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I spend the day at work staring out the windows and watching the snow fall on the puzzled people of Vancouver. "What is this stuff?" their expressions seem to say as they teeter on the ice in their sneakers, the ones carrying umbrellas looking extra foolish. The snowflakes are huge and heavy but they somehow maintain their grace in their relentless descent, like sleepy Persian kittens adorned with angels' wings. Being indoors is agony for me and would be intolerable if I didn't know that he wants to go for a walk later tonight. He mentioned something about a garden.
The walk to his house from the bus stop is more like a gauntlet. No one has shovelled their walkway because no one in Vancouver owns a show shovel. And aside from having to sidestep ice and avoid getting snow banks up my pantlegs, I have to nearly crawl under leaning trees and hedges weighed down by the snow on their boughs and branches. I feel sorry for these poor west coast plants, so bent in submission, so seemingly surrendered as they bow to this powerful side of nature they so rarely see. It is bend or break for them.
We make dinner and dessert, and watch through the window as the patio furniture is further and further buried under the snow. Everything looks covered in sugar, we decide. But inside the scene is sweeter – enough to make anyone but the two of us vomit: we hold each other's hands as we steam the broccoli, gaze into each other's eyes as we mix the cookie batter, and wrap our arms around each other at every opportunity. We're ridiculous. We know it, we acknowledge it, and we laugh about it, but we don’t try to stop it. This feeling won’t last forever.
Proof. While our cookies are in the oven, his landlady and her long-time boyfriend come down from their bedroom. She begins emptying the dishwasher.
"You should be doing this, Gary," she says to him, handing him a bowl. "And whoo – look at all the snow out on the patio. You're going to have to go find the shovel and clear it off."
"Right now? I don't want to do it now."
"No, of course you don't. But you're going to have to do sometime. It's just going to keep piling up on us."
I grin as she hands him another bowl.
It's late when we decide to go for the walk he'd alluded to earlier – close to midnight. We bundle up to make our mothers proud: scarves, toques, gloves within gloves, sweaters over sweaters, pyjama bottoms under our jeans, and I insist on tying plastic bags over our socks before we step into our shoes, shoes that certainly won't keep our feet dry.
As the front door closes behind us he says to me, "Okay. Is any part of your body cold?" He asks with such sincerity and concern that I have to smile.
"No. Not at all."
"Alright then. Let's go."
Most sidewalks remain neglected and the avenue is just as snowy, so we find refuge in the tracks of the vehicles that have recently passed. We look around us and swear that we are not in Vancouver. Look – some kids have made a fort! Look at that field of fresh, virgin snow! Look at me run and slide on this patch of ice! Look at me shake the snow from the branches of this tree! He is suddenly the best friend I should have had at ten. We are boys again – hyper, laughing, and loud on this cold November night.
There is no traffic until we get to Oak Street and even then there is very little. The quiet is astonishing and its presence adds to the uniqueness of the evening. When we get to 41st Avenue, a group of firemen stand in the middle of the street scratching their helmets, wondering what to do about a tree limb that has succumbed to the snow, broken from its trunk, and shattered the bus stop over which it used to reign. Morbidly, I look for any limbs of humans that might be poking out from the wreckage, but I see none.
We trudge single file for another few blocks, the one in behind minimizing his labour by stepping in the fresh footprints made by the other. Somewhere during these blocks I realize where he’s taking me and the realization makes me gasp. The excitement at the thought of it and the swift intake of frigid air sends me into shivers.
“Are we going to the Van Dusen Botanical Gardens?” I ask.
"Yes, we are. I hope you haven’t got a problem with hopping fences,” he replies.
This confirmation makes me giddy. I stare happily at his bum as he marches ahead.
“I came here last night and I thought you’d like to see it too,” he explains to me as we slip through the outer gate. We enter a sprawling parking lot. Two snowed-in cars have been abandoned at opposite ends and I can’t help but feel a little sorry for them and wish they’d been abandoned closer together. But at the inner gate I forget about them as he points out the latticework that will get us over the fence. I watch him as he shimmies up the icy crisscrossed wood, agile in his layers like some fantastic arctic monkey.
I’m too consumed by the business of getting over the fence to think to peek at what lies beyond it, but after I’ve jumped down and have finished brushing myself off, I lift my head and eyes to my surroundings. And I in that instant the beauty fills me and I disappear. There are trees of all shapes and sizes but they are not trees. They are beauty. There is snow of all depths and shades of white but there is no snow. Only beauty. And then I see him, looking at me and smiling. And he is beauty too.
It is he who brings me back into consciousness. He moves and makes noise and breathes warm breaths that dance in the cold air to seduce my eyes into focus. He is grinning at me and I wonder if he knows what has just happened and how long I was gone. After a moment I speak.
“Thank you,” I say.
“For bringing me here.”
“But we haven’t even gone inside yet. This is just the beginning.”
He motions me to toward him, I kiss him, and after looking at our options, we take the trail on the left.
I am not a dendrologist. I wouldn’t know a poplar from a spruce or a pine from a cedar. He knows some things about trees from the Forestry class he’s taking, and offers what information he can, but otherwise I am left to my simpleton oohing and aahing. Look at this one, look at that one, look how pretty, look how beautiful… I remind myself that this is a botanical garden with rare plants and it makes my ignorance more bearable. I squint in the darkness to find species placards but they are lost somewhere in the snow’s blue shadows.
I find it interesting and somewhat frightening how I can’t effectually describe to him how everything looks, how everything makes me feel. I can only compare the experience to things I’ve seen in movies or things I’ve read. “This is what Narnia looks like,” I say. Or, “It looks like something out of The Lord of The Rings.” He just enjoys the scenery without trying to pick it apart. He is the Zen to which I aspire. I selfishly continue to think aloud and insist on putting the magic into words. “Was there ever a winter scene in Harry Potter?”
As we walk along the frosted path, I am suddenly offended by the presence of a tinkling sewer drain that is hungrily feeding on the precious snow. It reminds me that we are still technically in the middle of a city and not in an enchanted forest so I frantically kick mounds the powdery whiteness over the holes and bars. He joins in enthusiastically and in a few seconds it is buried. Satisfied, we continue along the trail and soon encounter a pylon. We laugh. Not wanting to exhaust ourselves, it remains unburied as a decidedly uncommon orange winter mushroom.
There is a clearing at the end of the trail and when we reach it I realize how very alone we are, how very quiet it is, and how surprisingly bright it is; although there are no lamps within vision, the whole garden is illuminated by the snow, which reflects the light from the overcast sky, which reflects the light from the unseen city. The light is bouncing all around us back and forth, up and down, back and forth again millions of times over. And we are the only ones there to witness it in its unending, silent beauty.
The clearing is a spectacle. Snow stretches out before us in every direction to make a smooth and silvery oval edged in trees, like an oblong crop circle left by aliens from a distant, frozen planet far from any sun or star. Its size makes me wonder what could lie beneath all of that snow. A pond, I suddenly think, and I begin to worry that my next step will find me drowned or soaking wet and freezing.
“There is no pond here,” he reassures me. “At least there wasn’t when I came here last night. It’s just a clearing.”
At one far edge of this oval, hidden among the trees, is a red pagoda. Or is it a stylized gazebo? Whatever it is, it welcomes us under its rafters and offers us a place to brush off the snow that has accumulated on our shoes and pants which, thankfully, have not let us down in our adventure thus far. I turn around and look back at the clearing from which we came and I’m pleased with the way the old wooden beams of the canopy frame the night like a photograph; sky, branches, snow, and two sets of footprints.
In a horrible moment of selfishness I wish he wasn’t here with me. I wish I was alone in this gelid paradise and that I and only I could experience all of its wonder. But then I look at him with his runny nose and I realize how much I love him and that if it weren’t for him I wouldn’t be here. If in some unlikely moment of genius I had the idea of coming here and somehow made it here alone, the experience would be entirely different. I imagine I would be cold and afraid. And deeply lonely.
“I’m sorry,” I whisper.
“What’s that?” he says.
“Nothing. I didn’t say anything,” I reply, moving ahead, bad thoughts behind me.
“This is as far as I got last night before I got cold and kind of scared,” he says to me as we enter a small enclosure of trees just beyond the red canopy. Inside it there are five or six large rocks jutting out of the ground that have been arranged in a circle to form something reminiscent of Celtic ruins.
“You were right – it is kind of spooky here,” I say.
But we’re together so everything’s fine.
The mute nature of our setting is changed only by scattered, sorrowful cries made by snow-defeated trees. Remembering the fate of that bus stop on Oak Street, we jerk our heads upward when the air erupts with the nearby sounds of splintering wood, and ready our arms for possible skull protection duties. Most often the sounds are only echoes from branches falling far off in the distance, and while we naturally turn our heads toward these noises of climactic destruction, we are always too late, and all we get to see are the pretty denouements of resettling clouds of snowdust.
It strikes me that I have not yet seen any animals, but then I remember the hour and figure the creatures must be sleeping. Or maybe they’re considered pests in a botanical garden and have been forcefully driven out beyond the gates? Or perhaps I’m mistaken and the animals I expect to see don’t live in Vancouver? I’m not sure but I manage to find solace in my imagination; I look to my right and through the trees and I see three deer. A hungry fox chases a white rabbit across our path. Hoot, hoot, says an old snowy owl.
I shouldn’t be out this late. Tomorrow I will sleep in and I won’t make much progress on my term paper. Oh well. The end is near and I don’t want to be inside writing essays when it arrives. The very reason this garden is so beautifully frozen tonight is because of a climate change that will likely kill us all. I must enjoy life with its icy gardens and fiery passions now. I will take a zero grade guiltlessly. I will take a billion zeros and string them like Christmas lights on every tree, bush, and shrub here tonight.
We round a corner and we see a sign in the shape of an arrow that reads “Maze This Way”. At first he seems disinterested but when he discovers the sense of joy it brings to my eyes we are off in search of this maze. It is quite easy to find; as we round another corner, the great green manicured hedge pronounces itself against the night’s white backdrop in a way that shouts, “Hello! I am the maze!” It quickly proves to be a laudable little labyrinth, too; we can’t find the entrance so we begin at the exit.
“Do you see how that little branch is sticking out of that hedge? It’s like a pointing finger,” I say when we come to the first fork in the maze.
We heed the signal and endure unusually deep snow along the path that follows, only to come to a wall of greenery. We laugh. This is fun. The proper route is riddled with treachery of its own; the hedges, like the ones I encountered earlier in the evening, are weighed down with snow and each accidental brush of these bushes creates a mini avalanche that sends ice down our collars.
In what must be the middle of the maze we find a very curious-looking tree. It has long, cylindrical branches covered in spiny armour that has the same texture as an artichoke. “It’s a monkey puzzle,” he says. The more I look at it, the more fantastical it becomes to me, and I decide that its fantasticality perfectly embodies the peculiarity of this entire evening. I have silly thoughts of chopping it down and dragging it home behind me for a souvenir, putting it out on my balcony or hanging pieces of it from the ceiling above of my bed.
It soon becomes clear that we aren’t going find the end – or the beginning, rather – of this walk-in riddle, so we forfeit and begin making our way back toward open ground. The snow has remembered our steps for us so retracing them is a simple task that takes only a few minutes. Once we’ve freed ourselves from the maze, we climb a small hill nearby and look back at it, perhaps naively hoping the angle will allow us to see where we went wrong. Of course all we see is a riddle with a funny-looking tree sticking out from its centre.
I can sense it deep in my chest as we explore beyond the little hill – the budding feeling that perhaps it is time to get going. I look over at him and read the same subtle feeling written in his features. But before either of us can make any suggestion of leaving, I do something that I know is somewhat juvenile but that also feels altogether appropriate: I write our initials in the snow with an exposed finger. And when I do I can’t help but notice how the snowflakes shimmer and shower us both like the most magnificent of confetti.
We’ve gone too far leave way we came so we head to the nearest band of trees, hoping they might be concealing an alternate way out. As we approach them we happen upon a small stream that runs in a direction we haven’t investigated, that holds enough mystery in its trickling waters to encourage us to revisit someday. And we find that the little wood does indeed partially border the garden: down a steep hill, over a small gate, through the pool area of a fancy condo complex, past a lot of expensive cars, and into the street once again.
We journey back to his house via Granville Street, which usually hosts most of Vancouver’s traffic, but tonight it seems that few people risk driving, for even city buses lie stuck and deserted at the side of the road. About halfway home we encounter a family desperately trying to clear the snow from their car windows with their hands, but he will have none of it, and does the job for them with his gloves like the hero he really is. A block from home, he pushes me into a snow bank, tackles me, and kisses me as I protest.
When we enter the dark kitchen, warm and cozy and hungry in our sleepwear, the microwave hums its radioactive green digits at us: 1:47am. It’s earlier than I thought and it makes me happy to know that time moves gently in our garden. Silently and skillfully he blends milk, brown sugar, and cinnamon, and soon I am eating the most delicious bowl of oatmeal I have ever eaten. I watch him as he stares into his bowl, spooning its contents into his mouth, his blond waves sweaty and shining, and I wonder if he is aware of his unique grace.
We do our best to make a comfortable bed on the carpet, pulling blankets and pillows off the single mattress in the corner, the one that crowds and overheats us whenever I stay the night. When the lights have been turned out, when we’ve said our goodnights, and when his exhausted body finds a pleasant position under my arm, he falls asleep, and I am left alone to think about the night’s events. I think about everything – the dishwasher, the pagoda, the monkey puzzle, the oatmeal. I will write about these things, I decide. I will write them for David.
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