Vignettes From A Summer of Life (Part I)

(I took a class last summer on Vancouver Literature, and was assigned an independent, anything-you-want-as-long-as-it’s-literary-and-Vancouver-related project. This was what I wrote. I’m trying to figure out a way to tell you that it got an A without making it sound like bragging, but I suppose I’ll never succeed. I’ll put it up here in three parts.)

The Tale

I could write this as a story, I suppose. I could write: Once upon a time there was a young man born blind, who knew nothing of his world but darkness and had no perception of the place he lived in. Then a woman came and became his eyes for him, so he could know and touch his world, and in that way he learned to overcome his blindness and see. I would be the man, of course, but self-parables are only fulfilling for the ones who write them, and I have chosen to write for an audience as well as for myself.

But I like stories nonetheless, and I always have. My favourite kind is fantasy, in all its forms. Swords and sorcery, to some degree yes, but most stories, regardless of specific genre have a kind of fantasy to them, something unreal and illusory, sometimes for no other reason than their innate fictionness. But I like best the stories that tell of other worlds, places other than the one I live in, places with magic and wonder, and it doesn’t matter if you get there by the wardrobe in the spare room or by a spacecraft from the shipyards of Alpha Centauri; such places have been my escape.

So, if this were being written like a story, maybe I could try again: Once upon a time there was a young man who lived in a city by the sea, but he often wished he could live in some other place and preferably in a place not even of his own world. His city held no wonder for him, no attraction other than the people he knew and loved there. Where he saw drab metal and unyielding concrete, he wanted carved stone and ornamented doors; where there were cheap books that would only survive three years of reading, he wanted bound manuscripts that would last centuries. But then a summer came, with a brightening sun that shone a few small slivers of light into his eyes. Come, let me tell you the tale…

***

The Bridge

The University of Victoria had graciously given its students a reading week, so Marcus would be visiting for a bit. On Tuesday I got a call from him saying that he happened to be in my neck of the woods and even though we said we’d meet up tomorrow, how’s about we meet up today, too? We spent the two or three hours he was over catching up on each other’s lives, maybe you could even say getting to know each other again just a little bit.

Marcus and I are like family—especially ever since my aunt married his dad. Marcus loves to travel, always planning where he’s going to go next; Turkey, Greece, Portugal, England. Name a major European country and he’s probably been. He says that every time he goes away he realizes how great Vancouver is a place to live. In the past I’ve nodded and smiled, because I’ve often struggled in vain to understand what exactly separates our city from others. And although I would never want to move away, that has always had more to do with the people I know all being here than with a real sense of belonging.

As a city, Vancouver is too new for my tastes, too concerned with modernity than with history. I, like so many, am an immigrant to this place; I was born in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. The primary tourist attraction is the Ciudad Colonial, the old quarter, the city the Spanish built when they first came to the New World. Eroded castles, rusted cannons, streets without a grid system. A city with a past.

As I was saying, Marcus was visiting from Victoria. While he was sitting in the kitchen, watching me make spaghetti for dinner, he suggested a trip to Granville Island the next day. I confess it didn’t excite me to any great degree. I hadn’t been there in years, and my memories were mostly of the unpleasant stench of fish in the marketplace. But I agreed because Marcus wanted to go, and I wanted to spend time with him, so we made plans to meet the next day at a coffee shop near my house on Main Street.

We took the No. 25 bus up King Edward to Granville Street, then the 98 B-Line up to Broadway. It was a week of fine weather and the spring sunshine promised good for the approaching summer. We got off at a stop I had never gotten off on before, just past Broadway, and walked down towards the bridge. Just before we would have had to step onto it, Marcus veered off to the right. I followed. Within a few steps we had come to a little mini-park, a grassy playground with benches framed by ivy-covered overhangs, and a small fountain. The fountain had a pool with a walkway across it made of cement slabs to act as stepping stones; they looked as if they were floating on the surface of the water. Whenever I had gone to Granville Island as a child it had always been by car, never walking there. In this little corner was a slice of green parkway that I had never known existed. Beside that ordinary, cement-and-steel bridge was a much smaller, much more magical bridge that would be the gateway to a new dimension of my experience. I stepped through it with a tiny smile on my face.

Our way curved down underneath that grey behemoth, and for a moment I wondered if we would meet a troll living there. It was like dipping into an underground tunnel, with the roar of cars passing above and the sun blocked and us surrounded by the supports and girders of human engineering. The giant sign for Granville Island hung overhead, extending welcome; we bypassed the main entrance, though, and went down a side path to the right. It was quiet. Almost no one else was on the seawall as we circled around a gentle, grassy slope on one side and a still arm of water on the other. More impressive to me was the flood of memories I was suddenly getting: catching goldfish they had let loose in the water park during some public festival when I was seven or eight years old; a school field trip to go rowing in False Creek; an outdoor production of Shakespeare’s As You Like It performed by drama students in which backstage was the other side of a hill—I suspected the same hill that we were now behind as well.

I remembered too the little bookstore that I used to beg Mother to take me to so I could get a new Tintin comic. It had changed venues, but it was still there, and Marcus and I stopped by. We walked through the marketplace and, strangely, I never smelt fish quite as strongly as I had in the past. We sat on the wharf in the sun, listening to buskers and watching children chase pigeons while the smell of salty air wafted over everything on the breeze. We finally ended up in a little coffee-and-ice-cream shop tucked away on the edge of things and sat in plush leather armchairs while he told me all about his recent trip to London. When we left to go home, I made a point of walking the other way across the stepping stones, making as formal an exit of Wonderland as I could.

To go outside for no other reason than to go outside. This is something I rarely did, and I still never want to do it alone. For me the experience is tied up intimately with the people I share it with.

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