I have completed an interesting exercise in self discipline. For the last six months, I have lived in the home place of the last woman I loved, and worked a mile or so from her home and favorite restaurant, all without succumbing to the temptation to see her, speak to her, contact her in any way. I was determined to live as if we were still a thousand miles apart, and I succeeded. It was bracing, the exercise.
In September I took a job with a company based in Vancouver, B.C. A factor in my decision was the belief that that the woman in question had left Vancouver a few months before. As it transpired, she hadn't. While in Vancouver for my first visit to the company, I discovered through an Internet search that she was still in Vancouver. I had misunderstood her final email. It was too late to turn back, though; the contract was signed and the woman, after all, a memory.
The job required me to relocate to Vancouver for three months, a period which stretched slowly to six. I spent the first month prepared to flinch. Vancouver is not a huge city. The chances of two people randomly meeting there are high, much more so if they share common interests. I wanted none of it. I had nothing to say, no face to wear, no gesture to face her with. She was a runner, and I expected to recognize her chugging toward me on beaches where Crom and I walked almost daily. I worried that she might appear, driven by some new enthusiasm, in Stanley Park while we were there.
There were times when I imagined the contest of meeting as something I might enjoy, a challenge. But that was fond and foolish fantasy; the reality would have been ugly and painful. And pointless. There were risks: an evening with Margaret Atwood and hundreds of admirers, among whom she might have been. (I went anyway; this is not about cowardice, but folly.) There were places I sensibly avoided, those with high risk: the restaurant, the campus, places she would hang out. And it never happened.
It didn't happen, and I'm grateful. There was nothing to say, had we met. Not even a reason for assuming the awkward pretense of politeness. I may, in fact, have seen her one afternoon, but if so we managed, at sufficient distance, to appear not to recognize each other and go on our ways.
But it is not the degrees of separation that interest me, neither the strange synchrony that brought me to a company in one of the two cities where I could expect to find her, nor the delicate dance of avoidance that prevented seeing her. What interests me is the way the city itself was colored by her presence, her remembered presence. What I found, as I became accustomed to not worrying about seeing her, was that certain places were hot, as if scented with her passing. And they were not the obvious places. This morning, I drove to my vet and afterward went west to go home instead of my usual east. I found myself for the second time in six months headed toward the campus and filling with inexplicable malaise. I found, in my reactions, a boundary street, a corner of Fourth a few blocks west of where the restaurant stands. I turned up there, to go back on Broadway, and I discovered that it was also alive, this far west, with undetailed recollection. Here and no farther.
I knew about the dragons. I had waited four months before going near the Endowment Lands, a wonderful wilderness area bounding the UBC campus. A prime walking area for dogs, but we had confined ourselves to Stanley Park and other, smaller parks to the east. Finally one day we drifted onto on Marine Drive and headed west, farther west, into, at last, the campus itself. I had only driven the street once before, headed the other way, the last time we were together. Going in the wrong direction helped reduce the sense of the familiar. But once on the campus, passing the museum, I knew, to some extent, what it must feel like to return to a place where you have been assaulted. My reaction was physical; not a flood of specific memories but a feeling like fear, like the fear that comes on us in a "threatening" place inexplicable, unambiguous, absolute. I lost my nerve when I approached her old apartment building, where she is certainly not; and as I drove east on Broadway, every building was colored by a melancholic obverse déjà vu.
What interests me is the visceral quality of this kind of recollection. I know that entering that restaurant would hurt. I understand why I can't go near a hotel downtown, and it has nothing to do with possibly bumping into her. There is no likelihood of her being there; I avoid it for a different reason than the reason I avoid the restaurant on Beach where we ate because it was a favorite of hers. It is a function of "quality," not "quantity," of what remains, not of potential. In fact, we spent more time together at Stanley Park than on the streets between campus and Burrard, but somehow those streets carry the memory as surely as if she were on bills posted every few yards. Is it because I found a "use" for Stanley Park, that I can walk past a bench where we had sat and talked, her in my gloves against the cold? I have the good sense to stay out of hotels we stood and spoke in, restaurants where we ate, the museum where I began the painful obsession that caused us briefly and terribly to collide. But these other places, what trace is my mind burned by?
"Use" is a key, I think. She "gave" me Margaret Atwood and Sarah MacLachan. I discarded MacLachan, but Atwood remains. Just so, I threw away all the gifts Madeleine gave me that only attracted themselves to me through their association with her. I once walked a woman through my whole house so her ghost would be there to distract me from Madeleine's. And Stanley Park. Now it belongs to Crom, and I can walk there in peace, barring accidents.
I learned one night, picking through the phone book like an invalid at a scab, that she lived only a few blocks from my employer's home. This was not a necessary proximity, more on the order of a divine joke. I have driven twice past what I take to be the building, which is on a major street, and the building has no fascination for me, though I have looked for her familiar shape among the pedestrians. But I was not looking for her, and I didn't want to find her. There is no present between us, but the ghosts are strong.
Perhaps love wounds us in ways that scar, leaving shiny tissue on the soul's skin. Salt Lake City is so full of Madeleine that I cannot go back. I drove a rental car to a client visit there, three years ago, and the whole drive, airport to Holladay, listened to my own grief crying like a kidnapped child in the backseat behind me. I resolved, on my way back to the airport, that I would never come to that city again. Vancouver, mercifully, is less thick with brambles. I have purged my life of mementos of these women, but the slick scars are there forever, like lesions pitting the skin or brain.
Do I still love these women, Madeleine and the strange creature whose territory I have skirted for six months? Surely. As much now as ever, which was more than I could imagine and more than most get or give. Want them? For what? I have become someone they could not touch without gloves. I have forsaken mankind as surely as mad John in the wilds; I only appear to be present. This virtual self toils and buys bread; the man eats cactus and stares at the sun.
I move now alone with my dog, through the terrains of desire like a ghost in old hauntings. When people see me, I behave like a human, to distract them and put them at ease. I am no threat to them, and I move on, encompassed by the boundaries love placed like warding candles in this city. And now, home, where no memories substantiate me, an empty place where I can live in silence that passes for peace.