the college years
My apartment in St-Hyacinthe was my very first apartment, which I rented with my very first boyfriend. We moved there to be close to the vet school that I was planning to apply to after college, and I was so confident that I’d get in that I jumped the gun, moved out of mom and pop’s house and done gone and rented me an apartment.
It was a small one-bedroom apartment, hot with the heat of a thousand suns in the summer time. The only place to get a breeze was on the fire escape outside our bedroom window. I painted the bathroom Pepto-Bismol pink, the colour of Canada winter mints, the kind you find on most grand-mas’ kitchen tables in heavy-set candy jars. I was really into old-fashioned pink at the time and I was going for that dusty rose look, very Marie-Antoinette, but I missed the mark and I never painted anything pink ever again.
We adopted a cat named Stella. Stella was more fur than cat and she used to suck on her right paw while massaging my thigh with her left paw. I’d sometimes take her out on a leash to the park across the street. She was one of those indoor cats that wanted to be outside until you took her outside and then she wanted nothing more than to retreat into the apartment again. Stella often struggled between her wild self and her domestic self. She was very bipolar that way.
I worked part time at a clothing store in the old town with older ladies, selling clothes that were boutique-y. I was the youngest employee. My manager, Diane, was well into her 50s and the other woman, Holly (which sounded like Olay when French people addressed her, which was 99% of the population of Saint-Hyacinthe), was forty-something. They both had dyed hair – Diane’s was orange, Olay’s was beetroot red — both typical hair colours for Québécois women. When we weren’t busy folding or ironing or selling clothes, we were busy scratching lotto tickets behind the counter, to the point where it became a bit of an obsession. “Shall we do another?” Olay would ask. “Envoye donc, un petit dernier.” We were all scratch-card pushers and addicts, which was a lethal combination. I’m pretty sure ten percent of my earnings that year went towards lotto tickets.
College was amazing; I could set my own schedule and choose electives like Philosophy and French Poetry and nobody knew me so I could be whoever I wanted to be, which was impossible in a small village of 1,500 people where I was either known as Yvon’s daughter or one of the English girls. The anonymity of college gave me the space to figure out who I was, not who everyone else thought I was.
On Friday nights, I drank beer with my friends Isa and Véro and danced in a dark basement bar that played a lot of Pearl Jam, Smashing Pumpkins, Stone Temple Pilots, Soundgarden, Nirvana and Red Hot Chili Peppers. I wore black jeans and crop tops and a velvet choker necklace. I was a grunge wannabe.
In the end, I didn’t get into vet school by a 0.01 margin on my R score, a statistical method that classifies college students’ academic performances in Quebec. The year that I applied, the R score was in the range of 32,675 and mine was 32,662. Perhaps those Friday nights weren’t such a good idea after all.*
So I went ahead with Plan B. I applied to the Animal Sciences program at McGill and got in with a scholarship. After a year of living in our flat with the peppermint pink bathroom, me and Mario and Stella moved west of Montreal.
* Much, much later in life, I would work in a vet clinic and end up being so grateful for that rejection letter. Life is funny that way. It always works out in the end.
We moved into a basement apartment in Ile-Perrot on the first of July 1994. I know this because that is when most people move in the province of Québec. Every Canada Day, Montreal goes into a state of moving madness, a seemingly perfectly orchestrated frenzy of moving trucks, people coming, people going, pizza being delivered late into the night and dépanneurs selling out of 2-4s.
I got a job taking orders at Domino’s Pizza. The phone would ring off the hook on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights; my manager was a moody man who once punched a hole through the wall and most of the delivery guys were chauvinists. But it was within walking distance of home and I got a good discount on pizzas. I know what you’re really thinking, though. Did I ever make myself a pizza with every single ingredient on it? Does a bear shit in the woods?
My boyfriend, Mario, was like a picky toddler when it came to food. He liked fondue, chocolate Swiss Rolls with milk, pizza-ghetti combos, club sandwiches and Pogos. That, and Cocoa Puffs for breakfast. So, needless to say, we ate a lot of pizza in that apartment and take-out from the Casse-Croûte around the corner.
This junk-food phase may have been the catalyst to my workout phase. I became completely obsessed with Cindy Crawford’s Shape Your Body workout on VHS. Oh! The 90s. Back when every single supermodel put out a workout video, wearing nothing but a bathing suit or high-cut thong leotard over leggings. I watched that video so many times that I nearly wore the oxide coating off the tape. I remember the tape getting stuck in the VHS machine once and I had to do a little reel-to-reel tape repair job. Eventually, I replaced her first workout video with her second one: The Next Challenge. And I probably wore that one out too.
I can’t remember whether Mario and I broke up shortly before we moved to Ste-Anne-de-Bellevue or shortly after. I do, however, remember why we broke up. I’d changed so much since high school and he was still bagging groceries at the local Metro. I was coming out of my shell and into myself and I don’t think he had the ambition to go any further in life. Or maybe he did, but just not in the same direction as me. He was a nice guy, he really was. We just didn’t fit together anymore. But I like to believe that every single person we meet on this life path is here to support us or challenge us or teach us something. I wonder if I would have ever had the guts to leave my small town on my own? I wonder if I’d be who I am today without those four years with him? I think probably not, and so, I’m grateful for that chapter of my life.
Rue Lamarche, Ste-Anne-de-Bellevue, Quebec
Soundtrack: Prodigy – Voodoo People; Nine Inch Nails – Closer; TLC – Waterfalls; Fugees – Killing me Softly With his Song; Tragically Hip – Locked in the Trunk of a Car; Sade – No Ordinary Love
When I found this little apartment on Lamarche, the same street name as the house I lived in from the ages of 13 to 17, I wanted it straight away. It was on the second floor of a duplex and it had a porch that overlooked a complex that housed mainly college and university students. The landlady lived next door and a guy named Chad lived downstairs. Chad was cool and he had cool friends named Mickey and Sean and Matt. I liked Matt instantly. He smelled good. I think he wore Polo Sport. And he had a great beard. He’d come around, we’d hang out and then smoke our post “hang-out” cigarettes, cuddled outside on the couch on the porch, watching the world go by. There’s so much time to watch the world go by in your 20s. And the worries you think you have are nothing compared with the worries you will have, which is why it’s so easy to be carefree. There’s so much time to start over again if you take the wrong path.
My sister Michelle moved in for a bit and she helped to pay the rent. She worked at Cinnabon and the apartment smelled of cinnamon buns whenever she finished her shifts. We painted the kitchen a light lemon and the living room a pale blue. The paint chip read something ridiculous like Spirit River. My sense of interior design back then was appalling. Or maybe it was just the 90s. There were a lot of pastels in the 90s. That, and heavily outlined lips.
For a while, I worked in the same mall as my sister, at a boutique called Strauss. The dangerous part of working in a mall is that you are constantly lead into temptation. I racked up $500 on my credit card while working at that boutique, mainly on Clinique products (including aforementioned dark lip liner) and nice knickers. Who was that girl? To this day, I have an aversion to shopping malls and my make-up bag currently consists of lip balm, eye liner and mascara that I seldom use.
I hated my job at Strauss. My manager Marie-Claire, Marie-Pierre, Marie-Claude, Marie-something pushed hard sales. One day, she told me to go up to a customer. I said, “I’ve already gone up to them, Marie-something.” And she said, “Go again.” I gave her attitude. I had a lot of attitude to give in my 20s. She took me to the back room to have “a chat” and she didn’t even have time to fire me because I quit that J-O-B on the spot.
Shortly after, I applied for a work-study job on campus and ended up working at the School of Dietetics and Human Nutrition for a fabulous woman named Francine. God I loved that woman. Pure Québécoise, fun-loving, full of life. I worked there part time during my studies and full time during the summer. And in the following years, Francine often took me back, like a stray cat, when I’d return from one of my “failed” moves, landing temporarily in Montreal before moving onto my next destination.
I won custody of Stella in the break-up and I decided to get her a brother, Forrest. Forrest, like Stella, had a bit of a sucking fetish but unlike Stella who sucked her paws, Forrest preferred to suck the tip of his tail. In the winter, when it got cold (and it did get cold because I sometimes chose to spend my money on beer instead of heating the place), his tail would get pointy and stick out like an icicle.
Within my first year at uni, I lost the weight I’d gained on my Domino’s Pizza diet. I started smoking, I lived on coffee and beer and ten-cent chicken wings at Annie’s on Wednesday nights and whatever I could afford on my meagre student loan. I sometimes ate corn right out of the can. Honestly, if it weren’t for my friend Camille inviting me over for dinner, I would have wasted to nothing.
This is also about the time that I started smoking pot. Dad must have been shocked when he got the phone call. “Yeah, um, dad, so I was wondering, if I wanted to, um, you know, buy pot off someone, how would I know if I’m getting good stuff.” This was my cheeky and roundabout way of asking, “Dad, can I have some of your pot, please?” I knew there was no way dad would ever want me to smoke some second-rate shite from the street. In his mind, if his daughter was going to smoke pot, she might as well smoke the best and back in the day, dad’s was the best.
I pulled a lot of all-nighters in that apartment on Lamarche, cramming before exams, drinking Diet Coke by the litre and way more filter coffee than any human being should ever consume and smoking mountains of fags with my friend Camille (all things that I wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole today). I watched Hackers and Threesome and Pulp Fiction at least half a dozen times (and when I wasn’t watching the films, I had the soundtracks on repeat). I hosted a couple of pub-crawls during Frosh Week (I’m pretty sure someone once vomited in my bathtub and to this day, I don’t know how that traffic sign landed in my living room) and a few good men and one or two regrets.
Over the year, the music maybe got a little loud and maybe there were too many people coming and going, which, when your landlord lives next door, perhaps isn’t ideal. I went from being shy and quiet to giving lip and acting mightier than thou. I wasn’t evicted, per se, but I wasn’t invited to stay another year.
Rue Ste-Anne, Ste-Anne-de-Bellevue, Quebec
Soundtrack: Our Lady Peace – Superman’s Dead; Deee-lite – Groove is in the Heart; Enya – Caribbean Blue; Sarah McLachlan – Possession; Alanis Morrissette – All I Really Want
So I moved on down the street and into one of the best apartments, in my opinion, in town. It was in an old building, with hardwood floors, original radiators, a massive porch and tons of natural light pouring in through east-facing windows in the morning. It had three bedrooms; I needed two roommates. I put an ad out on campus and soon found MF and Natalka. MF and Nat couldn’t have been more dissimilar to each other. MF was a carnivorous accountant and Natalka a vegan studying Plant Science or Horticulture. MF had an older boyfriend who was a bit of a meathead. The sex was really loud and I don’t remember us liking him very much. Nat used to make a lot of healthy smoothies before the days when everyone drank smoothies. And I had met a boy so, although it was one of the nicest apartments I’d ever lived in, I rarely spent any time there. But more on that later.
I lived a bit of a double life in university — one night I might be sat at a fancy gala, an exemplar student receiving a scholarship from the Dean, and the next night I might be at the Ceilidh, our campus bar, getting completely wasted and acting a bit like, well, a hussy, for lack of a better word. Something happened when I broke up with Mario. My shorts got shorter, my tops got tighter. I’d spent so many years being “a good girl” and now that I’d broken free, I was completely out of control, like a lion out of a cage. I danced on chairs, I made a complete fool of myself, I was loud and obnoxious. I was in my early twenties and I had the know-it-all attitude of most people in their early twenties. In hindsight, I think I was experiencing a bit of a delayed adolescence. Now that I’m twice that age (what?), I’m kind of in awe of that smug girl (who and where is she?) but I also want to pull her aside and say, “Oh honey, you’re just a child. Life isn’t so black and white. Stop being such a dick.”
My university years were some of the best years of my life. Although my plan was to re-apply to vet school after a year of studying Animal Sciences, a few visits to the school farm gave me a clear idea of what kind of work would be involved in a large animal practice and I realised that artificial insemination, among other things, wasn’t for me. Plus, I loved McGill’s agricultural campus and didn’t really fancy leaving. I switched my major from Animal Sciences to Applied Zoology and loved every minute of my three-year program. I studied animal behaviour and went bird-watching at the crack of dawn and could identify most plants and trees in a forest. Christ, I even learned about the World Wide Web in university. At the time, the Internet was the next big thing, but to me it was just this strange thing that made all sorts of beeping and crackling noises beeeeepshhhhkrrrrrrchhhh and took about 15 minutes to load a page.
I met some interesting people on campus. I occasionally hung out with this girl whose name I can’t remember but she once told me that she had a pet house spider and she ate it and got really ill so we didn’t hang out very much after that. I also got stoned with my friend JF in a Parasitology lab, which I really wouldn’t recommend to anyone. Have you ever seen a flagellate protozoan through a microscope on weeeeed? I went canoe camping with my pal Winston. I spent many weekends at Camille’s cottage on a lake up North in the summer time and usually drank red wine and ate pretzels with my roomies once a week. And then there was K.
I met K halfway through my uni years and he soon became my everything. I stopped smoking, started going to the gym and spent a lot less time with friends and a lot more time at his place, which was his parent’s place. His mom used to cook muffins and veggie lasagna. And there was always an unlimited supply of bagels and almond butter. I made up for two years of eating canned corn and put on ten pounds in the space of a month. I stopped partying so much. I settled down again and started thinking about my future. Graduation was around the corner and I hadn’t a clue what to do.
A few days before my graduation, I boarded a plane and flew 4,851 miles to Hawaii. This was the first time I had ever flown (if you don’t count that time when I was one) and I was doing it on my own. It was a 17-hour flight, with an overnight stay in Honolulu, each mile pulling me farther away from home, K and everything that I’d ever known. My parents had been saving up their spare change for years and they gave it to me as a graduation present to help pay for my flight. I was going to spend the entire summer studying the Palila, a critically endangered honeycreeper, on Mauna Kea, at about 8,000 ft above sea level.
Weekdays were spent mist netting and radio tracking birds, covering long distances over rugged, uneven lava fields and sleeping in a tent by night. Some nights, alone in my tent, I could hear the nearby military base dropping test bombs.
At the weekend, we had the luxury of a house near Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, about an hour outside of Hilo. In the back of the house was a shack, an old tool shed with a tin roof. My southern friend Alison and I used to sit back there smoking fags (I obviously unquit for the summer) and drinking beer and usually gossiping about a couple of the girls on the team. It was SO Big Brother. I still remember to this day the name of every single intern and lead scientists on our team. Something intense happens when you’re stuck in a remote location with seven other people and your personal space consists of a tiny tent, and you all share an outdoor loo with a sign that reads “do not disturb”. You go stir crazy after a while, and before you know it you’re having spaghetti fights while washing the dishes.
Each weekend, we embarked on adventures around the island in our sand-coloured Ford Bronco or the house’s station wagon. We sun-tanned on black-sand beaches, swam with sea turtles, explored lava tubes, shopped at the food market in Hilo, hiked along rainforest paths and on the edge of smoking craters, watched Kilauea Volcano spew red-hot lava into the ocean, ate lunch at Broke da Mouth, learned how to play hanafuda, and occasionally went to the cinema. I watched Men in Black in a cinema in Hilo. What I remember most of that movie was coming out of the dark cinema and into the blinding Hawaiian sun and how everything smelled of Plumeria.
What a great experience, right? I mean, how awesome is that? And it was truly amazing, but if you only knew how many hours I spent pining for K that summer. So much of that opportunity was wasted on missing a boy. Sigh. Little did I know that I’d be spending the next decade with that man, so those three months apart were but a blip in the timeline of our relationship.
This post is the second in a series of posts about all the 32 places I’ve ever lived. You can read about the early years, here. Next up: the gypsy years.