reykjavik, iceland -- it could be on any street, in any Canadian city. My house. My ex-house, "Aldridge Avenue, Toronto." So much personal history in these words. For various reasons I live in Iceland now. I returned to Toronto in February because one of my tenants was moving. My property manager could have handled the necessary repairs and the re-renting, but I felt the need to be there.
When he told me how much I would need to spend, I saw the writing on the wall. The time had come to detach. To accept that my life there is really over. To get on with my life on this volcanic, earthquake-prone island.
After three weeks, the work had been done. The cleaning, the repairs, the repainting. A realtor had been engaged. And finally it was time to walk up "my" street for the last time, to start the trip "home" to Iceland.
But this had been home since 1980, even in the years I had lived in Thunder Bay and Winnipeg. "Home." How invested our emotions are in our sense of place, in memories, in mental connections. At the top of the street, at the corner of Danforth, I had a decision to make: would I look back?
Years ago, after my father died, my mother had to sell our beautiful country property. When we walked up our road for the last time and came to the top of the hill, she refused to look back. She couldn't bear to see our house, our fields, our woods, our lake.
I did look back, from "my" corner. Stood there beside the funeral home in the dark and cold, and cried and cried and cried. My house, my street, my memories.
The house itself was nothing special. Brick. A semi. Three bedrooms on the second floor and a bachelor apartment in the basement. The backyard a mess when I bought the place. A house across the street occupied by people who enjoyed sitting on their porch drinking beer and yelling homophobic abuse at me.
To make ends meet, I rented out the apartment and two of the bedrooms. God almighty! What a motley crew of roommates I had! Steve the roofer, whose girlfriend would arrive dressed to the nines for a night of slumming in the east end. Patrick, who arrived with a truck of "antiques" that turned out to be pickings from curb-side garbage.
He never paid his rent and bad-mouthed me to the neighbours. A friend offered to beat him up and throw him out. I lived to wish I'd accepted the offer.
Then I got religious and decided to rent only to nice people from my church. Real big mistake -- they were the worst of the lot!
Betty, who was middle-aged, greeted me one day after work by saying, "I've been planning how to do it." "Do what, Betty?" I asked. "How to kill myself." "Oh, dear god," I thought, "not in my bathtub. Not on my staircase." Our priest got her into a home for psychiatric patients.
So I went back to putting up ads at Glad Day Books and in the gay paper. Thus the mysterious Glen, with his lovely torso and black leather pants, who would sit motionless at the dining room table. Eyes closed. Practising piano in his mind.
Of course I renovated, decorated. Had a deck built. But the garden became the soul of the house. I planted two clumps of birch trees in 1981, and a cedar hedge. The birches were delivered to the top of the drive in burlap bags. Twigs. Now they tower over the house. Originally a sunny garden with lawn and flowers, it is now a beautiful oasis of ferns and hostas. A fountain, until it was stolen last summer, added delightful sound and movement.
The garden was blessed by visiting cats who always seemed to know when I needed TLC -- Bubbles and Steve, inseparable sisters from a house behind mine. We once spent three days in bed together when I was convinced it was indeed possible to die of a broken heart. Their owner finally called: "We just wanted to know where they were. They can stay as long as you need them."
Oh, that garden! Springtime puttering around. Autumn days cleaning up for winter. Summer mornings setting up for brunch with my friend Andre, or my lover. Never the two together -- they despised each other.
Hours in the metal lounge chair found in someone's garbage in the Beach, reading the Saturday Globe, a cat in my lap. Sunlight filtering though the birch canopy, quiet weekend neighbourhood sounds.
The sound of early-morning phone calls, bad-news calls violating the sanctity of home, the sense of safety. My mother's heart attack, my nephew's suicide. The hurried packing. The rushed departures. So many of them over 21 years. The mundane: going shopping and to work and the movies. The erotic: setting off as a young man, then a not-so-young man, then as a middle-aged man to do the various things gay men do.
The fateful: going to the church retreat where I met my lover. That "Maybe I'll go to Iceland this summer" trip. The "call to ministry" departure, packing my life into a truck and driving to Thunder Bay in 1986 after graduating from seminary.
The times of hopelessness. How on earth to find work? What to do with my life? The endless tension and ambiguity of being in a relationship. What to do about needed house repairs when I could barely hammer a nail straight.
In February, after making the decision to sell, I had a good cry with Andre. "The house looks so old and run-down. I didn't realize I had let it go so much. I just can't believe it's been 21 years. Where did all that time go? I can't live in Iceland and worry about a place over here. My life is there now, which feels so weird sometimes. That bloody-awful language! I guess I'm feeling old and run-down myself. I'll never have another relationship -- I just wouldn't have the emotional energy for it."
I saw myself reflected in the peeling paint, the windows that should have been replaced years ago, the tree at the front infested with carpenter ants, the ancient furnace gamely blasting out hot air for yet another winter.
Now I sit in my pleasant apartment overlooking downtown Reykjavik, surrounded by new, hopeful Ikea furniture, my old Toronto things long since dispersed to Goodwill. My ex has the concrete garden cat I designed for him. I wait for FedEx to deliver the final documents from the sale of the house. My house. My ex-house.