It’s not a retreat, it’s a tactical withdrawal, a measured falling back in steps one bus transfer and ferry ride at a time until at last you’re nearly off the grid until you realize the folks who own the cabin you wound up in had WiFi installed and it’s actually good, which is surprising given the remoteness of the location. While it may not be in the middle of the middle of nowhere it’s just a little off to the side, stuck somewhere along a seaside road with seals barking me awake and Seattle’s Best Coffee reinforcing the point that yes, I know I know, I ought to be writing.
This is a four-day span of unwinding, without traffic lights or subway tickets or cell phones to a point. The Little Beast is tucked away in my luggage, only to be checked and answered on an intermittent, lax basis, rather than being strapped to my hip at all times like a gentleman’s rapier. There’s a general store down the road past a string of getaway cabins that holds a smattering of wine, canned goods and slightly-old magazines, and further beyond that lies a roadhouse proudly boasting about it’s wild karaoke nights in broken-teeth lettering on it’s signpost. The ocean alternates between close encounters with the back porch and tactical retreats, leaving swathes of seaweed and shells that crack underfoot like the tougher cousins of eggshells when I attempt a morning jog (which is a poor idea on a rock-strewn beach.) The neighbours are either old or absent, with the gulls and the seals being the rowdiest of partiers in the early hours and only the barest of civilized lights visible to the south. The rest is silence, save for the constant crashing of the waves, and the occasional patter of the dog’s feet as he clicks and clacks around the kitchen eyeing my breakfast, heaping on the guilt until I cave and divvy up my bacon accordingly.
Writing in the city is hell. There’s a million and one different kinds of stimuli to pull you away, phones to answer and busses to catch and neighbours to tolerate and pressures to alleviate, a constant managing of symptoms that doesn’t point towards any particular cause. Trouble with writing in the city is that you’re never really bored, and boredom itself is demonized and exorcised by simply turning on the Xbox or stepping on down to Commercial Drive. When I was younger, there were four-hour car rides with nothing to stare at but the Big Saskatchewan Empty, a tiny cabin with neither television nor telephone (to a teenager, this is hell incarnate) and nary a streetlight for half an hour in any direction. But after the bags were unpacked and the isolation began to settle in, something clicked.
Let’s see what I can’t rattle off this time around.
Word on the street is that water from Mars could’ve been bottled up and sold to the general public and nobody would’ve thought the wiser. Then again, there’s that omnipresent “could’ve been,” which covers everything up until that moment when Mars went from a potentially-habitatable planet to a red rock that could only support our paranoia, our imaginations and a handful of robots running amok like wild teenagers after midnight in the suburbs. In a sense, it’s comforting to know that it wasn’t always deader than a campus karaoke bar during finals week, that some microbial little bugger with guts like Buzz Aldrin was eking out an existence in a puddle on the Red Planet and maybe even thinking of diversifying and applying for a license to become a parasite before some planet-altering phenomena changed that job market in a very permanent way.
I remember a few years back NASA was keen on announcing something huge and had a press conference ready to roll before someone spilled the beans early and it went internet-wide; they’d found some sort of critter in the bottom of a hell-on-earth-type lake whose genetic building blocks were like nothing else around. Maybe he was just the exception to the rule or had had a very difficult childhood, but the creature shouted out that one timeless Hamlet verse: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
And then someone put on a funny cat video and the world at large pretty much forgot about it.
It’s long bus rides, a slingshot across the city on a skytrain, dropping things off and changing shirts at the house before stepping onto one last bus to get us there right when the doors are opening and the first act is up. It’s a techno songbird with a voice that cuts right into the heart of our conversation about failed first kiss attempts and places to go and people we’ve been, she captures our attentions for a spell but doesn’t draw us out onto the dancefloor, we’ve got rum and cokes and limes she decides to eat because she used to eat lemons with salt as a child and old habits die hard.
And then the band we’re there to see is on and he tears into his set like a starving man at a full buffet; no holds barred. He yowls and rails and rampages through verses, freestyles about everything from soup to neon sweaters, and we’re crowded in so close to the stage and since I’m the taller of the two I can look behind us all and see this place is stacked to the rafters. This was my second time seeing him live, the first time he was sick as a dog and was reeling about the small stage opting for tea over whiskey as the fever dug into him with long claws. I was the only one among my friends who came out for hiphop shows, a little interest I’d picked up from a girl with bushy brown hair at uVic who’d sent me a single track to whet my appetite. I’d done the same to my current companion, so short she could barely glimpse the stage from behind a hulk and his girlfriend, but she never stopped smiling the entire forty-five minutes the stage was his to command. I bought us shots again despite her insistence on paying her way because old habits die hard.
And then the final band comes on, the headliner, and we’re not feeling it so we get our new shirts signed by the man himself at the merch table before collecting our coats and plunging back out into the late-night grime. We trade verses and choruses at a bus stop, devour Megabyte pizza with the spare change left from the merch booth and finish things off with a bottle of wine around a kitchen table while my roommate plinks away on guitar before yes, finally, this night has to end. Then it’s just me and the girl and the long slow walk to the skytrain once more, and she can’t come out tomorrow night because she’s dining with an ex she’s thinking of maybe kinda getting back together with, because old habits die hard.
And then she’s gone, leaving me alone on a train platform, a chump in a big jacket with some big idea, guts twisting like vines, feeling like a car crash on a country road. If Humphrey Bogart was there, he probably would’ve shaken his head and said “It’s cool, kid. Happens to all of us; fact of the matter is, you just seem to get more than your fair share. But that’s on you.”
And he’s right, it is.
But hey… old habits, am I right?