I think Canada is not place to live. I think it is place for visit. (Alex)
We had never considered buying our own home. The thought was never entertained. We didn’t have money, and had coached ourselves into believing that renting equalled freedom. When a friend who flips old houses offered us a deal to go in on a 1909 fixer-upper, our “in” was made possible by a dip into an inheritance and the sale of a quarter-acre near Comox—generous, guilt-free gifts from Margaret’s grandfather and my parents, respectively.
“That’s what family does, sweetheart.”
The fact is, it’s half ours. The crumbling foundation, half ours; the root-choked lead pipes, half ours; the decrepit garage, the dirt backyard, the curled shingles, the splintering hardwood—half ours, half ours, half ours, half ours. And the payments are just manageable as long as we keep the not-exactly-to-code basement suite occupied. New coaching strategy: Invest in Freedom.
Katherine played new-age relaxation music with ocean sounds each evening, a routine that foreshadowed the breaking of her lease to move to Capetown.
Jason was a ghost. He was an accountant for Something Drilling. The only indication he was alive was the low drone of the television and the salty meat smell of microwaved dinners. He broke his lease in an email and slunk away.
Todd horked and spat every morning. It made me shudder and dry heave. Treadmill hum and the sound of first-person-shooter explosions rose through the floor, as did the voices and moans of bar girls he met working for the Gaming & Liquor commission. He was transferred to Edmonton, never returning the guitar I lent him.
The bust was booming, the vacancy rate had increased and prospective tenants held the balance of power—“No, no questions,” “My couch wouldn’t even fit down the stairs,” “I prefer a south-facing entrance.” I got insecure about the suite and started making excuses for it over the phone, subconsciously hoping no one would come look at it and we wouldn’t have to rent it, by, I don’t know, somehow going back in time and not buying the house. I found myself employing the same psychological tactics I used to with essays at school and still do with taxes or any unpleasantness—have a drink and write it down in the daytimer for first thing Monday with a double slash of emphasis under it. Suite.
When a message in an exotic script found its way to my inbox, I thought it was another money-laundering attempt, but it was Jane and Alexander.
Hello. My name is Yevhennia, (Jane). I am writing from Ukraine. Our family took immigration process as skilled workers. In November, 22 my husband Sascha, (Alex) and I arrive at Calgary and now we are looking for accommodation to rent.
I told her it was small, a basement, perhaps best for one person.
Homerent.ca explicitly says to avoid renting to out-of-country inquiries, and I surmise most landlords heed this advice, because Jane was undeterred.
Thank you; I am sure we will be happy.
And I was desperate.
Thank you, Jane. We will hold it for you.
I was put at ease by the photo she attached of her and Alexander together—they were young, maybe late twenties; slightly inset, penetrating brown eyes: those sad Eurasian half smiles. Their contact in Calgary checked out. They promised the deposit within a week of arrival. Their friend Halyna came over with an inflatable bed.
I got charged up. They would soon be in our house, and we would be ambassadors of the frigid prairie. Parallel couples, adventurous and reckless, both—Margaret and I, uncertain landlords and first time homeowners; Jane and Alexander, starting afresh, away from the government corruption and toxic forests of Ukraine.
The emails leading up to their arrival became more personal. They loved cats and had one of their own; they were leaving their five-year-old daughter behind with Jane’s parents for now, but she would come in six months. They were competitive ballroom dancers. Jane taught English. Alex was an accountant and also a registered electrician. If I had any employment contacts, that would be wonderful.
I made a one-sheet list of local independent groceries with addresses and descriptions of the best deals—the Polish deli for jams and pickles, the Italian market for deli meats and cheese, the Asian market for cheap produce and staples. I located a ballroom dancing studio within walking distance and even a Ukrainian cultural centre.
I am with immigrants and international visitors like a seven-year-old is with his fifteen-year-old cousin who has a punk band and a girlfriend. A lifetime of feeling culturally inferior as an Albertan yet also culturally superior to my fellow Albertans has convinced me all foreigners hold an ancient secret that they will share once they realize I am one of them.
My credentials are both genetic and experience-based. Swedish and German parents. Well travelled. I eat smoked mackerel from tins with peel-back lids. I prefer dark bread, real butter, bittersweet chocolate and revolution. Together, in the face of entrenched conformity and consumption-fuelled banality, Jane, Alex, Margaret and I would give this city an injection of sophistication. At the same time I would sell them on our mountain majesties, the stratified mysteries of the badlands and the pink skies. We would talk history, food, art. It’s here, too, I’d reassure them. You just need to know where to look. I’ll show you.
They would be drinkers.
I practised pronouncing “Yev-yen-ya,” and awaited their dead-of-night arrival.
The north side of their suite was embarrassingly cold, and the first thing Alex did was remove and reattach one of the doors to lock the heat in their bedroom. He was handy and had brought a bunch of his own tools; coils of wire and tape and various tubes of lube and glue. We invited them up to the main floor to go through details of the rental agreement. They were polite, soft-spoken. We offered them wine and beer, but they passed.
They must be tired, I thought.
They had come here because there was little chance of upward mobility in Ukraine, because their village was close to a nuclear power plant, and because they had read that Calgary was the best place in the world to live, on the Internet.
Alexander’s English wasn’t strong enough for him to work as an accountant, so he got a construction job through a Ukrainian contact. Yevhennia needed upgrades in order to get her teaching papers, so she took a job at Arnold Churgin Shoes in Chinook Centre.
I let them settle. I didn’t want to ask them to any hoedowns until they’d explored their new environs at their own pace. Their first walk across the Centre Street bridge ended at the Drop-In Centre, where Jane got nervous. They had no car, and I offered to take her shopping. She had heard about a store with everything, and she wanted to go to it—it was called “Superstore.” I chided myself for assuming she would prefer a European-style deli. This would be more representative of her new locale anyway. I took her to Superstore, but she was nonplussed. They had none of the spices she liked from home and the colours of the linens were ugly. “These eggs are funny.” She bought Kit Kats.
At the house, we chatted rarely but meaningfully. Kutia is cooked wheat berries with honey, canned poppy seed and chopped walnuts.
The president is crazy. Same here, the prime minister. Chernobyl is now teeming with wildlife. There used to be 60 million bison.
I left gifts of my Mom’s food on their landing. They gave us a large tray of cookies. I’d let the cats down into their suite to play, and when I was there to help with the weatherproofing or leaky pipes, they would make me tea and show me videos of their favourite Ukrainian pop stars—near-naked, big-boobed women, wet with rain or sweat, shaking their asses and singing to a hybrid of bass-thumping dance music and minor-chord traditional instrumentation. They filled up my hard drive with these videos.
They went to Lake Louise with Halyna and came back giddy—all they could think, they said, was how they couldn’t wait to show their daughter.
But besides going to work, there was otherwise no good reason to go outside. It was unusually bitter and I apologized for the climate. They worked six days a week and were always tired. Without their daughter, their desired work and a car, they were lonely and grew dour.
For weeks at a time it was silence below, broken by laughter and argument and the smell of sausage frying at 6:00 a.m.
We remained cordial, but never developed intimacy. Yevhennia said “Call me Jennia, it’s easier,” then, “Call me Jane.”
Finally, thank Christ, there was a chinook, and I startled Jane outside at the front of the house while she was washing their one south-facing window. She pulled up the blind and washed both sides of the pane, blasting pop music from her computer speakers. That’s what someone does when they’re feeling at home, I thought, relieved.
I got them tickets to see a musical theatre show I was in and they filmed the full hour on their camera. They said it was the best experience since they came, along with the mountains. Alexander burned me a DVD of a movie featuring capoeira dancing. They attended a ballroom dancing competition, and after dancing impromptu on the stage after the event, were invited to perform in Strathmore.
They worked the same jobs, construction and Arnold Churgin. Winter remained unbrokenly harsh. We could hear them Sundays talking to their daughter on Skype. Jane would laugh and coo, and cry.
Our cat Ivy got up on the washing machine and somehow found a hole where the drywall didn’t quite meet the ceiling. She fell to the floor behind the drywall, and I had to cut her out. In the process, I pulled the washing machine away from the wall and disconnected the drain hose for the grey water. I forgot to reattach it. We did a load of laundry and the bathroom floor flooded, pouring into the downstairs suite over Jane and Alex’s kitchen and living room, soaking and collapsing the ceiling tiles. Water ruined the newspaper photos from the Strathmore Standard of them dancing at the local competition. Jane’s confirmation bible was waterlogged and ruined. She asked if I had any wine. She said “They say there is a fine line between love and hate. When I was dreaming of coming here, I loved it. Now I hate it.”
They started looking at the cost of flights.
Defeated, I became complicit in the complaint. Yes, our architecture is bad. Yes, people here don’t know how to discipline their children. Yes, the river is not so impressive. Hey, I wouldn’t even be here if it wasn’t for my family and friends—I’d be in Europe, where I belong, drinking beer outdoors.
Their departure impending, Jane related how she hated the yellow of the house, as though it were something she’d been meaning to mention for awhile. She said it was the ugliest yellow.
“I tell people who need to find the house that it is the ugly yellow house.”
“It’s just a colour,” I said, disgruntled. “How can you hate a colour?”
She must have known we liked the yellow because our wireless network name is “yellow.”
They booked their plane tickets, and with that the tension lifted. In the spirit of leaving a positive last impression, I gave them coupons to the zoo and to a movie and scheduled a day in the mountains. They insisted on bringing a pot of beef chunks marinated overnight in red wine. We skewered them and cooked them over an open fire. It rained, then snowed, then the warm sun shone, in rotation, three times over. We drank wine.
I took a photo of Sascha with an armful of deadfall in front of a sign saying “Taking deadfall is illegal.” The meat was so tough we couldn’t chew through it, and we laughed hysterically. Jane took a stone from the lower Kananaskis Lake.
“Everything is not bad. People here are friendlier than in Ukraine.”
I took Sascha to return his cell phone and the inflatable bed to the pawn shop. Jane asked if I thought I could rent the suite again. I said there’s no question, that I have to.
She said “You know, you have to get out of this house. It’s a bad house.”
Later, alone, I stewed. Okay, yes, Jane, it’s a bad house—this old, cold house. Why didn’t you line up proper work documents before you came? What did you expect the weather to be like in the middle of December? How could you hope to be happy here for six months in winter without your daughter? What can you possibly have against yellow?
We have dark chocolate here. Kit Kats?
They’d rather raise their five-year-old girl near a nuclear power plant than in Calgary.
Jane’s parents were angry at them for coming home, said they didn’t try long enough. “They’re not the ones here. They don’t see how we’ve tried, worked. They can’t see the situation.”
The situation? The situation.
Two young people with a big idea, poorly planned.
I was out of town when they left.
Dear Friend. I am so sorry we could not say goodbye. We are home now in my parents’ flat. We miss you.
Trish and John cough. They do shift work. They just broke the toilet seat.
I think Canada is… for Canadians. (Alex)
Kris Demeanor is a Calgary-born songwriter and performer who writes and sings about absurd, dark, maddening and joyful things.