Near-freezing conditions in December always remind me of my decision to move out of my parents’ house. I didn’t actually move out for another eight months, but I made the decision after my visit to a high school friend in Saskatchewan.
I’d met her in Grade 12 when she attended my high school for half a semester. I was infatuated with her, and, although she didn’t reciprocate, we kept in touch when she returned home after Christmas. Since then, other love-interests had crept into both our lives, but, after five straight semesters of university, I was ready for an adventure. Somehow, travelling to see someone was more appealing than heading somewhere on my own.
Even so, the trip was an adventure to me. I was green, and knew it. But, eager for experience, a few days after my last exam, I boarded a train in the cold of early evening. I could hardly believe my own daring.
Traveling as cheaply as possible, I didn’t book a sleeper car. The trip was supposed to take 36 hours, and, being young, I didn’t see any trouble with staying up all that time, and maybe napping for a few hours if I started to flag.
Right away, I found myself thrown into a world of strangers. Seated across the aisle from me was a thin, unshaven man, obviously an alcoholic, who had a great fund of stories about working as a logger and at other manual labor. Across from me was a fat First Nations woman missing a front tooth, who suggested that I sleep first while she kept watch – a comment that made me so nervous that, when I slept, I made sure that my wallet was on the side closest to the seat so that nobody could pick my pocket when I slept. For a while, too, I shared my seat with a young army cadet. He was a year younger than me, but he seemed so fully of worldly experience that I felt about fourteen in comparison.
The train was still in the Fraser Valley when we hit snow. As we inched through the mountains, the train employees kept upping their estimates of how long the trip would take. By the time we reached Boston Bar, we were already a couple of hours behind schedule. I remember waking and descending from the train to take a couple of cautious steps, ready to bolt back if the train started moving, just so I could say that I had. It was my adventure, and I was determined to get the most of it.
We hit the Rockies just in time for sunrise – a sheet of blinding light spreading from behind craggy peaks that I can still see if I stop and remember. Another night, and we were in Edmonton, where I stepped off the train again to stretch. I thought of a penpal I had in Edmonton, and thought of calling, but concluded reluctantly that she probably didn’t want a call at 3AM on a Sunday.
In Edmonton, at least one passenger left to take a plane to Toronto. The alcoholic across the way said that the average trip across Canada took longer now than it had in the 1930s, a fact that one or two train officials confirmed.
By the time we reached Saskatoon, we were fourteen hours behind schedule, and I was cramped, and crabby from lack of sleep. Even so, I looked around the train station with undisguised awe, looking at signs promising departures to Le Pas and Churchill Manitoba that had previously only been names on a map to me. These places were real, I suddenly understood, and people could travel to them.
I found a cheap motor hotel, and got in touch with my friend. She still had exams, so, for much of my days, I was on my own. I explored the city on foot, especially the campus of the University of Saskatchewan, and even fantasized about transferring there long enough to make a couple of appointments with the advisors.
I even had the thrill of stopping by the office of a magazine that was publishing a poem of mine, and answering a question that arrived in a letter shortly before I left. Yes, I definitely meant “wondering,” not “wandering,” I told the editor from the doorway. “Oh, I was just wandering,” she replied.
At night, I ate at the restaurant attached to the motor hotel. If my friend was busy, I stayed in my room and wrote poetry. I felt very grown up, writing poetry in my hotel room, and more than a little self-consciously dramatic.
The last night of my stay, my friend invited me after dinner. We went for a drive out on the prairie, and I remember the impossibly bright stars and the seemingly endless miles of dark, flat land around us that left me disoriented and dimly frightened. As we drove, we had one of those long talks that seem so important when you’re a young adult, and she told me she was seeing someone else. Finally, she drove me back to my hotel. We held hands for a while, and I felt like telling her that I didn’t need sympathy, but for a long time I kept holding her hand anyway, enjoying the feel of her chubby fingers when she squeezed mine.
The next day, I took a taxi to the train station for the journey home. Moving to Saskatchewan was probably out of the question, I thought. But if my friend could move hundreds of miles to go to university, the least I could do, I decided, was to move out on my own. I couldn’t do much with a new semester about to start, and I needed a summer of work if I was going to pay rent, but, eight months after I returned home, I did move out. Nor, except for two weeks when I was between semesters and apartments, did I ever move back.
Somehow, after that late night car ride, I never did get back in touch with my friend. I didn’t seem to have anything more to say to her.
A few years ago, she called me unexpectedly after she had found a trove of some of my poems, wanting to apologize for having treated me shabbily. But I felt embarrassed talking to her with Trish nearby, and, anyway, I still didn’t have anything more to say. I listened and made non-committal noises, sensing that what she wanted was less my forgiveness than an opportunity to forgive herself.
I was unable to tell her that, so far as I was concerned, she had done nothing to forgive. She’d given me the opportunity for adventure, and given me an example for doing what I should have done at least a year earlier – and each of those was a gift that she could hardly have equaled even by asking me to spend the night with her.