Stranger in Town

In early May, my best friend Annabelle sent me a link to a job application for an orientation leader at Ryerson University’s frosh week with the caption “I’ll do it if you do it.”  

I was sitting at my mom’s kitchen table in Kingston Ontario, eating my lunch during the half hour break I gave myself from my internship at the local news blog every day. My nails had been bitten to the bud and for some reason, I had convinced myself that I could survive off of black coffee so that my mom wouldn’t have to spend extra money on vegan coffee creamer. In between news conferences and tracking down sources as well as making space for processing the Big Life Changes that had happened since March 13th, you could say I was pretty unstable at the time I got that message. And although Annabelle knows me well enough to know that this was something that I would’ve never done in the past, I answered the message with, “Honestly, maybe I will. It gives me a glimmer of hope that school will be in person again.” 

I took this photo because it reminds me of something Annabelle would have on her desk. (Folio/ Jemma Dooreleyers) 

At the time of writing this, it has been over 200 days since I’ve seen Annabelle. 

We had gone out on March 15th for St. Patrick’s Day before the bars closed. Two days after that, I was sitting in my apartment, reading news story after news story, trying to write the final draft for my third-year feature class and spiralling down an anxiety, guilt-ridden hole. She called me on the phone and could hear in my voice that I was pacing back and forth and told me she was doing the same. So, I did the thing that I had done probably more than 1000 times in the three years that we’ve known each other. I dropped everything, got my coat on, made my way down Yonge Street, grabbed bubble tea on the way and let myself into her apartment with the set of keys she gave me in September. I washed my hands three times, wiped the door handle, flopped down on her couch and collapsed into a fit of manic giggles. Nothing ever seemed so serious once we saw each other face to face. However, when it was time to say goodbye, before I entered a two week quarantine at my boyfriend’s cottage before returning home to my mom’s, things got very serious. 

I grabbed her by the shoulders and looked her dead in the eyes. 

“Don’t go back to Seattle until I can say goodbye for real okay?” 

“I promise.” 

Well, spoiler alert. The Canadian government and the global pandemic that we are currently experiencing obviously had no regard for the promise that Annabelle and I had made, or any promises for promotions at work, or promises of rent for millions and millions of people around the world for that matter.

In the third week of quarantine, the extra one that no one saw coming, Annabelle sent me the first of many “life updates” through Facebook Messenger. She was packing her suitcase and as much as her apartment as she could and heading back to Seattle, Washingston,4400 kilometres away). My heart broke and a bit of it chipped off and went to Seattle with her. 

According to an interview with the Harvard Business Review, David Kessler, the world’s “foremost expert on grief”, explained that the feeling that we are all feeling right now is a collective grief that comes from many different things. The first grief, he explained, was the loss that we are all experiencing. Loss of opportunities, loss of normalcy, loss of connection. The second one, which hit me more close to home, was something Kessler described as anticipatory grief – something that generally happens when someone gets a dire diagnosis or when we think about our parents dying. We don’t know what to expect so we start imagining grim futures and spiral down a hole that is hard to climb out of, especially when there are not many positive things to turn our eyes to at the moment. 

One of the things that makes me happy about living in Kingston again is getting to see the sky at all times. So I look up at it every chance I get. (Folio/Jemma Dooreleyers) 

Other experts on grief and people who have experienced it will tell you that the five stages of grief do not exist in a linear timeline; it  is often something we experience in waves. I can tell you that is very true. 

In what I like to call, the beginning of the end, the stage in late March, early April when it felt like someone had unscrewed one side of a wall-mounted shelf and objects were slowly sliding off of it and shattering on the floor, I can recall myself going through two easily identifiable stages of grief. Both stages were marked by more life updates through Facebook Messenger to Annabelle. 

Denial, in response to Annabelle moving home and the fact that we were told we would only be in quarantine for two weeks. She had gotten a job in Toronto that started in May and I told her that I would see her then and that I was still looking for internships in Toronto. We could still have our hot, successful, girl summer. 

Bargaining came from choosing to believe the news stories that benefitted us and our plans. Talks of the Canadian-American border opening up without the two weeks of quarantine on either end. The low numbers of cases in Canada and how the numbers are not high enough to justify the closure of in-person schooling. “It can’t last that much longer” and finally, a fact that still remains a mystery, if COVID-19 goes away in the cold temperatures. 

Depression, acceptance and anger seem to all exist at once. Like someone is holding a baseball cap full of shredded paper in front of me, I am digging through it and depending on what I see pass me on the street, come across in my apartment, the weather outside or how much school work I manage to get done in a day, is the stage of grief I pull out of the hat. 

However, I do specifically remember when anger went into the mix. 

Before I get into this next part, the important thing to note about Kingston, is that it contains three post-secondary institutions within its borders: Queen’s University, St. Lawrence College and the Royal Military College. Each September, the population of Kingston grows by 30,000, with Queen’s students making up 27,000 of those people. Established in 1841 and made of almost entirely limestone, Queen’s has the most campus-y campus in most of Eastern Ontario. With a clear section of the city that makes up it’s campus and the historic buildings that have been kept restored by millionaires and it’s proximity to the lake and a lot of pubs, it is easy to see why. And unfortunately and admittedly, Queen’s as a whole bore the brunt of most of my resentment. 

My unfair rage started for the Queen’s students in May. A week before Ryerson students found out that classes would be online, Queen’s students learned about their virtual learning.  As a reporting intern for Kingston’s local news website on the student beat, I hit the ground running, looking for heart-broken students grieving the loss of their school year and campus life. 

Instead I found quite the opposite. I interviewed five students from four different years, who were currently living in Oakville, Mississauga, Ottawa and Peel region. Throughout five interviews, my questions quickly turned from “How are you feeling?” to “How are you going to make sure that you aren’t bringing COVID from your region to Kingston?” and “How do you plan to make sure the people who are coming to your house to party are part of your bubble?” It was a lot more difficult to suppress my anger at these students than my original sympathy for them in the beginning. At that point, Kingston had managed to keep the cases of COVID-19 to as low as two a day and these students were telling me that they were looking forward to seeing their friends – something that my university had deemed impossible. A sort of weird and twisted FOMO had come over me and I couldn’t seem to shake it. 

By the end of May, depression and acceptance were smacking me across the face like I was a punching bag. School was officially online. Depression. I found a very cute apartment right in downtown Kingston, also made of limestone, and much cheaper than somewhere in Toronto would be. Acceptance. Even if the winter semester was in person, Annabelle wouldn’t be coming back to Canada. Depression. I won’t have to try a long distance relationship with my high school sweetheart for another year. Acceptance. The final pack up of my apartment in Toronto and the realization that my uni years as I knew them were officially over without any real closure as I drove down the highway. Depression. 

June happened in a blur, caught between two extremes, and at the end of it, I received the keys to my apartment and the end of my internship. 

I was ready to get my shit together and start my life as Jemma Who Lives in Kingston Now, Again. And for a month and a half, it was bliss. Downtown Kingston is truly a beautiful place in the summer. I could wander around in sundresses and walk down to Lake Ontario for a swim. There was a farmer’s market every weekend until Tuesday and I was finally letting my head get some space and process what had happened over the past six months. 

Then all of sudden, something in the air shifted and a cool wind started whipping off of Lake Ontario. It was the end of August and the band-aid of summer and heat had been peeled off . The Queen’s students started moving back and despite my lies to myself, I was not mentally prepared for it. 

In hindsight, the street I moved to was not the smartest place to move if I knew I was in this fragile state. I watch as people reunite in the street and walk with their arms linked together. I listen to people stumble home on a Saturday night and emerge on Sundays for brunch. They run together and study together and eat together. From my second floor window, it’s as if the pandemic never happened at all. 

It’s their togetherness that makes me feel even more alone, like I am in a bubble that I can’t poke through. “I am one of you,” I want to tell them, but I am not. 

As much as I hate to admit it, my resentment for the Queen’s students does not come from them deciding to come to Kingston to see their friends and live by themselves, or even from the rising number of COVID cases that have been steadily increasing since their return.  

It’s from their air of belonging. When they walk somewhere, they have a purpose, a place. They are a Queen’s student and they are on a mission. They have places to go and people to see and memories to make. 

As someone in my fourth year at a university three hours away from where I’m currently living and across the country from most of my friends, with no plan as to when I will see them again, belonging is not something I have in abundance. 

I am a stranger in the town I have lived in for 14 years, but the three year break I spent in downtown Toronto leaves me wondering where I come back to. 

This question is an ever changing glimmer.  A lot of the time, I tell myself to lighten up because if I’m being honest with myself and with you, I have come out of this pandemic pretty well. I have a nice apartment, I live close to my family and my boyfriend. There are people I know in this city. I might have even moved back to Toronto if all my friends went back and then what would I be doing differently from these students? 

But on the other hand, it is impossible not to dwell on what I’ve lost when something like I used to have is so hard to look away from. 

There’s a million things I do in a day to feel more connected to my friends. I hung up the poms poms that Annabelle brought me from Mexico where I can see them at all times. I keep Shayna in mind when I pick out my outfits in the morning. Gracie’s voice reminds me to not take things so seriously when I am mad at myself for not finishing the tasks I set out to do. Sydney is there when I thrift something to stay environmentally-friendly and Manus shows up in my thoughts when I decide to do something completely wild. I decorate my apartment so it is somewhere I feel like I belong. 

However, no amount of magical thinking can replace the invincible feeling you get when you’re linked arm in arm with your whole group of friends, laughing loudly at something silly and leaning on each other to stay steady – like I watch the Queen’s students do every weekend. No amount of magical thinking can stop me from feeling like I am missing out on something and finally, no amount of magical thinking will help me find a community in Kingston that I feel apart of. That is up to the actions I choose to take and building up the courage to do so is something I am working on constantly.