The girl at the table is as pretty as a Siamese cat. She has a wedge-shaped face and Dresden blue eyes. She’s holding a tablet. Or an Ipad. Or devise I have yet to add to my limited electronics vocabulary. Fingers flying, she has such a secretly coy smile, I’d put money on the name of the person on the receiving end of the text being Damien or Marcus. Such a tiny device, so many possibilities
In a time long ago when computers took up a whole room and the data entry was done with punch cards, I redefined myself, albeit briefly, as a girl brave enough to go looking for romance with strangers. The program was called Operation Match. I know this because Wikipedia tells me so.
Computer dating questionnaires were all over the University of Alberta campus in Edmonton in 1968. I filled in a questionnaire, put it in an envelope with $20, and someone in Toronto transferred my answers to a punch card. A few weeks later I got a list of about eighty names. A dozen of them marked as my best matches in Canada. Apparently there were far fewer women than men filling in those questionnaires, and a nineteen-year-old auburn-haired university student, 5 foot 6, 120 pounds, was a slipper that fit.
I had no idea what to do with the list. Could barely believe I’d sent the questionnaire. I was a shy girl, with a short history of awkward dates. I never told anyone I paid twenty dollars to buy a fairy tale.
Then the “best dates” began to write. With almost all of them, the contact ended after a letter and a reply. No email in 1968. My Bests were spread all over the country. There were two in Edmonton and by weird coincidence; the one who contacted me was the older brother of a girl in my American Literature class. She saw the two of us having coffee at the Tuck Shop and rushed up to ask us how we’d met. He lied. So I did too.
We went for coffee a couple more times, and to a movie. When he showed up with his roommates at the Safeway where I worked part-time, they chose to wait in the long queue for the gorgeous blonde who was cashing on the till next to mine, and invited her to a party they were having that night.
Stung, I was ready to dump my computer persona, but I’d already heard from another best match from Halifax. He was passing through Edmonton on his way up north with the Armed Forces. I picked him up at the base and we went out for coffee. A quiet guy, good-looking in a seriously military kind of way.
When I went to drop him off, he told me that where he was headed there were few women, and he suggested we park and consider the full moon for a bit A short bit—just long enough to insist that he needed a roll in the back seat to send him on his heroic way. I held him off but the strength necessary frightened me, and with shaky hands on the wheel, I dumped him back at the barracks gates. I had a letter from him a few weeks later asking if we could see each other again when he came back to Edmonton en route to home. I hoped his list of names was short and some other naïve girl didn’t have to wrestle with him.
Things picked up after the soldier. The next match to get in touch was a live one. He showed up at the door one day, a boy from Toronto who was hitching to Jasper to work for the summer and wondered if he could “crash” at my place for a night. I was living at home.
Tall, muscular, blonde hair to his shoulders—it was the age of Aquarius, but Edmonton hadn’t signed on yet. He had Jack Kerouac and Ken Kesey in his backpack. He set my dad’s alarm bells clanging. No way was this hippie sleeping in our basement. He found an alternate crash pad with people with names like Teabag and Fish and Rainbow. For some reason, he liked me, the shy brunette with the strict parents, and appeared outside my bedroom window three nights in a row.
I don’t think he ever suggested that I climb out the window. I just popped the screen out and he told me stories—the places he’d been and oh, the places we’d go. On the third night he passed me a note and made me promise I wouldn’t read it until he was gone. He was leaving for Jasper Park Lodge the next day. I read the note as soon as his shadow slipped around the corner of the house. There was a ring buried against the wall under my window, but I was not to wear it until I came to Jasper to spend a weekend with him.
I dug up the ring first thing next morning—carved out of wood, way too big for my fingers, but the grain felt smooth as butter. I thought about wearing it on a leather cord. My mother’s reaction would be? Pagan hippie ornament.
I was in love—who wouldn’t fall for a boy who buried a ring outside her window? I hitchhiked to Jasper with my best friend the next weekend, and arranged to meet my guy while she met up with some friends who were there for spring skiing. That was the story I told my folks, that we were going skiing. That Carolyn was driving and had a spare pair of skis. It was going to be such fun because I’d never skied before.
I met my Jasper Park Lodge waiter and spent the night with him in a skimpy sleeping bag on the side of a mountain that had yet to be touched by summer. Two people in a sleeping bag will be less likely to die of hypothermia if they strip to the skin? Perhaps after a plane crash in the Andes. Not within walking distance of a town.
Next day, he tried to convince me to swim across a rushing torrent of a river so we could take a shortcut back. The guy was surely high as a kite most of the time, but I wanted to believe that he had a lease on a dreamy cloud of his own. I wanted to share it. Strangely, he didn’t smell of dope. He smelled like apples.
We went back to the staff residence at the Lodge so I could warm up in his bunk before I went into town for the ride home with the real skiers. That adventure, the intimate contact with someone who didn’t mention that he was booked off work because of a raw throat, rewarded me with a wicked case of strep throat.
He came back to Edmonton for a few days at the end of summer, and after he left we exchanged long yearning letters. Oh, he was a poet, that boy. After the fall semester, he quit university—I don’t remember what he was studying, only that scent of apples. Back he came, and tagged along to classes with me, the ones in theatres so large the professor never noticed an extra body. I loved the way people looked at me and wondered about the stranger beside me. He stayed at a hotel downtown—I can see the outside, the entrance doors, the reception desk, the clerk who leered at me each time I came and left.
The name of the hotel… green, something green? I skipped afternoon classes most days and met him there. He gave short notice that he was leaving. There was good money to be made as a male model back in Toronto, he said. News to me, when he showed me his nude photos; just waist up, but still the sultry look on his face made my cheeks burn.
I ignored every clue that this was a boy/man who was lost: the bits and pieces of his story of being ousted from his family by a stepmother; the ready money that paid for flights to Edmonton and hotel rooms; periodic meet-ups with the fishes and teabags of a culture of which I had no experience. I imagined us in a Joni Mitchell song in an apartment in Toronto. I borrowed the car, told another lie about where I was going, and took him to the airport. I wept buckets in the parking lot before I drove home, sure that I’d never see him again.
That summer, he wrote to say he was coming back, and I was to find a place where we could spend the weekend together. I chose Elk Island Park, the only spot I knew where there were cabins to rent, and close enough to Edmonton that I could come up with an excuse for borrowing the car. This time, I told Mom and Dad I was spending the weekend with my friend at her aunt’s Elk Island cottage, assuaging my growing guilt by reasoning that part of the story was true.
I assumed I pulled it off. In spite of my own discomfort at the deceit, I didn’t think even a ripple of suspicion crossed their minds. I was twenty years old and almost finished university, and I thought they would have forgotten the long-haired doper who’d asked to sleep in their house. For years their friends had been telling them how lucky they were that I was such a good girl. Why would they suspect such a daughter to be a liar and a sneak?
We didn’t go to Elk Island because it poured miserable rain for days before he arrived and there was no sign that it was going to let up. He breezed into town and announced that we were going to Victoria instead. I’d never been on a plane. I was swept off my feet by the idea. Up up into the sky and away we flew.
I’d never been to Victoria either, even though we’d once taken a family holiday to visit my aunt and uncle in Vancouver. I tucked away the thought that if I ended up in trouble, I would find my way to New Westminster, confess all, and Uncle Cy would see that I got home safely. I was still infatuated, but picking up on signals that my guy was off-kilter. Oddly, I was not frightened, though this was the most reckless thing I’d ever done.
We checked into a hotel a block away from Beacon Hill Park. There was a full moon above and mist below and I remember feeling like I was wandering in a dream. He rolled a joint, passed it to me. Go ahead, he said, it’ll make the sex delicious. So far the sex wasn’t anywhere near delicious. I think he may have been gay. Erectile dysfunction at twenty-two? It seemed like he was working way too hard at it.
I’d never smoked regular cigs, forget about weed. I faked, but got surprisingly high on the mist and the moonlight. We strolled back to the hotel, got into bed and it might even have been delicious except that two minutes later there was banging on the door. I dove under the blankets, he leapt up and answered the door, and in piled that old crew of teabags he’d crashed with in Edmonton.. I stayed under the covers while he got rid of them. We slept, just slept, and the next day flew home.
Apparently, the good girl inside me wanted to come clean. I’d lain a trail of clues. I’d kept souvenirs—the plane ticket, one of those little bars of hotel soap, and of course there were his letters. My mom asked a lot of questions about what my friend and I had done at Elk Island in the rain. Sat around the cabin and read and played Scrabble? She’d snooped and found the ticket. She’d read the letters. She cried. I cried. Dad never knew.
I began to see “dope guy” (as my mother referred to him) through different eyes. The good daughter pushed the dreamy girl aside. Now he was broke and borrowing money from me. I made excuses when he called, didn’t answer the door when he came knocking.
Finally, he left town. He kept writing to me all through the next year and, feeling safety in distance, feeling a good girl’s sense of loyalty, I answered his letters. When I graduated and got a social work job in Lethbridge, I shared that excitement with him. He turned up about a month after I moved there. He was on his way down to L.A. he said. I told him he could stay one night, sleep on the sofa; the next day I drove him down to the border crossing at Coutts and dumped him there. I gave him $100. Again.
When I got home the phone was ringing. They’d refused to let him cross because he couldn’t give an address for his intended destination nor did he have enough money. I told him I couldn’t help him. He hitched or took a bus somewhere? I never saw him again.
He smelled like apples. How strange that I can remember that. And the hotel? The Greenbriar. That was it—The Greenbriar.
Cat girl is watching me, curiously. I smile at her, still hoping that her Damien is a boyfriend in real time. Have I been talking out loud? Even if I was, and she heard the story she won’t have believed it. Computer dating in 1968?
Peace, Alan, wherever you are.