things behind.
What it’s like living here
from Kim Aubrey in Toronto
You drive the six miles home down Bathurst from your doctor’s office, where you’ve been weighed, measured and questioned about the year’s habits, good and bad. You pass the bagel shops and delis, the Bowlerama where you used to take your daughters for birthday parties, and a little further south, the square squat apartment buildings with their blond-brick facades. A young man in jeans and a light jacket dances up the sidewalk, hips fluid, hands pressed together, long arms flipping outward and upward, as if he’s a yogi praying. When someone approaches him from the opposite direction, the dancer lowers his arms, quiets his body to a walk. You wonder if he’s just being polite and will start up again once he has the sidewalk to himself. Or if it’s simple Canadian diffidence, only surprising in one willing to dance at the edge of a busy street in the middle of morning.
Your Jetta crawls in rainy rush-hour traffic up what used to be the longest street in the world. You and your husband were in Paris yesterday morning, eating croissants and jam in a sunny café, the Pantheon cutting its iconic shape into a blue sky. Now you’re both jetlagged, ready for bed at six in the evening. Instead, you’ve agreed to pick up your daughter and her field spaniel, Iggy, from the vet, who has sliced away the puppy’s testicles and sewn him back up again.
You arrive an hour late, but your daughter is still talking with the vet. Iggy’s head is lost inside a plastic cone, which he bumps against your leg as he rushes to greet you.
“Without the cone, he’d be back tomorrow with an open wound,” the vet says.
Iggy curls up on the back seat beside your daughter, who rubs his ears as he falls asleep, and your husband drives, the southbound traffic flowing easily after your creep north. Vaughan Road cuts a diagonal across the city’s imperfect grid, sporting a hodgepodge of small houses, apartment buildings and neighborhood businesses—bars and convenience stores, the survival of which you wonder at.
You and your husband accompany your daughter and Iggy to their back-door entrance. Iggy’s brown coat glistens with the rain. When he tries to climb the steps, his cone bangs against the concrete, pushing him back down. Your husband helps him to climb by tilting the cone up and away.
From the window of your second floor apartment, the street where you’ve lived for five years looks strange. The leaves of the trees, green when you left for France two and a half weeks ago, are brittle-edged and golden now against a silver sky. The tall red-brick houses look scrawny and mismatched after a view of cream-colored Parisian apartments. Rain darkens the asphalt. A mattress left standing against a tree has fallen into the street.
When your daughter visits on the weekend, she asks, “Aren’t you worried that someone threw that mattress out because of bed bugs?”
“No,” you say. “Should I be?”
“That mattress may have come from this house.”
“But it’s from two doors down.”
“Even so,” she says.
Toronto has a bed-bug problem. Two of your daughter’s friends have lost furniture and clothes to an infestation, have had to abandon their apartments. She wants to move to a bigger place but clings to the safety of her bug-free home, afraid of the expense and stigma bed bugs carry in their tiny gray bodies and quick feet.
You imagine them crawling out of the sodden mattress, creeping through the grass, into the cracks between bricks, or between window and wall, up through the heating vents to the second floor, infecting your stuff, tainting your skin, your sense of who you are and where you live.
The maples in the park surrounding the community center are brilliant as ever this fall, glowing crimson and lemon yellow, brightening the sky. Five years ago, you moved downtown from this suburban neighborhood. You’ve returned today because you needed to see the trees, to sit under their canopy and drink in their damp, leafy scent, to breathe in the oxygen they give out so generously. You’ve planned to visit your in-laws nearby, but you don’t felt up to it, can’t tell one more person your news, can’t deal with their reactions. You’ve lived in this city for more than thirty years and soon you’ll be moving thousands of miles west and north. Your husband has found a job in Saskatoon. He’s been out of work for over a year. It became something you didn’t mention, something that crept through both your lives on quick ruthless feet, tattooing you with its blush of shame.
You wander through the trees, touching their rough and smooth bark, your feet rustling the dry leaves that blanket the ground like a shroud. A few days ago, you were excited to be going and you will be again, but for now you feel scared and guilty. You’ve told family and friends that you have no choice, helpless against the offer of a good job that is compelling you and your husband to go, but really you’re aching for a fresh start away from this place you’ve loved for so long, the place you’ve raised your daughters. Your younger daughter will be returning from a year’s travels soon. Secretly, you’re delighted to be turning the tables on her, delighted and devastated at once, because it means you are not the selfless mother you thought you were. You have changed since she left, and a new place will change you yet again, and you cannot wait for it to work its way into you, to carve away some of the old habits of motherhood and safety.
You sit on a swing in the empty playground. Sixty years ago, when this suburb of Don Mills was etched on paper, the first Toronto suburb planned to be self-sufficient with neighborhoods gathered around an outdoor mall, and industry and commerce forming an outer defining ring, this park was part of a golf course, the community center was the clubhouse. Your old home and those around it occupy what used to be a meadow for horses. A woman in a navy blazer sits on a bench several meters away, her back towards you. She seems to be watching the community center, maybe waiting for her child to emerge from an after-school program, as you used to wait for your daughters. Beyond her, small children swing in the little kids’ playground, their nannies pushing them half-heartedly as they chat with one another. When you walked by earlier, a woman dressed in black had been lying on the ground waving her arms and legs, posing for one of the nannies to take her photo. You thought of the dancer on Bathurst Street—Torontonians losing their fear of what other people might think, willing to let some inner music move them. In Paris last week, a man in a wheel chair was singing. He had swollen red feet like a lover in a Chagall painting, untethered, floating.
You pump the swing until the speed and sway of it begin to scare you, then you lean back, feet in the sky, head almost touching the fallen leaves.