I chose Ottawa. I had other options, I chose Ottawa, and looking out at the line where the gray “spring” sky meets the gray concrete-dusted snow and the icicles dragging the pine boughs to the muddy ground, I ask myself why.
I spent my childhood in a middling city in New Jersey. My parents treated that place like a war zone, forbidding us from the urban simplicity that, looking back on the streetscape, could have been ours. They were afraid of that place and what manner of lower-class behaviors we might pick up if they let us be anything but squatters there. We were resident only as long as it took to build the fortune they saw as their birthright and until then, we lived in the armor of chain-link fences, car doors, and enclosed porches. My memories are all school, playdates, parks, my grandmother’s cats, the sunfish and cicadas and chickadees that came to define the place in my mind, all in the foreground of a would-be suburban family’s terror, all lacking the complexity that a more grown mind would bring.
Then I lived in Miami. That place was a wonderland of heat and water for my younger self. The backyard pool, the grill, the tropical vegetation, the lizards, the spiders, the beach a short jaunt away, it was magical. It was an ideal backdrop for the steadily increasing unpleasantness of my adolescence, full of dissociation and argument and burying myself in school because it was such a perfect distraction from everything else and if I could be a clever student then at least I could have that much value to this world. I lived in Miami long enough to feel it turn to chalk in my mouth, beauty overlaid on so much ugliness that thinking about it makes me angry. If that city in New Jersey is a cipher, Miami is a taunt, and the price of its sumptuous coastline is far too high.
Ottawa is cold, and wet, and dull, and in the wracking throes of finally growing into itself. Its streets are loud, dirty, and encrusted with litterbug leavings. Step away from the museum districts and embassy rows and splendid central market and it is just another North American town laid out in strip malls and suburbs, where asphalt dust is the national bird and pedestrians had better watch their step. Wild places are as gated behind long drives as they are in Miami. Restaurant dining is an expensive indulgence despite being everywhere. The teeming and desperately unsheltered subaltern makes every downtown adventure into a tug-of-war between one’s sympathy and one’s wallet and they hunger more than any one well-meaning visitor could ever assuage. This is a place that better-off Canadians arrange cottage getaways to escape, as the press of its endless automobiles literally and figuratively drives them toward rustic lakeside simplicity they still need a car to access.
But I chose Ottawa.
I chose Ottawa because this is the first place I ever lived that let me feel like it was mine, like I could be my own person here and not the meeting place of a dozen competing desires of who I should become. I chose Ottawa because it exists at an improbable nexus of housing prices, general urbanity, and mid-sized-city coziness I would struggle to find anywhere else. I chose Ottawa because, after the happy accident of completing graduate school here, it was familiar. I chose Ottawa because I inhabit a cluster of marginalizations that make so many other places feel rightly or wrongly dangerous. I chose Ottawa because it is where I landed when I fled the backward land to Canada’s south that will never claim me again. I chose Ottawa because, even when long bus rides make it impractical and inconvenient, this city is full of museums and ethnic groceries and markets full of collectibles and a surprising density of exotic fish stores and a thousand and one little hidden gems like those that I get to fill my life with as long as I stay and as long as they last.
And when I come back from a week of wading in the most glorious ocean I have ever experienced, eating Tahitian ceviche daily, watching the squaretail mullets do their thing under the pier lights every night, and picking tiare flowers off the ground during the day, all the way home to the crunchy, gray, loud, filthy, muddy, wet drudgery of Ottawa’s snowmelt season under a preternaturally gray sky, where I have to plan my errands around when the plows usually make the sidewalks passable again, it makes me so sad.
Coming back from Polynesia makes every stretch of convention-drop I have ever experienced feel like a manic episode by comparison.
Couldn’t I have it that good? Do the tiare flowers and squaretail mullets have to be so far away from the house I can afford and the language I speak and the medication I need and the chickadees that feel like home? Can’t I spend my last decade of being young and hot somewhere where it makes sense to show off, after I lost so much time to dysphoria? Can’t I have it all?
I keep reminding myself, I was at a resort. That’s the point of a resort. One step out of its gilded boundaries and all the seamy flaws and challenges of what it really means to live somewhere start sauntering in, the kind of wake-up call that has locals of every place shaking their heads in tragic amusement at the foreigner who romanticized her vacation a little too much. She’ll blanch at how far her converted paycheck doesn’t take her, how radically her diet must change against the price of now-imported standbys, sunscreen turning from a seasonal trifle to a daily necessity, the question of how to access the prescriptions that keep her alive, the frustration of a place where cars have even more primacy than they do in Ottawa, the sheer trial of building a new life where the air smells like the sea and the sky feels like all the promises the world made her when she first set eyes on Miami could finally come true. She’ll find out in the worst possible way what it is to live in a place and have no pre-existing tie to even one single human soul within seven thousand kilometers.
Looking out at the sheer omnipresent gray of Ottawa in this winter that just won’t bloody end makes all of that more tempting than it has any right to be.
But I chose Ottawa.
Maybe someday I’ll look back on these thoughts and laugh in the-lady-doth-protest-too-much amusement, in much the same way I look back at all the time I spent mulling my facial feminization surgery. Maybe I’ll spend my retirement in Costa Rica and finally live surrounded by the tropical heat this body demands. Maybe I’ll vacation in Polynesia again someday and find that the novelty isn’t quite there anymore the second time, or the awfulness that lurks in the human spirit all around the world is a little more visible, or that place, too, succumbed to the ills that drove me out of Miami. Maybe Ottawa’s urbanizing growth will turn the gray around, maybe climate change will throw me a sop and make this place’s weather kinder, maybe I’ll spend a few thousand on a marine aquarium just to bring some of that glorious blue water into my home, maybe I’ll put squaretail mullets in it. Maybe. Maybe. Maybe.
I chose Ottawa because, against all odds, I made friends and lovers and a life here, and so, so much would have to go wrong before that is worth less to me than tiare flowers and ceviche with coconut and those peaceful little squaretail mullets, and I will not shed it lightly.
I chose Ottawa because, in a shock to all the older versions of me who were convinced she’d never get attached to places, this one somehow chose me.
But, oh do I ever miss the sun.