Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Rachel

Through the first part of our lives, we gather friends. Grade school, high school, university… this is where we nurture bonds, create a second family for ourselves – especially when the one we were born into may not, for whatever reason, be close at hand.

But somewhere, between the textbooks getting boxed away and the wedding invitations coming in the mail, that seems to slow down. Reaching across a table of glue and popsicle sticks and saying, Hey, will you be my friend? is no longer considered socially acceptable. Asking someone you’ve met at the gym to go for a drink when you don’t want to sleep with them can be more conducive to cold sweats than asking someone you do. You become set in your ways: less willing to share your life story yet again, especially when that story is already so long and worn out.

Unless you’re lucky.

I’d been back in Montreal about a year when I met Ally and Rachel. We met at work – normal enough – but didn’t really get to know each other until a very unfortunate turn of events came Rachel’s way. There really is no better way to bond with someone than sleeping on their pull-out couch while they’re being stalked by their ex-husband. But even as it was happening, one thing was clear: these were two women I’d been waiting to meet my whole adult life.

Put it this way: each of them has taught me something I needed to learn. I am about as outgoing as Wiarton Willie, while Ally makes lifelong friends with people on elevators. I constantly question myself, my abilities, whether I’ll make it in this world and what people really think of me, and Rachel simply believes she’s capable of whatever she puts her mind to – and that her friends are, too. They are the elements I lack… on top of which, good lord, do we have fun.

If I could put together a video montage of the times we had together over the last year and a half, it would be worthy of MTV, or at least a commercial for Stride gum. Us strolling through the sunshine in Central Park, and shopping up a storm in Greenwich Village. Drinking margaritas on a cottage dock at sunset. Drinking warm beer at a “Cyberlesque” show at CafĂ© Cleopatra, where Rachel, a self-proclaimed wasp, cheered along with the best of them to topless blue aliens and leather-clad drag cops. Tony, Rachel and I whitewater rafting, and, after an epic nosedive into the Riviere Rouge, climbing back in and screaming victory at the top of our lungs. Celebrating our new house. Celebrating Rachel’s new house. Celebrating a lot of things, actually. One of my favourite memories of my wedding is Rachel helping me with my dress and crying with happiness. After everything she’d been through, she stood there, sniffling, and said, “I love a bride.”

Told you she’s positive.

But now, what I secretly feared would happen has happened. Someone caught wind of one of my magnificent friends. Someone whispered something to someone else, and things were set into motion. And Rachel got a job at the UN, and is moving to Switzerland.

How could we not be happy for her? An avid skier gets to live at the foot of the Alps. A brilliant mind gets to work with one of the most environmental movements in the world. Plus it is so rare, in life, to see someone get what they deserve. Rachel deserved this from the start, but after everything she’s been through, I don’t think anyone deserves it more. This is a girl who, three months into her marriage, uncovered a pile of lies that would put a daytime soap opera to shame. Who watched her dreams of a family and a future crumble, and still stood up to a police force who refused to do more than the bare minimum to protect her. And who, after all that was over, lost her job. But she never lost her faith. Rachel never, as Journey would say, stopped believin’.

Still, I gotta admit: I’m broken-hearted. My cheerleader is gone. My ray of sunshine is in another time zone. For Christsakes, how often in life does this kind of friendship happen? I deserved these girls. They were my reward after a lot of lonely moments over the last few years. And now, half of them is gone.

I called Rachel a few weeks ago, in tears, to inform her of this fact. “What am I going to do without you?” I sobbed, while she stood in line at the visa office.

And she said, simply and firmly, “We’re going to be friends forever.”

I boo-hooed a bit more before she had to let me go. But by the time we hung up, I understood. This isn’t just anyone flying across the ocean, flinging some offhand comment about friendship. It’s Rachel. And if there’s anything I've learned, it’s that if Rachel believes something is possible, it probably is.

Monday, August 31, 2009

The Dark Bride

Getting engaged is a pretty monumental thing. The person you’ve been looking for wants to spend their life with you, and behold! You feel the same way. You have made the decision to walk through your trials and tribulations together. Two hearts will become one. Two families will unite to form a new bond. Two souls intertwine, like the roots of a tree, creating a union that will stand the test of time.

Plus, you get to buy Martha Stewart Weddings.

I once went to a wedding where the minister, who had known the bride since she was a little girl, began his sermon: “Elizabeth has been planning this day since she left the womb.”

But even if you don’t fall into that category, it’s still good times. You get to try on dresses. You get to think seriously about cupcakes. Your friends celebrate you and your family fusses over you. You spend inordinate amounts of time in magazine stores, flipping through Brides and Wedding Bells and In Style Weddings, and of course, Martha. And although you might point and laugh at most of the pictures, snorting out comments about how many Barbie Dolls were killed to make that tiara, secretly, you enjoy it. Because Your Wedding Day is Your Day to Shine. It is the day when All Eyes Are On You. It is the day to Look Your Best. It is the day you will glide down an aisle in a blossom of white, basking in the love you have for your husband-to-be as the crowds gush and get teary-eyed and snap digital photos. It will be, in other words, THE BEST DAY OF YOUR LIFE.

Got it?

I’m not much of a perfectionist – I swear. But as soon as we started planning our wedding, I began obsessing about things too embarrassing to even admit. I felt our wedding would be the perfect reflection of everything Tony and I stood for as a couple. It should be spiritual but not hokey. Classy but not stuffy. Outdoorsy but not Mountain Equipment Coop. Stylish but not in a way that would look like we were trying too hard to be stylish, which was going to take a damn lot of effort. Just to keep things interesting, we even bought a house two and a half months before the nuptials. Then, a week before our moving day, I found myself curled up in the fetal position on the bathroom floor.

Please believe me when I say this had nothing to do with flower arrangements. In fact, I had no idea what it had to do with. All I knew was that somewhere between the champagne and the dining room table measurements, the feeling had gone away. My excitement and love and anticipation had melted. Looming, on the horizon, was THE BEST DAY OF MY LIFE. And I was terrified.

The thought of putting on my dress wasn’t filling my stomach with butterflies. I didn’t feel madly in love with Tony, and hadn’t at any point in the past two weeks. We were moving out of a miserable apartment where our chain-smoking next door neighbours had beer delivered every day at 10am, to a great house that belonged to us. So what the hell was wrong with me? Why wasn’t I thrilled to the marrow of my bones? Did this mean I was…

Making a huge mistake?

It too horrible to consider, but there I was, face to face with the gunge on the bottom of the toilet, considering it. Because when you are getting married, you are SUPPOSED to be filled with joy and excitement and little white clouds. You are SUPPOSED to spend every moment walking on air. You are SUPPOSED to be DYING to start the rest of your life with the person you have chosen. And if you’re not… well, Martha does not speak of such things in her Summer 2009 edition.

The next day, I called my friend Sofia, who herself had a big fat half-Greek wedding a couple of years ago.

“Were you excited before you got married?” I demanded.

“God, no,” she said. “We fought all the time. Everything was like one big chore. The day itself was great, but everything else… forget it. Of course, buying a house right before didn’t help. I wouldn’t recommend that. Oh – never mind.”

According to the book The Conscious Bride, while getting married is the birth of something new, it’s also, symbolically, a death. It’s the end of your single life, and, in a way, your family unit of origin. This is even reflected in some cultures, where the bride’s family actually mourns her before celebrating her wedding. The book has testaments from brides about how, in the months and weeks leading up to holy matrimony, they, like me, experienced extreme anxiety, and even panic. The brides talked about how, during this time, they had unusual urges to spend time – willingly – with their parents and siblings. Which was reassuring, since I had also begun to lose myself in old photo albums, longing to be three years old again. I was sure this was completely bizarro behaviour, but there were other women, claiming to have done the very same thing. Best of all, some of them ended up on the bathroom floor, too.

Then, something occurred to me. It might seem painfully obvious to a passing bystander or someone who’s already gone through this, but getting married is - are you ready for this? - NOT just about the wedding! It’s about announcing to the world that you will take this person and all their baggage, pile it on top of your baggage, and make a vow not to run screaming from the giant mountain of suitcases and garbage bags filled with crap. No matter how much white icing you pile on top of it, that, my friends, is a big fucking deal. Is it any wonder the majority of divorces happen within the first year?

Since she has 41 years of marriage under her belt and has known Tony for almost as long, I decided to sit down with Mama Greek and pick her brain about this whole thing.

“Were you excited for your wedding?” I asked.

“No,” she shrugged, rolling phyllo for spanakopita. “Why excited? You get married, and that’s it.”

“Were you nervous?”

“No. Why? You nervous? You beautiful, Natalie. Don’t need to be nervous. Just get married. That’s it.”

“What do you think is the most important thing Tony and I should know about marriage?” I pressed. And then she said something excruciatingly obvious, but that somehow, in all the house-buying and wedding-planning, Tony and I had managed to forget.

“Respect each other,” she said.

I know. It’s probably there, in the How to Get Married Manual, page one. But thinking about all the couples I’ve ever met, it’s the one thing they have in common. They speak to each other kindly and gently, the way you would with a three-year old. They listen to each other patiently, even when the person speaking is drooling or ranting in a deranged way about used vs. new appliances. And somewhere in the past few weeks, Tony and I had stopped doing so well on that front. We’d started losing our patience way too quickly, trying to micromanage each other and snapping when that didn’t work. It’s an easy thing to do when tensions are high. It also corrodes away at what you’ve got, no matter how good it is.

The movies tell us that if we just meet the right person, everything will fall into place. And that if the right person eventually reveals themselves the wrong person, it’s best to bugger off immediately, because life is short and the REAL right person, whom you’ll never argue with or snap at or question your decision to be with, is somewhere out there, waiting to make your life complete. But listening to Mama Greek, I started to think that all this might be more of a chicken and egg thing. That not only do you have to find the a person who treats you well, you also have to patiently and persistently watch how you treat them, even if you’re having a bad morning or a long car ride or planning seating arrangements. And that that is the stuff that makes the right person stay the right person, rather than the other way around.

I will be walking down the aisle in three weeks. But I’ve decided that I’m going to just let it be a day that, in the grand scheme of things, means nothing about the kind of couple we are or will be. In the end, planning a wedding, or buying a house or whatever it is you’re taking on, is just a giant, logistical feat. Maybe it will be the best day of my life. Maybe it will be a great day, or just an okay one. But I’m alright with that. As long as we keep working hard to respect each other, now and forever.

And anyway - that’s why God invented honeymoons.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Almost Home

A couple of weeks ago, we bought our first house.

It was a really strange experience. We looked at the place for about half an hour, and then decided we wanted it. I’ve spent more time deciding whether I wanted a pair of jeans. Three days later, we signed some papers, and became grown-ups.

Once we’d made it official, we brought Tony’s parents over to have a look. We raved about the house to them in the car on the way over: about the backyard, the garage, the basement (i.e. man-cave for Tony.) The house is actually a duplex, which means we’ll be renting out the top floor until we can afford to take over the whole place. It’s right around the corner from friends who have two pugs, and one block away from other friends who are about to have twins. It’s down the street from cheap Greek and Indian restaurants, and walking distance from Little Italy, a great market and even a dog park. It’s also in the exact same part of town Mama and Papa Greek lived in when they first got married, although things have changed somewhat since then.

“There’s a bar nearby I don’t like,” said Papa Greek.

“Are there any bars you do like?” Tony asked.

“You’ll never find tenants after July,” his dad went on. “And you’re paying too much for it.”

“It’s far from the metro,” Mama Greek added, “especially when it’s below.” (“Below,” as I learned, is Greek for “really cold.”)

“It’s the same distance as what we walk now,” Tony said.

“Okay,” she said. “Do you want to go eat?”

“No, Ma,” Tony said. “We have to get back to work.”

We showed them around, and they continued frowning and fretting.

Papa G (suspiciously): “Why is it empty?”

Tony: “Because they’re doing renovations.”

Papa G (peering out the window): “Are you sure you want to live in this neighbourhood?”

Tony: “You’re asking this after we’ve just signed the agreement to purchase?”

Mama G: “Maybe we go for pizza?”


Back in the car, and they asked when were planning to move in.

“End of July,” I said, encouragingly, from the back seat.

“What?” his mother exclaimed. “Why are you waiting so long?”

“Don’t forget, you need some money to pay taxes!” his father cut in. “Welcome taxes! Property taxes!”

“I would have liked it if we went out for lunch,” Mama Greek said, forlornly.

“We would have liked it too,” Tony said, “but we really don’t have time right now.”

“Well!” she cried, throwing her hands up in despair. “When are you going to EAT?”



Neither of us admitted it until later, but we spent that whole week utterly terrified. Buying a house is mad enough, never mind moving into it a month before the wedding. What were we getting ourselves into? What if our renovator turned out to be blind or crazy? What if the house did not, after the months of renovations we now had to sink into it, turn out like Readymade Magazine meets Country Living? Why had I never learned the basics of electric wiring? How did people do this?

Two weeks later, feeling slightly overwhelmed, I took off to my dad’s place in Kanata for a few days of self-imposed writer’s exile. One evening while I was there, I walked over to the house where I lived until the age of 9. I do this every time I stay at my dad’s, always fantasizing that one day I will find someone outside gardening or trimming shrubbery, and we’ll strike up a conversation, and they’ll gasp in delight when I tell them that I spent my formative years in their home. I imagine being invited in, seeing my old bedroom, and being instantly brought back to the wonders of childhood. It would be like traveling in time: a return to innocence, when I was pretty sure I could fly, and was 100% positive that, no matter what my mother said, E.T. lived in the basement. But whenever I go past the house, the windows are always dark. I stare at it longingly for a few minutes, remembering a time when I performed one-woman shows in the backyard, then walk nostalgically home.

This time, to my surprise, the lights were on. I stood at the curb, gazing through the screen door into the hallway where I used to play dress-up and make my face up with Crayola markers. Suddenly, a small, short-haired woman appeared in the doorway and looked at me strangely.

“I’m very sorry for staring,” I called out. “But I grew up in this house.”

She came outside, laughing, and we met on the driveway, next to the lamppost which I used to stick my tongue on when it was “below”. Her name was Alida, and she told me she’d bought the house from the people who’d lived in it after us.

“Did you used to have a brass disc over your front door?” she asked. I wracked my brain. We had a lot of brass things, but then again it was the early 80s. I didn't remember anything above the door, but then again I wasn't tall enough to see that high back then. Could there have been a disc? What if it was the one thing we had left behind in the house, and now I was about to have it? How symbolic was that? And then Alida said the magic words. She said, “Why don’t you come in?”

As I stood in the entranceway and Alida dug around a drawer, she told me she was 84 years old and had 5 children. “I lived through the Nazi occupation in Amsterdam,” she said. “Can you imagine?” She found the disc and showed it to me, but it didn’t ring any bells. Alida and I talked about Montreal, and how her kids were spread out all over the world – one is even in Afghanistan. She asked if I was married, and congratulated me on my new home. Then, I left.

It took a few minutes before I realized that the moment I’d imagined hundreds of times in my life had just happened. There I’d been there, on the threshold of the living room where I’d watched The Muppets, the dining room where I used to build forts under the table, and the kitchen from which I used to call my grandmother, like clockwork, at 6:30am every morning to catch her up on what I’d been up to lately. And it hadn’t felt magical at all. It had felt, simply, like someone else’s house, which faintly resembled the one in my memories. The only thing that had really touched me was meeting Alida.

I wondered if maybe, when we leave a house, it’s like when a soul leaves a body. Houses contain our victories, our griefs, some of our most wonderous moments, and the people who are most important to us – but only while we live in them. But then we move out, and someone else with a whole different library of memories moves in. Right now, to me and Tony, those memories are only frantic e-mails, excel spreadsheets, and a lot of paperwork for the bank, which was especially fun for me as I am of the When-Will-I-Ever-Need-This-Again and I’ll-Definitely-Remember-Where-I-Put-That school of financial management. But that night, I realized what is really about to happen. We’re about to move into a house that has been home to other peoples’ memories for 60 years… which is not even as long as Alida’s been alive. Soon, it’s going to contain a whole new story. And while we will never go through what she’s been through, mortgage documents and renovations ain’t nothin’.

Suddenly all the little details didn’t matter. All I knew is that we had to make our place a house we’d want to come back to years from now, reminiscing about the kinds of moments usually reserved for life insurance commercials, but that I know, from experience, really do happen. There will be pugs and twins, and even my soon-to-be-mother-in-law, who still says she wishes the windows were a little bigger, but also that she’s glad it’s near their place so she can come over often and “give us trouble”. And if someone comes by and tells us they grew up in our house, we will definitely invite them in.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

You Could Be a Part-Time Dog Food Model

A few days ago, a colleague sent me the most bizarre e-mail I may ever get.

“My boyfriend,” she wrote, “is a professional photographer. He’s looking for cute gals to model for an ad for dog food. I thought you’d be a great fit!”

I read the e-mail three times, and then once out loud to Tony, to make sure I was getting it right. First of all, she was asking for me, not my dog, who is much cuter and also happens to come from a line of dog food models (his father was the poster dog for Purina, something I very much enjoy bragging about to other owners at the dog park.) Then, I became convinced it was a practical joke. Cute? Dog food? Me?

“Do you think it’s for real?” I asked Tony. “And not spam or something?”

“Well she’s given you her phone number, hasn’t she?” Tony pointed out.

It was true. And her boyfriend’s phone number, and her address. And besides, this particular colleague is not the kind of person who would joke about such a thing. Also, there was cash involved. So I called her, confirmed I was not being punked, and said I’d be at their place tomorrow afternoon for an audition shoot.

The next day, wearing a light-coloured top and jeans as directed, I showed up. I have to say, audition or not, it was extremely nerve-wracking. Smiling at a television camera is nothing compared to smiling while standing stock still. There is no way of doing it without feeling completely self-conscious, and like you are the type of person who secretly feels they are better than mostly everyone else.

The photographer-boyfriend asked me to stand in front of a brick wall, and smile. Then, he asked me to lie down on the hardwood floor, put one arm over my head, pose as one might while ruffling the ears of a dachshund, and smile. And that was it. We had some tea, and I asked if I could see the photos of my “competition” – the other girls who were contenders for the job. I pointed out one whom I thought was especially cute.

“Aw,” the photographer said. “She looks too young.”

This reassured me for a couple of seconds before I understood what it meant.

We said our goodbyes, and they promised to call me by Thursday if I got the job. And this is the crazy part. On the way home in the car, and that night, and the next morning, when I looked in the mirror, I actually looked better. I swear to god. It was like being acknowledged as a potential campaigner for kibble somehow got me seeing myself in a whole new light.

“You may not be Kate Hudson,” I told my reflection, “but you’re not bad.”

As the week wore on, I found myself getting more and more excited. I wondered: Could this be a whole new career? The end to all my problems? A miraculous way to fund my writing habit? I imagined some scout spotting me and the dachshund, blown up to life size on the wall of a metro station or something, and deciding on the spot that I would be the next Gisele, but less thin and without the sideline career designing flip flops. What a conversation starter at parties! I could get an agent! And the money would come rolling in, and I’d never have to do any real work again, except lying around on hardwood floors, poking my head around trees and skipping through meadows to sell peanut butter or shampoo or fabric softener. Why hadn’t I thought of this before?

In the end, Thursday came and went, and with it, no phone call. I tried to pretend like I didn’t care, but I did. I had so been looking forward to claiming on my Facebook page that I wouldn’t get out of bed for less than $10,000 a day.

But as I walked by the mirror Friday morning, Bride of Frankenstein hair and all, something caught me by surprise. I was still looking beyond the new wrinkles and ever-darkening under-eye circles to what I’d been seeing all week. The glow hadn’t faded. It was an honour just to be nominated.

“You may not be a part-time dog food model,” I told myself. “But you’re still not bad.”

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Just Call Me Angel

Every few days I get these wedding advice e-mails from TheKnot.com - stuff like “Book a Florist Now – or Forever Hold Your Peace” and “9 Reception Disasters to Avoid”. To my great disappointment, Reception Disasters only included things like what to do if your younger cousins eat too much wedding cake, or your floral centerpieces wilt, or what happens when you’re running low in liquor. There was nothing about how to behave if your wedding is the first time in 12 years your parents will be in the same room at the same time, or how to deal with your aunt’s scotch-loving boyfriend. That’s the kind of Reception Disaster I’d like to avoid, but perhaps I am alone in this.

I tried typing in “TheNot.com”, just for fun, but it brought me straight back to The Knot website, where I was greeted by, “Welcome Back Natalie and Tony! 287 days until your wedding!

I really only signed up with The Knot because you have to if you want to look at their dresses. I’d thought finding a dress would be the easiest part of this whole wedding thing, but as it turns out, not so much. My first attempt had been a store one of my already-married friends had gushed about. “They give you your own room!” she’d said. “They ask you want kind of dress you want and then bring it to you!”

I have to admit I was a bit apprehensive, but the room had its own leather couch, so I tried to force myself to revel in the luxury of it all. The saleslady measured me, and then brought me a white corset, fluffy bathrobe and a pair of white pumps. She instructed me to put them on, then disappeared, returning a few minutes later under a cloud of white.

“Close your eyes!” she said.

“Um,” I said. “Can I see it first?”

“Nope!” the saleslady sang, cheerfully. “Now hold your arms above your head…”

She stood there, expectantly, and I realized the idea was for me not to see the dress until it was on me, so that I would fall in love with my bridal self and throw down my Mastercard with reckless abandon.

“Open your eyes!” she said, breathlessly, after I’d struggled in. I did.

“Oh,” I said. “It’s… nice.”

She looked disappointed. “We don’t want ‘nice’,” she said. “We want WOW.” Then she whipped off the dress and trotted away, leaving me to stare at myself in the mirror in my corset and pumps, both of which were a couple of sizes too big and gave the impression I was a kid playing dress-up in my mother’s clothes.

The rest of the afternoon kind of became a bridal Groundhog Day. The saleslady would appear holding another dress, and I’d close my eyes, dive in, and then try to think of something polite to say.

“It’s a bit, um, lacey,” I’d say, or, “It’s sort of whiter than I had in mind.”

Eventually, instead of coming back with a dress she brought in the owner of the store - the Grand Poobah of wedding dresses – probably to get a load of the girl who deemed a dress “a bit virginal”.

“She doesn’t even like this one!” she said, worriedly, as I stood there draped in chiffon.

The owner frowned. “What are you looking for, exactly?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” I said, feeling like a total moron. “Something flowy?”

“That is like WATER,” he hissed, and we stared at each other for minute, in a sort of bridal standoff.

“You know,” he said, eventually. “Not very many people want… what you want.”

If only I’d listened.

*

In January, now slightly distressed as according to TheKnot.com I was supposed to have bought my dress AND accessories by now, I asked my father to come wedding dress shopping with me. I figured if I had to deal with someone who insisted I looked glorious in something the size of a Volkwagen, my father, who doesn’t believe in sugar-coating anything – especially to salespeople – was the right person for the job.

The other bride who was at the store when we arrived had brought her mother, grandmother, and 8 friends. All of them had shiny, perfectly-coiffed hair, and appeared to be having a whale of a time. When I emerged from the change room, they stopped in mid-conversation. The bride actually gasped.

“Oh!” she said. “You look like an angel!”

The dress was made of many layers of translucent fabric embroidered with flowers, and the saleslady has fastened two giant clips to my back to keep it from falling down. I looked in the mirror. My hair was frizzed out in several directions, none of which were down. If I looked like an angel, it was a wind-up toy angel belonging to a two-year old.

“What do you think?” I asked my dad.

“Nice,” he said, shrugging, and returned to his Blackberry.

Later, as we left the store empty-handed, and I tried to explain my frustration.

“I know she meant it as a compliment,” I said, “but I don’t want to look like an angel.”

“I know,” said my dad.

“It’s not a normal shopping experience, is it?” I said. “It’s not just a dress they’re trying to sell us.”

“No,” said my dad. “It’s a dream.”

I realized he was right. It is a dream. And maybe what we’re all hoping to find is a dress with a written guarantee of that dream, which in my case is that my relatives will set their differences aside that day and be smiling and supportive like the people in Martha Stewart.

“Anyway,” my father added, reassuringly. “At least you didn’t look like that other bride.”

Touched, I thanked him. Then I pulled out my To Do list, and made a note to stock up on liquor.