It was our one year anniversary and I was ankle deep in waste water.
I had been, uncharacteristically, doing a bit of laundry that morning and was going downstairs to change the load over. As I descended the stairs I noticed a peculiar smell that was rising up to meet me. Jennica, who had been following me down, landed on the step behind me and asked “Why is the floor all shiny?” I stepped down and felt the squish. The washing machine had decided instead of draining down its allotted pipe, it would spread itself across our basement floor, aiding the population of already very present mildew as well as adding another layer of filth to whatever ancient demon spawning artifacts that had been squirreled away how many decades ago.
Before we had moved in, the very unfinished basement had been temporarily covered in a jigsaw like arrangement of carpet squares. Each randomly sized, they fit together to form the rough estimate of a floor covering. They were now entirely soaked. The floor also sloped in towards a wide open drain, which was now very much not draining. Water levels ranged from toe dampening to ankle soaking depending on where you stood.
After a brief meltdown, we assessed the situation and decided it could be easily remedied. I pulled out the mini shopvac that my grandpa had purchased ages before and never touched and got to work. We would stick the hose in the pool, suck up as much as we could then truck it up the stairs and dump the load into the tub to drain.
We did this for two hours. The water didn’t go down an inch.
Then I noticed a piece of red tape float by. The same red tape I had sucked up and dumped a few moments before. A cursory glance up revealed that the bathtub drained into the exact same drainage as the washing machine.
I know, this is obvious now, but you try thinking rationally while your basement rots around you in a puddle of Downy and toilet water.
So, slightly altering the draining technique (furiously hurling it out the backdoor) we soon had the basement back to resembling its old dungeony self, just with a slightly damper odour to it.
But now the fun began, because now we had to figure out why it wasn’t draining. We turned the washer back on briefly to test if it was a freak occurrence. The column of water that raged out of the floor proved it was not. So we called the city and they said someone would be there sometime between now and midnight. It was about 1 in the afternoon.
My sister called a few hours later, finding us the midst of a depressed Netflix binge, and made an executive decision for us. We canceled the city workers, telling them we’d call them back tomorrow, and went out for dinner with her and her husband, it was our goddamn anniversary after all.
They had moved to Calgary a few months prior to us. One night we had been drinking in Vancouver, when we were still formulating our plans to move, I mentioned that we were thinking of maybe going to Calgary to stay in 434. They laughed at us and we continued on with the night. The next day, my sister told us they’re moving to Calgary to live in 434, but not to worry because when we get there we can stay in the living room while we look for somewhere to live. Within a week, her husband had a new job lined up and they scurried away. Luckily when they arrived, the house was in even worse disrepair than when we got there and she had a perfectly rational reaction to the home (throwing a temper tantrum, ripping all the carpet out and then never staying a night). This turned into our long term benefit as when we arrived my mom and stepdad had re-carpeted the living room.
They weren’t liking the city, this much was made abundantly clear from the time we got into the car. Dinner quickly devolved less into celebrating the first year of my relationship with Jennica and more about hearing them vent their various qualms about living in a city they really had no business moving to in the first place. The usual grievances were aired, as happens with family, the list of who was on which shit list this time, what my brother had said or mother had not. I began to tune out around the time they were devising ways to skip out on the rental contract with their very pregnant landlord. From there, the evening passed mercifully quickly and they drove us home shortly after.
The next morning I woke up at the ass crack of dawn to make sure I was first in line for city workers. They arrived sometime after 10. My grandpa, in the mean time, had wandered over and was snaking the pipes with his own tools when they arrived. The three of them set to work clearing the pipe, the city workers doing the real job, my grandpa telling them how he’d lived here since he was a boy and how he kept chickens and goats in the backyard and how he hadn’t needed a washing machine because he had a wife.
Jennica and I hid upstairs, waiting for them to leave, until we overheard this gem of a conversation.
City Worker 1 “Well you know the biggest issue we get is women they flush their, you know, their things down the toilets and it plugs it up.”
City Worker 2 “Oh yeah, it’s like they don’t know what a garbage is, they just think they can flush anything down the toilet and it’ll be fine.”
It carried on in some neanderthalic capacity for a few more monosyllabic sentences, my grandpa emphatically agreeing and making no mention of the ancient piping or the fact that the previous tenant was a drug addicted pack rat who probably flushed god knows what any time he was in middle of some delusional meth bender.
Jennica just smiled and called down in the most vulgarly pleasant tone possible “Anyone want any coffee?”
The conversation immediately died. Realizing now that their every word was radiating through the house, the remainder of the work was done in silence. They quietly came upstairs a few minutes later, sheepishly idiotic looks stapled to their faces, and took their leave. But not before handing us the assessment sheet.
It turned out they had found tree roots and dog bones to be the cause of the blockage.
To clarify, I mean a dog’s bones. No not the kind they snack on, I mean pieces of a dog’s skeletal remains. And apparently big ones at that.
No woman things were found to be present in the pipes.
With the piping back to normal, our lives continued unabated into July. And then we got our first house guests.
They arrived bright and early, their car packed to the brim with an inflatable mattress, food enough to feed a small, anorexic army and a portable toilet that they set up in the basement so that they wouldn’t have to climb the stairs late at night and wake us. Considerate and a little gross, just like good parents.
When we asked them how long they intended to stay, Jennica’s mom just gave a grin and a shrug, saying “As long as we’re welcome.” It was going to be one of those visits. I could feel my hair loosening by the minute.
For the month that we’d spent in Calgary already, and for many months later for that matter, I had been operating in a bizarre double awareness. On one hand, everything was brand new and in the moment. The excitement of travel had yet to wear off and I was experiencing everything fresh and alive, the vibrancy of summer washing away any lingering doubts I might have had about the city. On the other deeper level of awareness, this was the city I had grown up in so I was inherently familiar with it. I knew every crack in the sidewalk and bump in the road. Here’s the corner my brother and I covered in wax so that we could “practice” our skateboard grinds, still faintly discoloured and slick to the touch, wherever our skateboards ended up I’m sure they’re just as unused as the day we left them in the closest never to be ridden again. There’s the tree that grew outside my old bedroom. One night a man stole a car and crashed it into the trunk right outside my window. The house shook and my room was flooded in white light. I had recently been exposed to Fire in the Sky and so was convinced that I was about to be abducted. I tentatively looked out my window to see a silhouette stumbling up the block. The tree remains ever vigilant, the sidewalks unchanged.
We went to the zoo where my grandmother had been a docent for the better part of forty years. The dinosaur park that I so adored despite being a little nervous around the T-Rex, the gorilla enclosure recently reopened after the flood, I tried not to imagine the screams of drowning animals but instead the laughter my grandmother caused when she would pull out her favourite hedgehog and let it run up and down her arms.
Another day we visited the Glenbow museum. Here I had spent countless afternoons with my mother. The permanent exhibit of eastern religious statues still present and accounted for, the central piece, a massive gold statue of Shiva, who in my youth would horrify and excite me, now a little smaller than I remember but no less fierce. We wandered the halls, admiring paintings of sullen dead men and exotic locations. I was struck with a deep sense of dread, contemplating what the purpose of art might be if our greatest hopes are to be concealed in quiet rooms that no one visits.
The visit was incredibly painless, all things considered, but as the days dragged on and their departure date drew no closer, a vague tension began filling the air. Jokes became a little sharper, comments slightly more aggressive than passive. Jennica and her mother took to walking for an hour here and there just to give everyone a slight breather from each other.
I have this compulsion, whenever people are around, to entertain. I feel this gnawing unease if everyone isn’t laughing. I’m sure this is some deep psychological something or other, but whatever it is, it’s exhausting. I do it to myself, make no mistakes, but being the dickhead that I am, I often, after an extended period of time, will find myself resentful of all the energy I’ve been spending on whoever is in my company. This gut weight was beginning to form now. Luckily all we needed to remedy the situation was a good old night of drinking!
We started with a bottle of wine. Then we opened a second. Jennica’s dad had already long bowed out, and her mother was close behind once the wine was all gone. But she loves a good conversation and drunk James loves a good audience. She’s a teacher, psychologist and all around whip of a woman. She’s fiercely intelligent but quick to defense which makes for lively conversation. That night we talked for what felt like hours. After finally wearing each other down, and after Jen and I had finished what dregs of cider, beer and gin were to be foraged, we all retired to our beds. Now, we were upstairs in the only bedroom, and her parents were sleeping in the basement, their bed set up on the far end of the house, furthest from where the main leakage had been and also from our bedroom floor. We had made every arrangement possible accommodate them, airing the room out as much as we could, drying or outright chucking any of the soaked carpet. When it came time for them to settle in, you really couldn’t tell that only a few weeks previous, the room had been a red neck’s pool party. What we didn’t take into account was that our air vent, just like the tub and washer, opened up directly above their heads.
As a young couple is wont to do, libations lead to other acts that I won’t describe as I’m pretty sure my mother reads this. (Hi Mom, aren’t you proud?) Now, while we were sure we were careful to keep as much noise to a minimum as possible, come morning we were proven as wrong as the city workers.
Shortly after breakfast, her mother announced that they would be leaving that afternoon. Her father couldn’t look me in the eye, or was it the other way around? We said rushed goodbyes, tentative hugs were passed out and just like that, they were gone.
Of course the first thought that passed my mind was that of relief, coupled obviously with slight embarrassment about the night previous. What struck me in the hours and days that followed, however, was just how much I missed having them around. Humans, it seems to me, are in dire need of constant novel experience. Not only this, but they crave and find nourishment from interacting with other empathetic beings. The house seemed quieter, less lively with them gone.
Basically we instantly missed having no one but my grandfather and his increasingly visible senility for company.
However, in the following months we began to make moves that would attract a whole new carnival of characters to pass in and out again of our lives. And somewhere in it all, I decided to take up acting again.