By Acadia Currah
When you go home for Christmas, you imagine walking through your memory like the cross-lined hallway of your middle school, running your hands along the white shiny brick, well-worn as the squeak of blood and spit under your shoes.
Ottawa is cold in the dry and northern way, in the way that makes its inhabitants roll up their sleeves and grind out a “It’s not even that cold.” Like a curse. You are stepping off of a plane when it hits your face, too familiar.
Smell is the nostalgia sense, the one that evades your capture most out of the five. Snow and sidewalk salt makes you eleven when your friend shoves you into a hard block of sleet and ice and sprains your pinkie, makes you feel the cool of a school wall behind you when you smoke your first cigarette down to the filter, hands a scary combination of burnt red and stark white on the palms. When you walk down the street, you shove your boot all the way to the bottom of a snowbank, just to see if it’ll soak through. It does. Somehow, it does not feel the same as it used to.
And the thing is you hold all your grief in your fists, clenched and balled up and freezing. It spills from the millimeter spaces between knuckles when you squeeze too hard, when you want it too bad.
You know what snow tastes like too, playground elementary school games in which you’d tackle a classmate and shove a hard and powdered piece in their face until they could no longer breathe. It tastes like childhood, like fear, like a tap on the shoulder that says “You win.”
And walking through the hallway can be dangerous, having your hand linger over the cool metal of a French class door handle, practically feeling your own shame-flushed face within, and deciding to keep that particular souvenir sealed shut, locked and keyed in the past.
The morning your grandmother died you woke up in her bed and it felt the same; the too-hard boxy mattress, the acrylic flower painting on the wall. There is an unopened Amazon package on her dresser. It does not feel like you thought it would; not everything feels like something else.
When you text your friend about it, you deliriously type out that the poetry writes itself, and she asks why you don’t write some. You struggle to describe why you cannot put pen to paper and describe the cotton in your molding and marrowed heart and the way the stained glass in your living room looks more like a straight-back dark-oak church pew than it did before.
And you leave that door a little ajar, something to dip your hands into when the wind bites at your cheeks a little too hard.
And November is in your throat, full and warm with pencil shavings, the bloody and melancholic scent of your eighth-grade classroom.
After they’d hit you, usually preceded with the taunting insult of “Faggot” etched into your cheek, they would always look at their hands. And you knew, crazed and kamikaze even at fourteen, that they would remember the way their hand looked more than hitting you, the shaky whiteness of it. You knew, because when you’d spit blood into the sink later you’d only remember the way mascara looked on your face, the way red looked on your chin. This gave you some small distance from the thing itself; girls in music videos have black eyes and bloody noses, so you must be special or chosen in some way, in something other than a sick perversion in your gut you cannot control.
This is the kind of nostalgia to catch and release, the kind to chase out of your mind and break down to pictures, cut and clear images rather than white hot emotion.
And in the deep and cavernous mass of your memory, you cannot see their faces before the fact. Perhaps it is why you do not know what hatred looks like, only the shivering, hand-staring regret that comes with doing something young and flashy, buying something sequined that you hate because all your friends have it.
You feel loss like fiberglass against your skin, itching and demanding your attention. It follows you like the moon, the translucent image of yourself at nine, eleven, eighteen, staring as though you’ve missed something monumentally important. You are homesick for a place that does not exist, where the cold is never too sharp and exacting, where it begs for hot chocolate and mittens rather than for more cold.
You’re almost in the chapel now. Maybe you’ve walked too far. Maybe you have overstayed your welcome. Yes, the body keeps score, but the memory leaves parenthetical citations around each red point of pain, pockmarks that scatter through cold hallways, through beating strings and atriums.
And there is a ghost of a small animal that lives in the ceiling of every house you live in, skittering back and forth above your head in the night. You never tell anyone about it, afraid they’ll say you left too many crumbs under the bed, attracted it. You lay awake waiting for it to break through the popcorn ceiling and scratch its way into your body. It never does.
When you spoke at your grandmother’s funeral, you knew in sick opposition to the wetness and warmth in your eyes what would happen. You knew what switch would flip, what string would urge you to straighten the line of your back.
You told your girlfriend thirty minutes before you left, “I am going to go into actor mode.” And you laughed, a little.
Then, you blink very hard and you quote Emily Dickenson. It is a funeral, after all. No curtain falls, but you do, for the first time in your life, feel stage-fright.
You cannot outrun yourself, you cannot stop plastering your pain across city-block brick walls hoping to make it something to look at rather than to feel. You knew it when you’d wipe that sticky blood from your chin. You knew it when you thought the poetry wrote itself. You knew it when you saw the camera zoom in your own mind and you looked so much thinner than you ever did in real life.
Mind over matter, and you are holding the knife over your own wound unsure whether to plunge or to dissect, deciding against whichever would draw the smallest crowd.
And maybe you are pressing too far, too deep into these small moments, meant to be grazed over and filed neatly away. You should call a locksmith for that door, the one with the skeleton key that is always cracked and spilling open. You live in memory as though it is a dance studio, plastered with warped mirrors as you try to look anywhere but yourself, pulled as high and small as you can make your body.
You cut, and you cut, and you cut, and you run. You are four thousand miles from the child who is afraid, except for when the rain comes down, cold as hell and sleet frozen over. Then, you let yourself curl like a hairpin into your own body, and you do not let the warmth feel like weakness despite the way it makes the intentionally sharp corners of your mind soften.
While you wish the way summer clung to your jaw looked half as pretty as the cold flush in your face, you are a winter; your body holds the sun like a well-kept storage unit. And when you feel the plane taking off the tarmac at The Ottawa International Airport, you imagine leaving your mind like a Catholic School Hallway, and closing the door behind you.
Acadia Currah (She/They) is an essayist and playwright in Vancouver, British Columbia. She is a leather-jacket-latte-toting lesbian. Their work has appeared in The Spotlong Review, Defunkt Magazine, Oxford Magazine, and the Fiddlehead. She is also appearing in Biblioasis Best Canadian Essays 2024.