There is a photo on my desk that people often ask about. It’s a photo of a young, tall blonde boy, barechested in low-slung jeans and hiking boots, wearing leather cuff bracelets and a bear-tooth on a thong around his neck, playing guitar, his hair hanging in his eyes.
Most of my boyfriends get very jealous and weird when they see it.
But have you ever been lucky enough to meet someone who was able to show you an upside-down view of the world and make you a better person for it? That’s what Tim was to me. I keep his photo there not as a tribute to our relationship, but to remind me of the freedom he helped me find. I believe that people show up in your life when you need them. Tim was one of those people. I sometimes wonder if he was even really real.
I was 24. Working two jobs. Sleeping…rarely. A pre-med student specializing in neuroscience, planning to undertake four more years in a basement laboratory in order to: a) prove to myself that I wasn’t stupid; b) prove to my family that I wasn’t stupid; and c) hopefully, along the way, help others.
I wasn’t happy. But I’d kind of given up on ‘happy.’
It was summer break, and my best friend and I were indulging in a rare night on the town. We were stumbling up the hill toward our favourite alternative club, Birdland, when Keri grabbed my head and pointed it in his direction. “Look at that guy! He looks just like Leonardo DiCaprio!”
He and a friend, I would later learn was Darrell – also beautiful, with shoulder-length curly auburn hair – were busking with their guitars outside the Art College.
I was wasted. I wanted to dance. I could have cared less about Leonardo DiCaprio lookalikes. But we went over and said hi. And somehow ended up inviting them to join us at Birdland. As we walked, we paired up – Keri with Darrell, leaving me to speak to Tim.
He was 20. He had busked/hitched his way across the continent after spending time in the Mexican rainforests with nothing more than a tent, a blanket, a tin cup and a journal.
By the time we hit the club, Tim and I were in a full-out debate about life in general…and hours later, still at it. We talked about the western part of the country that I had never seen. He told me about the mountains I had never seen. He belonged to another time – he was fresh air and earth, innocence and an old soul.
He moved in with me the next day.
That summer, this younger, much freer man drilled me about myself. He was my mirror and I was his. He had grown up the middle child in a middle-class family much like my own, but longed for more. Unlike me, he had stopped trying to please others long ago. He went out of his way, in fact, to test people. In public, he deliberately acted like a jerk to try to offend people. Later, we analysed one another and when I told him my impression was that he purposely tried to drive people away just to see if they would climb over his hurdles, he became pensive, and admitted I was the first one to ever point that out. He constantly tested the limits of society. I was fascinated by the strength of his sense of self; although alone, he was romantic and vulnerable. When I asked about his travels, envious, “What colour are the Northern Lights?”, he paused for a moment, thinking, and then said, “They’re the same colour as your eyes – green and gold, with bits of blue.”
We read each other’s diaries. We wrote in each other’s diaries. He drove me nuts, because he would wake me in the morning, playing Velvet Underground songs on his guitar, singing at the top of his lungs, or he would storm out of bed, dragging the blankets with him. When I followed, cold, with hands on hips, to demand what he was doing, he would laugh and hold his arms open, saying, “I just wanted to see if you would follow.” He dug around in my apartment, scanning my bookshelves, pulling out long-abandoned paintings and demanding to know why they weren’t finished.
The moment that changed my life was the night we were heading out of town in my car, with friends in the backseat and Tim riding shotgun. I was so used to the jaded ‘city’ mentality – keeping up with the Jones’, making fun of anything that wasn’t ‘hip’ and ‘of-the-moment’, that I didn’t get it when we drove past what was obviously someone of a very lower class – wacky wardrobe, slight stagger – and Tim muttered under his breath, “Oh – would you just look at that!”
A part of me shut down. I was so disappointed in him. I had thought he was above making fun of people for how they looked. I shot him a glare from the driver’s seat and heaved a massive sigh. He looked at me, mystified. I began to explain my disappointment, when he said, “Come on – have you ever seen anything so beautiful?”
And I looked where he was pointing – and saw, beyond the skyscrapers, beyond the city skyline – the most gorgeous sunset, magenta and orange, filling the evening sky, that I had ever seen. He hadn’t even noticed the person on the sidewalk. That shame remains with me today.
He stayed with me for the summer. His friend Darrell, after having a brief fling with my best friend Keri, headed off back to Alberta, but Tim decided to stay. I was torn – I didn’t know how to resume my basement laboratory life with him in it.
He asked me to come back out west with him. He said, in his middle-child-afraid-to-commit way, “We should get married on a mountaintop in the Rockies.”
I couldn’t. I had responsibilities. I was committed to finishing school. I was a grownup.
One morning, I awoke in a blaze of sunshine and he was watching me. He said, “I think today is a good day to hit the road.” And I knew it was the right thing. I was sad, but it was time.
So we said good-bye.
I’ve never really regretted not going with him…because Tim taught me to accept that there is a part of me that can never tow the line, resign to the status quo, be happy with city skylines.
A few weeks after he left, I covered my car with painted flowers. And I did the drive west that we had talked about.
I finished my degree, but opted to defer grad studies. I had things to do first. I needed to see the Northern Lights for myself. Now, I’m pursuing my art for real.
And you know? The men who come into my life have nothing to fear. That photo on my desk is not a symbol of my regret. It’s a talisman, a reminder of who I really am – a reminder to look beyond the skyline and not lose her again in other people’s dreams.