New West, Approximately
Content warning: references to self-harm, racism, and violence.
I saw women laughing. When I looked back they were crying.
—Unnamed document. New Westminster, Canada. 1:41 p.m. Monday afternoon.
I remember now, sitting alone in the cafe booth, leaning against the glass of the northern wall behind me. I could feel my jaw still throbbing four days post-op. There was a crater in my gums where a molar had clung, up until recently, silently rotting. Now my entire cheek had the complexion of a sunset, drawing concerned eyes to it when I didn’t have my mask on.
I heard the women laughing: middle-aged, olive-skinned, and wearing fleece-lined jackets. They embraced in the centre of the café. At the entryway there was a younger woman. She was in an orange peacoat, her blonde curls obscured her headphones—headphones with a cord. You don’t see that much anymore.
Outside, the sky was bruised like my cheek: a variety of greys shadowed the Quayside, and Frazer River was dark across the sodden planks of the pier. The only saturation came from the esplanade flowers—it was spring, and Vancouver blushed with blossoms and magnolias.
I looked back at the women, seated across from each other now with a sudden sobriety. That’s why they’d been crying—not out of sadness, but of some mutual recognition.
But why did I write this down? What compelled me to note this unremarkable scene? Were those women really crying, or was I simply writing what I felt? It’s in my notes, so it must be important.
In her essay, Joan Didion says she opens her notebook not to document an event precisely, but to record how it felt to her. She creates an enshrinement of herself, an inventory of the world in the sense of her perceptions. Ultimately, her point is: she’s remembering what it was to be her.
These ordinary scenes were a feast to a tourist—this was how they felt to me.
Then there are notes I can’t help but scratch my head at, interrogating my memory to wonder why I needed to record that my latte art more closely resembled labia minora than the tulips framing the esplanade outside. What use could I have for a simile between the Skytrain tracks and a wishbone? Perhaps I was simply filling in the time on my ride to Central City in Surrey, trying to distract myself from the anxiety of unknown territory.
I’ve never been good at diaries: even as a child the perfectionist in me ripped out the pages until the front and back covers kissed each other. I was gifted this Semikolon notebook at the start of my Vancouver trip, and it became a real pacifier. Only now it’s full of junk: exaggerations and half-truths. I know these ‘lies’ I weaved into the page will come back to bite me with proofreads and fact-checking.
‘It wasn’t overcast that day,’ my travelling companion says. ‘It was me who had the tooth pulled, not you.’
Would the truth ruin the fun, or pervert the memory of who I was and how I felt then and there? Would I still remember Craft Café if not for the lie of an overcast day? Or the feeling of being bruised if not having lived vicariously through my companion’s ailment?
At a gothic, vegan, and gluten-free picnic in the botanical park I met a pack of Vancouver locals. Next to me a woman scars scoring her cheeks and wrists spilled her guts at the lightest of prodding and I listened like a child to a sage older sibling.
‘There’s this idea that Canada has a good relationship with its Indigenous communities,’ she said when the subject of lineage was raised. ‘But we’re just as abused by the police as you see in the US.’
I recalled the red-white Maple Leaf flags I’d seen mounted to pick-up trucks and the First Nations totem poles in the Vancouver International Arrivals hall.
After the loose leaves wilted to the bottom of the teapots and the blankets were rolled up, the woman gave me a tour of Downtown Eastside, careful to point out each socio-economic vestige through the windows of her car. It was market day in tent city. She talked me out of Uptown’s integrity, lamenting over the living costs brought about by capitalism’s licking lips.
‘It was full of artists and weridos once. Now it’s a corporate cemetery with skyscrapers as headstones.’
No, she didn’t say this—she didn’t need to.
Then she took me to a brewery and dragged more stories out from under the colonial settlers’ rug. I winced at the taste of the stout and her account of Colten Boushie’s murder.
Perhaps the important thing to note in Didion’s theory is that it’s phrased in past tense. This is what it was to be me. She says herself it doesn’t hurt to ‘keep in touch’ with the former self, insufferable as they may be—because who knows when they’ll drop in unannounced?
I took the footpath arching over the train tracks. ‘Can’t keep myself right,’ the note says. I didn’t write it down because the traffic directions are opposite to Australia, and I was literally failing to walk on right side of the path—but because of the latent yet glaring this is how I felt in the phrasing of this thought.
I looked through the chain-link fence down at the soggy, tattooed cityscape of New West. The horizon was like soil settled at the bottom of the glassy, silver sky. No: I didn’t really stop to notice this imagery, but I felt it all the same as I wrote it in my notebook. All of these approximations say something about who I was during this trip.
I was as far from home as I’d ever been, with some teenage cowardice still to be outgrown. I was slowly unfurling from the foetal position and trying new things: a London Fog, giving people space, writing monologues, and chewing British Columbia’s cannabis gummy bears while staring intently at my laptop screen, wondering why I didn’t feel it.
I was visiting family and reconsidering family as I caught a train from the Orpheum Theatre back to my sister’s condo, wondering if the feeling of peace was imaginary or not. I was enjoying the liberation of a place where no one knows you, perhaps not even the family whose air mattress you’re sleeping on. But that is, as Didion says, only how it felt.
Acknowledgement of Country
I acknowledge the Kabi Kabi/Gubbi Gubbi and Jinibara peoples, the Traditional custodians of the lands and waters of the Sunshine Coast where I’m privileged to live and study. I acknowledge the important role First Nations people continue to play within the Sunshine Coast community.
I acknowledge the Halkomelem peoples as the Traditional custodians of the unceded and unsurrendered lands and waters of New Westminster, as well as the Coast Salish First Nations people of the Northwest Pacific Coast in British Columbia.
I recognise Traditional Owners’ strength, resilience, and sovereignty. I wish to pay respect to their Elders – past, present, and emerging.
Milla Fargo (she/her) is a creative writing student based in Queensland, Australia. Her work in poetry, fiction, and creative non-fiction is characterised by themes of existential anxiety, explorations of identity through storytelling, and queer navigation. She is drawn to writing that connects and heals readers through shared experiences.