THE WAY WE WERE
the girls at Dalhousie Elementary pooled quarters to buy a Valentine’s Day message for our teachers, feeling slightly smug about what we knew would be a grander gesture than the boys would muster. I wrote the homage.
“Dear Mrs. Fast & Mrs. Turnock,” it reads. “Happy Valentine’s Day. Thanks for making Grade Six our favourite year and the best part is it’s not over yet!”
If I could tell myself then what I now know about time, I wouldn’t have believed me. I wouldn’t have believed I’d read that clipping again when 23 years had gone by.
There is other debris, other flashes of hazy memory. Two ride tickets from West Edmonton Mall, where we rode a roller-coaster and saw Donny Osmond in the candy shop. My sister was star-struck. I didn’t know who he was. She told me he was gorgeous and that was all I needed to know, which made sense enough to an 11-year-old.
Above this layer, there are artifacts from the time I began to flail into adulthood. That’s where I find the end of the thread of my best friend and I.
There are only glimpses of him at first, peeking out the edge of a Grade 12 photo snapped by someone I don’t remember, at an event I don’t recall. Over time, he moves to the middle of the pictures, and the two of us become the subject of the image. Finally, there’s one of Josh curled up on a ratty couch, staring at my old dog.
Memory flood. That was from our first apartment, on the ground floor of a Corydon Avenue duplex with algae-green carpet. We were 18 years old. That ratty couch, closer in colour to the contents of a diaper, was unearthed from someone’s basement. Because we were broke. Because I quit my mall job to pretend that I could be a writer.
We lived on Kraft Dinner and chips that summer. We had one bowl and one spoon and would take turns eating, washing the prized utensil after the other. There are few other mementoes in the Memories Box!! from this era, mostly photos, because acquiring things costs money. All we owned was a diaper couch, a dog and laughter.
The friendship thread snakes upward, and tangles itself through another layer. We are doing better, now. There is a cheque that Josh made out to himself with my first chequebook, for a joint account I shared with an ex-partner I desperately believed I’d be with forever. “One-hundred-million dollars,” he wrote.
(I texted him a photo of this cheque when I found it, expressing tongue-in-cheek relief he never cashed it. “Yeah, good for YOU,” he responded.)
The layers are growing richer. Now, there are clippings from my first staff work at the Free Press, when my headshot was dominated by a crooked grin. There are thank-you cards from readers. There is a ticket to the 2009 National Newspaper Awards in Ottawa, table 13, sandwiched between trinkets from San Francisco.
That trip was special. In the wake of a devastating breakup, Josh decided to haul me to the coast. We eked our way there by train and then by rental car, driving 12 hours through the Cascades in midnight snow. When we got to San Francisco, I opened up Twitter and saw people offering me congratulations for my NNA nomination.
That’s how I found out, and for the first time in my life I felt like I had made it. I curled up on a bed in a dank and windowless $60 hotel room not far from the Embarcadero, and cried. Josh was there to hug me, and grin, and I jumped around our hotel room and shouted that I’d never felt more alive.
That night, we tore a trail through the Castro. We ate pizza on the street with people we would never see again but who, for at least 20 minutes, were our best friends. Except for each other, but that went without saying. I kept a wadded-up brochure from a Harvey Milk theme restaurant so that I’d always remember.
The next day, we dragged our aching bodies through the tourist destinations. There was a poet sitting at the corner of Haight and Ashbury with a typewriter, offering poems for a $10 fee. It seemed a perfectly San Francisco thing to buy, so I gave him a theme: the poem is titled “A Week in San Francisco with My Best Friend.”
The poem is in the box, too, on a carefully folded paper sheet. It closes with this: “We look out inside a city that isn’t ours tomorrow, but will be ours today.”
After that, the memory layers thin out quick. Things changed. We communicate more often, but leave fewer traces. We started texting more, but stopped writing notes. We stopped printing out photos, stopped putting them in frames, started letting Instagram and Facebook do the work of commemorating each time and every place.
So what do you do with things found in a box, things you once stuffed in purses and pockets and promised that they meant so much, you’d never forget?
Maybe you sit down and write a newspaper column. So at least you can clip it out, stash it in the box, and one day remember that it was real enough to hold.