For the longest time, I haven’t written in this space. First because I didn’t want to write over Belinda’s obituary, then because I wasn’t sure how to handle writing about my departure from Winnipeg. I avoided writing about Winnipeg at all, because I felt suspended between a few choices– pull out all the stops and hurt well-intentioned people in the process, write something bland and dishonest, write something sincere but diplomatic and risk it being spread around the community like a brushfire and misinterpreted fifty ways, or write something completely honest and completely private, which would defeat the purpose of this blog as an ongoing public piece of writing.
I’m seven time zones away from there now-seven. I’ll get into the reason for that in another post, hopefully tomorrow.
I did like Winnipeg. I made some very good friends there, including at work. I enjoyed my job, not all day every day but probably more than most people enjoy their jobs. But the environment in which I worked was not for me.
I have hair loss. When I’m nervous, I play compulsively with my remaining hair. I have a coordination issue that affects my muscle memory and how I do a lot of fiddly, spatial things like folding clothes, keeping a desk organized and pushing chairs in. On top of that, my gender expression doesn’t always match my physically and socially assigned gender.
In Quebec City, none of this seemed to be a big deal. The sight of my bald spots made some people uncomfortable, I know that. And I got occasional indiscreet questions about my gender and my hair, usually from people over the age of 75. But nothing that prevented me from going about my day normally. When I walked into a City Hall press conference, neither the security guard nor the mayor narrowed his eyes at me. No one I spoke to about a contract hesitated to hire me because of my bald spots or the way I held a pencil– at least, not that I know of.
In Winnipeg, it was different. A person I dealt with in a professional capacity who shall remain nameless made this clear to me early on.
“You’re really bold,” this person said.
“Thanks. Why do you say that?”
“If I had the same difficulties that you had, I would remain a freelancer, stay in my apartment, out of public view.”
I was required to keep a hat on at all times at work, and encouraged to do so outside of work.
“How would you feel if you walked past [name of popular local café] and saw someone at the window chewing on their hair?”
“I don’t know. I don’t really make a habit of gawking at strangers in café windows.”
“What did you push that chair in crooked for? You’re not even paying attention, are you? Your head is completely elsewhere! What will so-and-so think? What if he doesn’t let us use the conference room again because we left it in a mess?”
“Put your hat on again. What is so-and-so going to say?”
“For your sake I hope you find some doctor or something who can fix you.”
The frustrating thing was that the people saying and doing these things, the people acting this way were, without any shadow of a doubt, good people . The kind of people who would give a friend money for rehab, cosign a loan, give you a ride in the rain, move your furniture or take a friend out to dinner for no reason at all. The kind of people who, if you’re having trouble with something that should be easy, really do make an effort to understand why. The kind of people you could call at four in the morning if you were really in trouble. They were just the unfortunate prisoners of an overarching mindset dominated by the question, “What will people think of us?” I honestly feel sorry for some of them, who I don’t think are able to spend a relaxed afternoon in a coffeeshop without wondering what people will think– or worse, what other people will think that people will think.
“What were you thinking, taking an iPad with a crack in it to an election event?”
“Well, it works.”
“You’re concerned about how it works, I’m concerned about the appearance. What will people think of us if it looks like we can’t afford quality equipment?”
“[Leader of a major party] was resigning. I really don’t think anyone was spending any energy looking at my iPad, much less judging it.”
I was also working in a small town within a big city, and everyone knew everyone and was well-established in various networks based on high school, college, church, parents’ hometown… none of which I really seemed to fit into.
News also travels extremely fast. I became really paranoid about using social media after I accidentally allowed acquaintances to see two of my posts. One was an admittedly vague post about feeling homesick, which led my colleague’s friend to believe I was having a depressive episode.She then told my colleague that, without verifying with me what I meant. I also made a comment on an online friend’s blog post about getting stared at as the mother of a disabled child, which turned into a rant about getting stared at for having hair loss, which turned into a colleague thinking I was insulting another colleague who had recommended I see a doctor about my hair. I had not even been thinking about the person in question when I made the post. The tyranny of Facebook gossip also caused issues for two of my friends, whose innocent if kind of thoughtless posts ended up putting their jobs at risk because third parties jumped to conclusions, and before the original poster could say “Hang on, that wasn’t what I meant,” the third party’s hasty conclusion became accepted canon all over town and the poster spent a weekend trying to get people they barely knew to calm down.
I still enjoyed my job, but the idea of going into work started giving me heartburn. I did some stupid things because I lost focus. I turned in an arts piece that I had highly enjoyed writing and just about died of shame when I found out I’d made errors in it. I almost lost my job, but was merely shifted to another department in a restructuring that, I was assured, was scheduled to happen anyway. The trouble was, I frankly wasn’t any good at, and couldn’t put my heart into, the work I was asked to do in the other department. I was stuck in a Stupeur et Tremblements-like downward spiral of office hell, going from a stimulating office job to a succession of increasingly frustrating smaller tasks. I had less and less latitude to choose what I wanted to write about. I was forgetting things and shame and embarrassment were keeping me from expressing myself the way I wanted to. I gave myself a black eye from self-harm.
It was just a snakebitten few months. I got mugged and had my passport and camera kit stolen– one was irreplaceable, the other wasn’t replaced. My phone company gouged me for a small fortune. My application for permanent residency in Canada got rejected as incomplete because the Russian embassy in Ottawa and a past employer from nearly 10 years ago didn’t send me needed documents in time. I didn’t manage to take my road test, so no driver’s licence. I made friends who ended up leaving town six weeks later. A highly placed source sat through what I thought was a convivial interview and then proceeded to try and wreck my reputation with my bosses for no reason that I or they could figure out even with the recording in hand (Fortunately, they backed me up).
A colleague, a really sweet and kind young woman who I loved to pieces, said to me, “You’re kind of a fragile person, aren’t you?” In the same matter-of-fact tone that she’d said, months earlier, “You really like that purple sweater, don’t you?”
I’d been described as physically fragile before, usually by people who’d never seen me run up a dozen flights of stairs, move furniture up a spiral staircase or hip-toss a suitcase the size of a small child into a baggage hold. But mentally fragile was a new one. I remembered a comment a good friend of mine had made after I’d panicked while swimming in a river: “Where did the warrior go?”
Where indeed. She’d gone AWOL and I missed her a lot. I realized that I was destroying myself not only professionally but personally. I was way too far inside my own head for comfort and I wasn’t liking what I saw.
One final miscommunication, one final blowup, one final sane conversation between rational but tired people a week later, and it was done, by mutual agreement. I was out of there.
Before the shock had quite worn off, I bought a one-way train ticket to Montreal. “It’ll be good to find your bearings again,” observed the friend who had made the “fragile” comment.
But she had it backwards. I wasn’t going to find myself, I was going to lose myself. In a city of nearly three million people speaking dozens of languages and expressing every foreseeable cultural,social and gender identity, It was hard to see one more anonymous, oddly dressed writer from out of town becoming any real object of public curiosity. I got a bed in a youth hostel for a week and within four days had found a basement apartment near the Laurier metro, near a park, a couple of coffeeshops and two sushi restaurants. Moving a backpack full of books into the new place, I sat down in the metro between a hijabi woman and a person of indeterminate gender dressed like a female anime character with flaming orange hair. I took my hat off. No one looked up from their phone, no one narrowed their eyes over the top of their book, no one flinched. I felt myself melt into the metropolis. And I felt so free.