When I told my chiropractor that I was going to Vancouver to meet my Canadian girlfriend for the first time, he chuckled and said that in his guy world, men talked about having a Canadian girlfriend because it was better than saying they didn't have one at all and this way no one would expect them to bring her over for dinner.
"She must give good e-mail," commented my friend Tian when I announced that I had bought my plane ticket on Facebook.
"Do you know this woman?" asked my housemate Steve when he saw my trip to Vancouver marked out on the kitchen calendar.
"We've been writing each other for a year and three months," I said.
"Is she in prison?" he asked slyly.
"Good one," I said laughing. The idea of cultivating a romance through letter writing is somewhat antiquated these days. It harks back to a more genteel time of carefully penned missives, days of waiting for the mail, scented paper perhaps with a pressed flower enclosed. But in today's e-mail world, letter writing is taken to a day by day, even hour by hour sharing of each other's lives while at the same time creating a world of our own in words with references back and forth to our word history, our shared narrative.
She found me on OkCupid a cozier, more off-beat dating site than Match dot com. She was reading
profiles for a bedtime story and came across mine. When she saw that I had listed one of her favorite films in my list of favorites she wrote to tell me how rare it was to see that title mentioned. Bagdad Cafe was a quirky independent film about two disparate female characters thrown across each other's paths at a remote truck stop in the Mojave dessert. It holds a place in my heart for it's cross-cultural, cross racial lines, art based collaborative story of an unlikely friendship. I felt compelled to answer her passing comment. And of course I checked out her picture. She had a cute round face with brown collar length hair and big glasses. She was mostly dressed to be outdoors in cargo, shorts and hiking footwear. She was amply curvy, a body type that I enjoyed; given my skinny frame I wanted the luxury of padding. It was her no nonsense take-it or leave it presentation that charmed me for she bore no trace of body image issues. Plus she was three years younger than me and this slight seniority appealed to me. So feeling in a playful mood for story collaboration I asked if she would indulge me in a game to get acquainted.
"Let's pretend I fly in for the weekend. You meet me at the airport as you would a friend from college you haven't seen in 35 years. We were close friends then, but there was an unresolved attraction that was alluded to, but we didn't stay in touch. The first thing you would likely say to me might be "You haven't changed a bit." What would be the first five things you would tell me about your life?"
From her answer I was delighted to learn that she had been in a writing program and had had two short stories published. The detail of having once lived on a nude beach in the Kootenays intrigued me. Her parents were dead and so was her sister from cancer so I knew she had gone through some hard stuff too. She worked odd industrial jobs to keep a roof over her head and her cat's. She currently worked in an herbal vitamin plant. All of these details indicated an unusual person with a taste for the off beat experience. I replied in kind beginning with "I never did run away to the circus…" and we were off and running writing regularly every few days.
She ordered a copy of my book and discovered my many essays on my blog. So she was way ahead of me in getting to know my opinions on life while I kept a little distance in order to better get to know her. From the start she was solicitous of positive vibes for difficult events of her life so I gave of my support on this astral plane. Her enthusiasm for nick names and references to favorite children's books reminded me of a girlfriend from my '20s and this irked me. She sent me things, cards, the CD with the song from Baghdad Cafe and a calendar that I actually could use, but a map of Vancouver sent my already cluttered desk into overwhelm, plus I knew I wasn't going to send her stuff so felt guilty. She wanted to talk on the phone, but I was way too busy while she lived alone. So we Skyped, but I tried to be dull and slow so as not to encourage her. It was clear though that she had a big heart and once we shed the nicknames we could get real. She expected acknowledgement for her birthday. That wasn't too much to ask though I was lazy in matters of card buying. I made her a card I pretended had been put together by my dogs with photos of me with each dog purposely glued askew to the card. I included also a black feather from one of our dog walks. "A crow feather just what I always wanted!" she wrote back pleased that I 'got her'.
Sheilagh, for that is her name, was from a family knee deep in psychiatric nurses, doctors and therapists. I had had my share of the language of analysis from my therapist mother so we understood what each had been up against with being so off beat in a family that judged one's sanity rather too closely.
After a few months she wanted to come to San Francisco to meet me and I told her not to. In fact I was a little harsh about it. I knew that such a visit could not be half hearted for someone to come from so far away just to catch a glimpse of me when we were only newly acquainted. I didn't want the responsibility of showing her a good time for my life was just too full at the time with clients, canoe team practice and all my household duties and meal making at home with my ex and the dogs. That she wasn't phased by me living with my ex counted in her favor, but at the same time maybe that indicated a screw loose on her part. Not everything could be sussed out by words alone.
She drew back at my harshness, but we kept on writing and eventually she forgave me and I apologized for the harshness. I had not had a lot of practice saying no I told her. We followed each other's lives for the better part of a year. She telling me of challenges at work, me telling her about my interesting client situations and household events. She would hear my stories and give them a little literary summation that entertained me and offered insight. While I commented on her work life and tried to be helpful.
Distance gave her liberty to be affectionate, but it gave me reason to be resistant for the idea of a long distance romance with all it's expense and logistics just didn't seem practical. I continued to discourage her by telling her I no longer cared for sex with anyone save for fantasies about sailors. She sent me a picture of a "sailor" sporting briefs from a gay men's underwear catalog. I had to hand it to her for coming back with such humor. In further discussions I could see that she really did accept my domestic living arrangements as one I had consciously chosen and had no judgement about it. Our friendship thus far was solid.
Distance Makes The Heart Grow Fonder
When I went to Thailand for my mud hut building workshop I had a sort of epiphany regarding our relationship. I told Sheilagh I would be gone ten days without a wi-fi connection (not having a smart phone). She also followed my frequent posts on Facebook and there was only one; I managed to upload a photo of a new outfit by tapping into a hot spot created by another mud hut builder on her phone. On the tenth day I picked up my e-mail. No one had written me except for Sheilagh. No one had seemed to care except for Sheilagh.
"My Canadian girlfriend misses me," I told Cheyenne a fellow builder from Australia who was swinging in a hammock looking at her phone.
"Oh that's sweet," she said. She asked me about her and if we had ever met. I appreciated that homophobia no longer existed for the young for she was interested in the details as with any romance being all of 24. I told her no, that Sheilagh had in fact wanted to meet me but I had said no.
"You said 'no'? You bitch!" she exclaimed. I laughed at this youthful response. "I would have been on a plane in a second," she said. This gave me pause. Did young people have so little resistance to borders and distance that they would spontaneously cross thousands of miles to meet an online dating prospect? I had no need of yet another long distance relationship. I had a hard time keeping up with friends in Thailand and the UK plus all those scattered across the US. But my perspective had been jolted from my complacency and I realized that I had grown fond of Sheilagh, had come to count on her presence and interest. And I was further moved that someone who only knew me online would miss me so deeply that an absence of 10 days had made her anxious for my return. Could a love relationship exist on nothing but words?
That night I bought her a Christmas present — a wallet with many zippered compartments from our representative of a local crafts guild of refugees selling hand sewn bags made from naturally dyed cotton. I also bought a different zippered bag for Catherine whom I still cherished as family and was going home to for Christmas celebrations. I included in my package to Sheilagh a card from Bangkok and soap from another entrepreneurial endeavor of the mud hut builders. She received it with recognition that I had stepped up my appreciation for her.
Meanwhile I continued to meet women on OkCupid hoping for someone more local, but they either never wrote back after the cursory though pleasant coffeehouse meeting or annoyed me by testing me for deal breakers. The whole online dating thing was annoying me. People just didn't seem interested in getting to know me, but in how well I might fit into their parameters and world view. And some were so inept in writing skills I felt compelled to reject them myself. I reported my annoyances to Sheilagh and she reported that she too had found none of her dates interesting enough to pursue.
I buried myself in a building project of which I sent detailed reports to Sheilagh that would bore most as I described wall building and reported the finding of the dried up corpses of dead rats. She sent me her cat's toy mouse to guard against further intrusion by live rodents. Then she sent me pictures when she was visiting her older brother on Salt Spring Island for Easter. And another of the view from the ferry crossing and one of a chicken from his back yard farm inviting me to visit. Plus a few more of the tiny house her brother rented to transitional types. This Salt Spring Island farm of her brother's was quite the place I thought.
"When's a good time," I wrote back. Then it occurred to me that I could go. Vancouver was not after all very far in terms of my recent world travels. It was only two and a half hours by plane and thankfully did not involve a different time zone for I was having a hard time recovering from jet lag in my old age. She also said she would take a few days off if I came. My unexpected announcement that I would come and see her threw her for a loop. I fixed a date for three weeks out and specified that having only enough to spring for airfare I would have to avail myself of her couch. This sent her into a frenzy of cleaning for she rarely let anyone into her apartment, only those who could appreciate its artistic abundance. Then she called me honey.
"Does the default endearment really have to be honey?" I asked still prickly about traditional terms of romantic engagement. I suggested Dahling in the manner of the silly British show Absolutely Fabulous. But maybe I was being too British in my reserve. I began to question why my heart was so locked up. There was a time when I threw myself into love with all the obsession that I now reserved for shoemaking and building projects. But those adolescent like obsessions were mostly projected onto women I didn't know and was trying to make into something I longed for. This did not always turn out well. So I was cautious for I did not know what my natural inclinations were with eyes wide open so to speak. And I wished to maintain our creative edge, not take up traditional scripts. She called me Deer. I wrote her back with "My Moose Deer Canadian girlfriend," and signed it "your American girlfriend where the Antelope play". She loved that.
"Dear Honey Bee" she wrote sticking to the animal theme, "auto text just made that Horny Bee". Horny Bee? Auto text innuendoes made me laugh and this one woke something up in me as well. We might as well go for it I thought. With only this one chance we should have no regrets about not having explored every possibility of being in the flesh as it were. This might be our one meeting. At any rate it would only work if we stayed firmly in the present.
"I am not as fit as I was when I was first going to visit you," Sheilagh wrote as the trip grew closer.
"Dear Ms. P., I am hoping you are quite pleasantly plump, the better to pillow with," I responded. She immediately inferred the reference to pillow talk, was delighted by my preferences and proceeded to feast at a buffet she was attending. I was pleased. I could not be with someone who didn't eat regularly and often.
And in telling me how much stuff she would have to rearrange to make me a bed on the floor she asked if I would mind sharing her spacious queen size bed. "I was thinking same," I wrote and we decided we would go directly to her home from the airport and have our way with each other. I told her too of Steve's suggestion that she was living in a prison.
"Yes," she wrote, "we have done the time and now we will do the crime."
Border Crossing Lesbian
When I arrived at the Canadian passport check the immigration officer asked me what was the purpose of my visit.
"Love," I said with a smile. He laughed and said he hadn't heard that before and proceeded to grill me in a friendly way.
"Are you visiting friends? What will you be doing?"
"Yes and we are going to Salt Spring Island," I said remembering this magical name. This seemed to fit my outfit given my black suade vest over a red checked pirate shirt, my signature Australian leather bush hat on my head and waxed cotton jacket over my arm. He stamped my passport and wished me a pleasant visit.
I came out of customs from a side door, the special Canadian Airlines door so stood looking for a few moments at the crowd. Soon I saw her coming towards me talking, looking just like herself. I gave her my best lesbian hug, gently squeezing her in a full body massage held for a beat longer than customary.
"Thank-you," she said and I thought she meant for the hug. "Thank-you for coming".
"You are smaller than I imagined" I said for she was about my height.
"So are you," she said and we began to walk towards the exit.
"Can I help you carry anything?" she asked. I had just a small bag on a luggage cart and a back pack.
"You can carry my hand," I suggested placing my hand in hers. And so we made our way out to the Sky train. The sun was shining on my afternoon arrival though it had been scheduled to be overcast.
It wasn't far to her stop in one of those transitional city neighborhoods of low rent older buildings and a hipster coffee shop edging in. She had told absolutely everyone of my impending arrival, she said, so when we ran into her friend Al, a friend I had not been scheduled to meet I felt this was a fortuitous occurrence that would carry the weekend. And he was pleased to meet me too and didn't keep us long.
Soon she was letting me in the door of her apartment and it was indeed abundant with her things. She had told me how sparseness reduced her to tears in those characterless, artless, bookless homes. I had assured her I liked having lots of things to look at. And she did indeed have most of her walls covered in framed art each chosen for its own merit not just to "go with" anything, plus collections of treasures on table tops and bookcases arranged to make statements of their own. Her many bookcases filled with literary books I recognized and many unknown to me. It was a small apartment for such a life rich in possessions, but I was used to sizing up collector homes and my professional eye soon saw that what many would see as clutter was perfectly functional. The apartment had its own order as her mother had stated when she was young. And it was organized into appropriate living sections with only an overflow of coats on the back of a chair that fell over when I added mine to it. I picked up the chair, rearranged the coats and sat down on her home made couch admiring the rock solid sturdiness of it. There was a box of chocolates tucked against the arm. I opened it.
"Watch out for one's with bites in them," she warned. I picked one of these up, looked at the revealed soft center said "This looks good," and ate it. She laughed and turned her head away slightly in embarrassment perhaps. "That's one of the advantages of living alone", she said. Then said she needed to lie down after all this excitement. So we had a nap and then got to hugging and I kissed her thirstily as though emerging from a long drought.
"Well that broke the ice," I said as we got ready to go out to dinner and the documentary movie she had picked out for us at the film festival in town. The film was sold out so we came home and had our way with each other and again the next day (in case you were counting). And I would look at her and see the familiar face I knew from pictures, but also the face I didn't know; the face not presented to the camera. She had one that would look at home in another era, a vintage face behind those modern glasses. Her movements too were something to discover, quick and efficient, but leisurely when we were not catching a train. The cadence of her speaking voice fit the voice I knew from her letters, but the pitch and timbre of it I was still getting to know. The novelty of these additional features adding to my pleasure.
Salt Spring Island
In the meantime I enjoyed Vancouver. Canadians struck me as remarkably friendly. It was so odd seeing people who looked like Americans, but were, in fact that wonderfully progressive and sensible northern neighbor.
"I like your hat," people told me, "I like your coat". Those two items that made me look suspicious in my own neighborhood made me feel at home in Vancouver. "Canadians love everyone", Sheilagh assured me. And it was not because they were a homogenous population. I was surprised to see so many Asian people living in this town.
That night we went on a dance and dinner cruise down the Fraser river which favored us with a lovely sunset. We were joined by her best friend from grade school and ex boyfriend from art school who was now gay. A lesbian couple, older than us, sat down at the next table and when I asked how long they had been together, they said "20 years".
"We've been together two days," I said enjoying the effect of a good romantic story.
I had also met her middle brother Bob the psychiatrist who rode down to meet us on his bicycle for a coffee after tai chi class. When I mentioned my clients he wanted my professional opinion on his sister's home. This annoyed her intensely when she asked what we talked about for all of two minutes while she was in getting coffee.
The next day we took the ferry through the Gulf Islands. The sun gracing us in a landscape of such beauty I was in awe. Another smaller ferry took us to Salt Spring Island which had an atmosphere of long summer days by the water's edge with all the wooden piers hanging over the water.
We were met at the bus stop by Lois, her ex-sister in law who offered us a bag of hot donuts to welcome me. I was feeling like a visiting dignitary. Sheilagh had clearly been talking about me and was now introducing me to every significant person in her life. Her older brother David came to pick us up in his truck shouting out the window "Hey crazy cat lady" when he saw her. We wandered through the farmer's market filled with stalls of artisan crafts and gourmet foods. I was impressed by the caliber of the goods made by these local artists; it was worthy of a juried show. Clearly Salt Spring Island was something special to draw all this talent. Sheilagh said the island was why she had moved to Vancouver so she could come any time as she had been doing since her brother moved there when he was 19. He had a blasting business blowing up rocks mostly for construction. He commented as we drove through the rural countryside with its roller coaster hills.
"We are now entering the Tofu curtain," he said. He pointed out a neighbor named Rainbow walking alongside the road.
"What does she do," asked his 12 year old daughter from the back seat.
"The usual hippie things, massage, herbal remedies."
He took us to Kismet Cafe a coffee shop in the woods to see a sample of local inventiveness. It was full of scavenged architectural details worked into the walls and garden that made me want to look closely to see how things were put together.
David's own home charmed me with its backyard farm and chicken coop plus a glorious tiny building made of rogue logs gathered from the water, runaways from local mills. The logs had been stood upright and caulked together making a square hut. It had a living roof of grasses. This unusual hut was his sauna which we would later make use of, Sheilagh having built a fire in the wood stove as soon as we arrived. David's daughter making us a dinner of quinoa and veggies.
My trip was purposely short so no one would have a chance to get tired of me I reasoned. While waiting for the bus to the ferry which would take me on to the airport the following day, I talked to Sheilagh for quite a long time about how uncertain my future was with all the plans Catherine was making as she visualized different scenarios for her own future as well as options I had for living in Bangkok, or traveling for a bit. This was why I held so firmly to the present to keep the chaos from exploding my head I explained. We had succeeded in not speaking of the future, nor did we make further plans, satisfied that we had wrung out of every moment of our four days together all that we could soak up. But we would, of course, still write.
We held hands on the Skytrain all the way to the airport no one giving us a second glance those most tolerant Canadians. Then shared one more hug and kiss, before I walked through the gate.
"Thank-you for coming," she said ever the polite Canadian.
"Thank-you for having me," I replied. And as we returned to our correspondence I felt my previous prickly resistance and caution drop away now that I had fathomed her realness.
A few days later she sent me a link to a dating site specifically for Americans who wanted to hook up with Canadians in advance of a Trump presidency.
"I'm such a trendsetter," I said.
Labels: cross cultural, dating, travel, writing