She asks me to walk with her, although I know I don’t have too much time. Even the TTC, in this world, has something of a schedule to keep. But I can’t refuse her. I never could.
“We should take the streetcar when we get to it.” I tell her as we walk out of the Huron Garden behind the Lillian H. Smith Library with its memories of red berries, green and tea. “I imagine you have important things to do.”
“On a day like this?” She shakes her head. “No. I don’t want to put my bike on a bumper. And right now, the only important thing is to enjoy this July weather people keep complaining about. Wouldn’t you say?”
She’s right of course. As we begin walking down College and Spadina, the summery day somehow seems to make everything newer and clean. Even in the sun, her weathered face is as round and cratered as a silvery moon: motherly, worn, and wise.
“Come on.” She says, her voice still sibilant and deliberate despite being an octave lower. “I want to have a look at the Library again before my next book launch.”
There is a quiet eagerness to her steps as she guides the bicycle beside her with both hands. We come to the front of the Lillian H. Smith Library. Even now, I can’t help but marvel at the arch framing the doorway and the elaborate statues of the winged lion and griffin on either side with their entourage of carved animal friends. It reminds me of the guardians set around Morpheus’ Palace of Dreams: minus the Dragon and the Unicorn.
She stares up at the statues as well. As she smiles, the jowls of her cheeks turn into fine lines and her faded blue eyes light up into slivers of sky.
“Mac couldn’t have done better: him or Ruben.” She says. “It’s come a long way from the Spaced Out Library, you know. I haven’t been here in a long time,” she puts a weathered hand on the griffin’s side.
“Neither have I.” I admit and I wonder why given that this is the closest Toronto Public Library I’ve ever felt to home.
“I used to work at Girls & Boys House.” She says. “I was a page there.”
“I know.” I tell her.
She turns and pats me on the shoulder. “Of course you do. Come on. I want to go through the Market for a while.”
Again, I feel a slight nudging of time but she is persuasive. We turn around and walk towards Kensington. We pass many women in summer dresses and Homburg hats, men in vintage suits and T-shirts and children playing with music and somehow I feel happier watching them. I notice a few of them carrying Canadian flags as well, but I don’t pay it too much notice.
“They turned Boys & Girls into a U of T Security building if you can believe it.” She grumbles. “A security building of all things!”
I shake my head. “At least there’s the Merrill Library.”
“The Lillian H. one.” She corrects me. “As much as Judy would have liked that, she’d have corrected you sooner.” She sighs. “Poor Judy. She’d have gotten a real hoot out of what this place has become. I’m so glad we’re having the reception upstairs.”
By the time we get to one of the Kensington Market intersections, the sky is beginning to turn orange in the late afternoon sun. I also begin to see more Canadian flags: some of them set near stalls and others carried out by vendors. They are even there as labels on people’s shirts. Then I remember what day it is.
That is when I hear the crescendo of Bif Naked’s “Spaceman” and notice that my companion is no longer at my side. I find myself wandering around looking for her. I know I should start making my way back now, but I can’t. I just ran into her by coincidence after getting off the car from Lower Queen and getting very quickly lost … no, found in a once and a lifetime opportunity series of conversations with her. But having said so much and yet so little considering, I can’t leave it at this now.
I wonder why no one has reacted to her yet — this Poet Laureate of Toronto — but then I think about it again. Even here, in this place where she is honoured, many of them probably just see a little old lady in a red and Phoenician-purple looking tunic that could just as easily be woven with Greek and aboriginal patterns.
I find her in front of the astronaut. She — the astronaut — has loudspeakers behind her that is the source of the Bif Naked song. The astronaut is a pale woman with straight long black hair. Her white bulky suit has a Canadian tag on its chest. My friend — and yes I consider her my friend at this point — drops a Toonie into the other woman’s gloved hand.
“So cool.” I hear my friend say before she walks past me to a nearby booth to buy an orange from a lithe dark-skinned woman with multi-coloured dreadlocks.
“I had a photo taken of me in a space-suit once.” She pays for the orange. “It was supposed to be the cover for my latest book of poems, but because it was the seventies my publishers wouldn’t let me use it. Now you have all these famous singers and female astronauts making fashion statements alike. Just look at how far we’ve come.” She pauses. “Still, let it be said that I did it before it was cool,” she ends off with a wink in my direction.
I laugh and look back at the street. “You know, Kensington Market reminds me of the Carnival scene in Issue #22 of Miracleman.” I offer, caught by the myriad of different people buying and celebrating in the streets.
She nods beside me. “And it’s Marvelman. It’s the Marvel Family. A happy family of superheroes. None of that litigation bullshit.”
I’m laughing again. “No. The only thing missing are the balloons.”
Then we see a booth with balloons. We exchange a look. She’s the one that breaks the tableaux. “Well, let’s see if these ones will let us float into the sky.”
And so we get some balloons. We don’t fly, but we might as well have. Our conversation about comic books continues.
“I think Neil was the best thing that happened to Marvelman.” She says as we walk–her with a green balloon and me with a red one. “I love the mythopoeic, the changes that legends go through. Neil keeps an essential humanity throughout all of his works.”
I feel a lightness in my chest — a giddiness — as I hear her talk about Neil Gaiman. “And not Alan Moore?”
She turns to me and frowns a bit, the wattles of her neck forming a cavern underneath the worn Anglo-Sphinx of her face. “Don’t get me wrong.” She tells me. “Alan Moore is brilliant, as brilliance goes, but I’m not sure I like the direction he took my Marvel Family. It was too dark. Too …” she shakes her head. “Too eighties.”
As she grins again, I feel my mouth matching her expression. “You know, I was born in the eighties.”
“Yes, but I lived through them …” She stops walking and stands there. People continue to move past us, but she remains still. Her blue eyes blink a few times and her face begins to resemble an older version of the gaunt and haunted expressions I’ve seen captured in photograph.
“The city became so cold and impersonal.” She says faintly. I look at the distance in her gaze and I can’t quite find it in myself to meet her eyes.
“My drinking got worse. I wasn’t writing and I kept making myself sick. That time, in ’87 I almost died …”
This time, I can’t even look in her direction. She’s quiet for a few more moments, as though considering something. “The irony was if Frank — my drunkard buddy Frank — hadn’t come into my apartment when he did, I would’ve been dead. There’d be no walks on Kensington. No lectures at Western, York, or U of T. No coffee with Peggy. No new cats. No new books. No life. Nothing.”
“I’m glad you survived.” I whisper, still not meeting her gaze and trying not to think about the alternative right now.
She shakes her head at me sadly. “That time in the Animal Rights Movement probably helped. I honestly didn’t think I had anymore to give, you know? And then, when I went back to that infernal Black Tunnel Wall,” as she keeps talking I wonder if — in this world — she’s told anyone about this in an interview or anywhere else millions of times before, “looking at my mother’s experiences during the Blitz … you know, they compared the thing to Plath’s Bell Jar, though I never really got that comparison. Looking back though, it’s like I passed through that tunnel and … I’m so glad I did.”
She smiles at me again. “You’re right. It wasn’t a bad time. I got to see Toronto get beautiful again: with all those clubs and Goth Nights coming up with their lithe, pale, made-up young boys and girls in black and kohl. Really cool stuff: made me almost want to be sixteen again. And my friends were there and I got a whole ton of honourary doctorates …”
“No. Don’t call me that. Professor or Doctor is for someone who graduated high school. Miss is for someone more authoritarian than I ever was. You can call me by name.”
I almost do. Instead, she shakes her head. “I’m sorry. It’s just Alan Moore reminds me of the rest of the eighties and I know that’s not fair. We all have to work with darkness and re-imagining those Jungian archetypes. Look at George Lucas’ Star Wars.”
“And then the Prequel Trilogy.” I mutter.
“Please,” she holds the palm of her hand out to my face, “let’s not. It almost makes me wish I hadn’t survived the eighties.”
I shake my head, case in point. “There was no comparison. I think Neil had the more difficult job though,” I tell her as we make our way towards the College and Spadina streetcar line, “I mean, where do you go from utopia?”
The sky is more pink than orange by the time we get to the tracks.
“All utopias are problematic. As long as human nature exists, as long as that yearning is there, as long as we tell stories nothing ever really stops. There is always something after ‘Happily ever after.’ It never ends. It is never over.”
With that remark, she stops to ease herself onto her bike seat. And then I know.
“But this is.” I state, feeling myself deflate inside.
She takes her helmet and begins to put it on over her silver hair. “You knew that already.”
There is so much I want to ask her still, so much I want to say but all I can actually say is, “Please …”
She shakes her head at me. “You know, when I stare off like this, I can see why Louis Dudek once called me ‘Crazy Cassandra,’” she says, fondly.
“You’re more of a Tiresias than a Cassandra.” I whisper helplessly as I try to ignore the tears welling up in my eyes.
“No. You’re wrong, my friend. I’m no more the shade of Tiresias than you are Odysseus feeding me blood at the Nekromanteion of Ephyra, though your heart is in the right place.”
There is a light in her eyes. They are somehow an even stronger blue than ever in the pink light of an early Toronto evening. Their dreamy expression stares right into me. I feel ashamed.
“I’m sorry,” I tell her.
“I understand.” She says not unkindly. “You’re trying to do for me what I attempted to do for Lawrence. And I thank you for that. But I am not your Other. I am not your Cloud-Gwen.”
I hang my head because deep down I know she’s right. Then I feel a gentle hand cupping my face and turning me to look up at her again. As she sits up on her bicycle, her white hair sticks out of her helmet is a pastel of different colours in the sunset.
“Mishugina,” she murmurs softly, her smile wry and gentle. “All of this is an elementary world. A mythical world. You should be proud.”
She leans forward and we hug. I wonder if anyone else can see us: and what it exactly is they are seeing. Is it an embrace between friends, a grandson and grandmother, or something more wishing the other farewell, and never goodbye?
The next thing I know, we’ve let go of each other. She is looking up and around us. “It’s funny,” she says, “today is Kanada Day and this country still doesn’t know what it is.”
“Maybe not.” I try to keep myself from choking up. “But neither does Toronto.”
She laughs. “It never did.”
I shake my head this time. “But I can definitely tell you that you helped it dream up some of its coat of many different colours.”
She smiles and in the waning sun, her face seems ageless and Egyptian again. “Dream well, my friend.”
She turns around and begins to peddle away.
Suddenly, I find myself running after her. I’m shouting, calling after her, “Tell me, Gwen! Did Julian the Magician know how to resurrect the dead? Did he know how to resurrect the dead!? Or was he supposed to bring back the living? Or himself? Tell me, Gwen! Please tell me!”
But by the time I ask these questions, she is already gone. I stop running. Soon, a far-too-clean and far-too-efficient TTC streetcar visits the too-clean street and rail shelter. As it comes to a stop in front of me, I know I have to go now. I helped make this place, but it isn’t mine anymore.
I came here through Lower Queen, the Gate of Ivory that could have been, and now I leave back through Lower Bay, the Gate of Horn that actually happened: back to a colder place, a more cordial place, a place of slow public transport and garbage, an asymmetrical place, a city that doesn’t make sense, a city with dark memories that never really took root.
It is a place without her.
But she did exist here, and so did I. So do I. Because today is Kanada Day. Today is a day of potlucks and shadows; magic shows and superheroes; Greeks and Egyptian exhibits at the Royal Ontario Museum; and all the people on the streets who are no-man.
Yet more than that, she showed me the secret. Because I know now, even riding this streetcar, that whatever this place and this city is, it is ultimately a land that turns you inward.