“This is one of the warmest falls Toronto has had for years,” the man said as he entered the streetcar. The remark was innocuous enough, and the driver agreed in the same conversational tone. Then the man paid his fare and headed down the aisle to find a seat. Matt, who was seated two rows behind the driver, overheard the remark and was annoyed by it. He turned to his friend Marion, who was sitting next to him gazing dreamily out of the window at the warm sunlight and the people walking past dressed in their lightest coats.
“Did you hear that?” he said testily. “It’s December, for heaven’s sake! December is not fall!”
Marion turned to look at him in some surprise. “But doesn’t winter begin on the twenty-first of December?” she said. “And that’s still two weeks away.”
“No, it doesn’t!” Matt countered still more testily. “December 21 is the winter solstice—the ‘sun-stop’, when the sun is the furthest south, when it stops going south, turns around, and starts to head north again.”
Marion reflected on this for a few seconds. “But that would make solstice midwinter,” she said, a little puzzled. “And yet the real cold weather doesn’t happen until later on….”
“Yes, yes,” Matt snapped, “there is a natural delay in the response of the weather to changes in the sun’s radiation. The overall system takes some time to build up or lose the heat. But if you want to decide when midwinter occurs, that delay has to be measured empirically. This business of calling winter solstice ‘the start of winter’ is just a symptom of the increasing ignorance of the masses—people who are just too lazy to learn real science.”
Matt spluttered himself to a stop, and there was silence between the friends for perhaps half a minute, after which Marion said with an exasperated sigh, “Why is it, Matt, that you always have to use your physics degree as a club to beat people up with?”
Matt felt his face heat up as a sense of shame rose inside him. He realized that he had been taking out his annoyance on his friend. He took several deep breaths and said humbly, “Sorry, Marion.”
The apology, once made, was accepted. Marion shook her head and then asked, “So what exactly is it about this that’s making you get your panties in a bunch?”
“Toronto winters,” Matt muttered, speaking the phrase with the deepest disgust.
“Ah,” said Marion. There was no need for Matt to elaborate. Over the years of their friendship, she had listened to his tirades about “Toronto winters” at least once a year. In spite of this, and partly just to offer Matt an opportunity to let off steam (and partly just for the fun of pushing his buttons), she said in an innocent tone, “What don’t you like about Toronto winters?”
Matt half laughed, as he understood Marion’s second motive, but he couldn’t resist the opportunity to vent. How many times had he explained to his friends in Toronto that where he grew up, in central British Columbia, the climate wasn’t like what everyone took to be the standard BC climate, which was that of the province’s lower mainland, the small area around Vancouver and Victoria where a snowfall of any kind was an event and always melted within twenty-four hours. Educating people about the real BC, the vast interior region of the province, was for Matt a kind of personal crusade.
“When I was a kid in Prince George,” Matt now began in low, breathless tones, “the snow would always be on the ground by Halloween. And it stayed, snowfall after snowfall, through the months, piling higher and higher, foot after foot on the sides of streets, sidewalks, and driveways. At the same time, the days got really short. We went to school in the dark and came home in the dark. It wasn’t until April, when the sun started to come back, that the snow began to melt. Weeks and weeks of melt—the boys playing marbles in the schoolyard, the girls skipping ropes. That was real winter, and real spring.”
“Not quite like Toronto, eh?” Marion commented, her mouth curved in a slight smile, though her eyes registered sympathy.
“Toronto winter,” Matt almost spat, “where every snowfall is followed in a week or two by a warm spell that melts the top layer of snow. And then the temperature falls back below freezing, and the puddles become sheets of ice on the roads and sidewalks. So they have to throw down quantities of salt, which melts the snow and creates that salty slush that gets on everything, stains fabric, rots leather, and rusts metal. Dis-gust-ing! And then, maybe the next week or the week after that it snows again, and a new cycle begins, each time a mini-winter followed by a mini-spring, over and over from mid-December to the end of March. You know, scientists say that the temperature rocking back across freezing is a condition for the formation of life. I can personally verify that, at least for cold germs—you know how I get at least two colds every year during these ‘winters’.”
Matt sighed. “When I lived in Prince George,” he added miserably, “I hardly ever caught a cold.”
This speech was followed by a prolonged silence. Then Marion said, “Oh, look, this is my stop coming up.” She turned and kissed Matt on the cheek and spoke sternly, saying, “I have just one thing to say to you, my boy.” She leaned toward him as she got up. “You should go and check it out!”
Marion was edging past him into the aisle. She turned her head. “Take those two weeks of vacation you’ve been saving up, and get back there for Christmas,” she said. When she was almost at the door, she added, raising her voice, “Then we won’t have to listen to you talk about what a ‘real Christmas’ should be for once!” She laughed and descended to the street, where she turned again and shouted back at him where he was looking at her through the streetcar window, “So everybody wins!”
Like so many of Marion’s suggestions, this one seemed daunting yet tantalizing. Matt thought about the idea for the remainder of his journey, and when he had arrived back at his apartment, he went online and looked up airline schedules for flights to Prince George, and the rates of local hotels and motels. He knew his boss wouldn’t mind—she had been after him to use those weeks of vacation he had been saving up, and the holiday season was always slow for tech support in his department.
When he finally climbed into bed that night, Matt marveled slightly at the fact that he had booked the flight and made motel reservations as well. Everything was set—he was going home for Christmas—at least in some sense.
It was with the same sense of surprise that Matt found himself standing at the car rental booth in the tiny Prince George Airport on the afternoon of December 23. He had been in Toronto only that morning. The flight to Vancouver had been the usual kind of thing. The local flight from there to Prince George had been more of a novelty. He hadn’t been in the interior of BC since he was thirteen, when his family had moved. Toronto was where people came for work, and his father, having lost his newspaper job at the Prince George Citizen, had accepted a more modest position at a larger paper in the big city. Matt had never even seen Toronto before that, and he had found the experience both exciting and daunting.
The vast anonymity of the city had come in useful when, years later, after he had discovered his sexual orientation, he started frequenting the downtown gay bars. The gay community was a real comfort, and for a while he had really been in love with the city. But as the idealism of his young adulthood gave way to the pragmatic world of work, Matt found himself increasingly dissatisfied. His physics degree, an artifact of that idealism, turned out not the best thing to have on a resume. However, it did give him math and computer skills that were useful in information technology, and he eventually settled in a highly paid tech-support position for a big Toronto corporation. He was secure, had plenty of money, and had even bought a rather swanky condominium. He accumulated various friends both within and outside the gay community, and struggled to find the right guy to settle down with. After a series of failed relationships, however, Matt entered his midthirties feeling himself more and more on the outside of things. Going to the bars no longer intoxicated him as it once had. He was neither vivacious nor terribly witty, and increasingly found the high-flown gatherings of friends and acquaintances that involved a lot of alcohol and often recreational drugs a scene that he no longer enjoyed. He realized that discontentment had settled on him, and began entertaining the idea that he really hated Toronto.
So as he found himself on a plane that was circling Prince George, Matt felt reassured when his spirits began to lift. The town, the airport, everything seemed reassuringly small. As the man at the rental booth showed him a map of the town, Matt felt his heart swell with excitement. There was a new highway leading into town, but Matt decided that he would take the old route down the hill and across the long bridge, where the boards always made a noise as you drove over them.
It was a world of whiteness, which was also reassuring. As he crossed the Fraser River, he saw that ice flows filled the river, whose broad bosom heralded his entrance to the town. He drove down Third Avenue, the main drag of Prince George, smiling as he looked at the heavily coated pedestrians, the wonderfully flat buildings, and everything white with snow. And it was cold. Sitting in his heated car with the window partly open, Matt found the nippy air that wafted in as he drove delightful, the smell fresh and invigorating.
He had conceived of a plan to buy a real winter coat and boots at the local Bay store, both on the assumption that they would be selling the proper gear here and because he could then return to Toronto with a tangible memento of his trip. Everything was pleasantly mapped out before him, and it was only when he booked into the motel that he received his first unpleasant surprise.
The woman behind the check-in counter was the sort of judgmental and narrow-minded person that in Toronto was only a source of amusement. In such a multicultural city, bigots had a hard time, so they didn’t really bother you. Here in this small town, on the other hand, it was an entirely different story. The woman evidently felt justified in letting Matt know in no uncertain terms that she disapproved of him and his kind as she went through the motions of checking him in with a kind of angry efficiency, punctuated with loud, menacing coughs. Finally, she handed him the key by dangling it archly between her thumb and forefinger, her arm held straight out as though the nominal contact of the hand-off was something distasteful. By the time Matt had left the office, again to the sound of the woman’s cough, he felt distinctly shaken.
He walked toward his room, along a sidewalk and up a set of external stairs, in a slightly numbed state. He realized that he had never had to face small-town prejudice as a gay man because his family had moved to the city while he was still a quiet, dreamy-eyed teen. After years of living in comfortable anonymity in the diversity of the city, it had simply never occurred to him that he would be recognized and condemned for being a homosexual in what he considered his hometown. Once inside his room, he put his bag down and went over to survey himself in front of the long mirror that was affixed to the closet door.
Looking at his image, he wouldn’t say that he looked particularly gay. He saw a somewhat slim man with sandy hair and a slightly mousy face, whose features were now configured in a frightened and disturbed expression. As he turned from side to side in the glass, he took off his trench coat. His build never seemed to reflect all that work he did at the gym. He flexed experimentally. Okay, so now there were some muscles—and yet, when he stood normally, he merely looked slim. He knew that if he took his shirt off, pecs and abs of respectable definition would show…. He sighed and turned away, going to unpack his bag.
Without any will on his part, his mind automatically turned over the interaction with the woman. Matt admitted that he had never been able to tell who was gay, even in Toronto, just from looking. His friends seemed amused by this, by what they termed a complete lack of “gaydar.” Matt coped after a fashion using context—he worked on the assumption that someone in a gay bar was probably gay, and anyone outside the gay village probably wasn’t.
Having finished unpacking, Matt went over and stood beside the large picture window that overlooked the street, watching the passersby on the sidewalk below. These people didn’t look any different from himself, though admittedly they were covered up in heavy coats. There might be a rougher cast about the men, though. Then the thought occurred to him that the woman might simply have seen him as a “city slicker,” someone whom she judged as being “not one of us.” Still, it hadn’t felt like that. Matt sighed again and went into the bathroom to have a hot shower. Afterward he felt a little better and watched some television before heading out to find food.
He ate in a greasy spoon just down the street from the motel. The waitress was polite but not very friendly, and again Matt wondered how he must come across with his expensive coat and city clothes. Before the flight, he had imagined asking the locals about how things had changed in town over the past twenty years, but right now he didn’t feel that such an inquiry would be welcome.
While he ate, Matt ruminated, thinking back to his childhood here, trying to remember the names of his friends from back then. He had never kept in touch. At the time he had been looking forward rather than back. When he got back to his motel room, Matt looked up the name of a childhood friend in the phone book, but couldn’t find anyone of that family name at all. It was probably foolish, he decided, to assume that his friend or his friend’s family would still be living here. People moved about, certainly his own family had. Disappointed, he got dressed and went outside, walking the downtown streets. He felt a little silly in his shoes with their toe rubbers, his linen trousers and gray trench coat, but in a very few minutes it was the biting cold that drove him back to his motel.
The next day Matt went shopping at The Bay and got a very good heavy winter coat and gloves, as well as thick trousers. They were out of good boots in his size, however. The salesman told him of two shoe stores that would probably have them, and hearing that one of these was in the Sprucewood Mall, Matt instantly decided that was where he would buy his boots—that mall had so many memories. When he got outside The Bay again, however, he found that it had started to snow. The street scene looked more beautiful than ever. Matt felt his mood begin to rise for the first time since his encounter at the motel office.
On impulse he went back to his room and changed into his new clothes. With his genuine central-BC gear, he felt decidedly more courageous and decided to go for a drive, to explore the town and see what had remained the same through the intervening years and what had changed. As he wended his way through the downtown and then out into the housing subdivisions, every few blocks Matt would note some landmark that he recognized—a church, a bank branch, a school, a house. After some time he found himself on Fifteenth Avenue. There was the Sprucewood Mall, but Matt didn’t stop. The boots could wait. He followed along Fifteenth, finally heading up Cranberry Hill, where he and his brothers along with the local kids had tobogganed and skied. In no time at all, it seemed, he was beyond the town altogether, driving along a road that twisted lazily through a countryside filled with evergreen trees and the occasional clearing with a solitary house now and then. The snow continued to fall. The overcast sky was white, as was the road and the surrounding verges. The trees themselves were so snow-covered that their branches and trunks were almost entirely hidden. Gradually all this whiteness began to work on Matt like a spell. He was, he felt, inside a Christmas card, or snow globe that would fill with swirling white flakes when you shook it.
He remembered the expeditions his family had made every year in the station wagon to find the perfect Christmas tree, his father cutting it down, and several of them pulling it back through the snow to the car on a toboggan like a trophy. This was what he had come for, he realized, this world of snow and trees and cold. The magic was still here. He felt his soul open up as he drove along through the endless whiteness, approaching a state of bliss.
His state of reverie was abruptly ended when the car suddenly plunged into an enormous snowbank. For a second or two the windscreen was completely opaque with snow as the car’s forward motion slowed. Then, as the car tilted forward, the snow slid from the windshield, and Matt was given an all-too-clear view of a steep slope several hundred feet long, at the bottom of which was a line of trees. The tilt continued, and then the car began to pick up forward speed as it slid down the slope. The car’s forward momentum threw up fresh quantities of snow onto the windshield, so Matt made the descent blind, clutching the steering wheel and virtually standing on the brake. After what seemed an endless time, there came an enormous crash, and Matt was thrown violently up and forward, despite the deploying air bags, and he lost consciousness.