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Being alone never bothered me.
I assumed it had to do with my upbringing. I was born in rural Canada, an only child whose parents were never in the picture much. I had friends growing up, but never many. When I turned nineteen and moved to Montreal for university, I found a cheap place in NDG that I could afford without needing to split the rent with roommates. When I dated, it was always casual, always short-lived.
It would be fair to say that I convinced myself I could do without any significant connections in life. That I could go from start to finish, in it for myself, and no one else. I suppose having that attitude made it all the more surprising when, in the fourth semester of my undergrad, I met someone. Piril.
For our first date, we went to the cafe down the street from the library. I ordered an Americano for myself and paid for her coffee. Seated on the terrace, we chatted about class, our assignments, and the university in general, before our conversation became more personal.
She asked me where I was from. I told her I came from a small town not far from the city. For her part, her family was Turkish, but she grew up in Toronto before moving here for her studies. I told her I wasn’t close to my parents and had no siblings. She confessed that she had a big family and seemed to get on remarkably well with all of them.
“Roommates?” she asked, and I shook my head.
She told me she lived in a big townhouse near park Lafontaine with six other people, most of them students, most of them noisy.
“Don’t you ever get lonely being all by yourself?”
“Lonely? No. I’ve been alone most of my life and it was always fine,” I said. “I’m the kind of person who enjoys long walks down quiet roads or just sitting on my balcony smoking the occasional cigarette and watching the pedestrians move along from a distance.”
“Sounds like you enjoy watching people more than being with them,” she said, teasing.
“You should try it sometime,” I replied with a grin of my own. “It’s like you’re a witness to a whole other world that keeps moving on without your input. It’s kind of liberating not to have to be involved.”
“That seems so impersonal,” she said. “Ephemeral, even. I mean, from up there, you never get to interact with anyone or know them or meet them. All you do is see them for a moment, moving across your field of vision, and then they’re gone. Poof, into thin air, and you’re stuck there alone.”
At that, I shrugged. “People didn’t really disappear into thin air,” I said. “At worst, they turn a corner, step into a building, or disappear from view behind the trees. But they’re still there, living their own complex lives in their own complex ways. I didn’t think I need to keep tabs on every moment of their lives from my balcony to know they’re still alive.”
“Well, how do you know they don’t disappear?” she asked, looking conspiratorial.
I opened my mouth, unsure how to respond, wondering all the while what she was going on about before I saw the smirk on her face.
“You’re just messing with me,” I realised.
“Maybe I am,” she said. “I don’t know. All I’m saying is that stuck up on a balcony, watching people disappear, I would probably go a little crazy.”
After we finished our coffees, we stood up and had that awkward moment where two people who are obviously interested in one another don’t know what to do. I told her I enjoyed hanging out and she said the same. We then promised to do it again, which we did the following week, and the one after
As the semester winded down, we kept seeing each other, found ourselves still spending time together that summer. I realised that my relationship with Piril was becoming different from the others I had up to that point in my life. As cliched as it sounds, the more I spent time with Piril, the more it felt like I had known her for longer than just a few months. It was exciting, even refreshing, to be experiencing something like this. If there was anything frightening about the vulnerability of being that close to someone, and hoping it would last, well, I was having too good of a time with her to notice.
Later that summer, just a few days before the net semester was set to begin, I invited her to come with me to the LaRonde amusement park. Up to that point, we had done everything together – tried out new restaurants, taken day trips to the little towns off the island, you name it. Like everything else we had done, I assumed she would be all ears and excited to go. Instead, it was the first time I saw her hesitate about anything.
“I don’t know,” she said in an absent sort of way. The two of us were sitting at a table outside of an Izakaya on St-Catherine’s Street eating overpriced tapas and enjoy a couple of beers in the sun.
“Come on,” I said. “It will be fun. If it’s crowded with day campers, then we’ll probably be the oldest people there. We’ll easily have full reign of the place. We’ll be like giants.”
She shook her head and still seemed hesitant, but by the end of our meal, and after a little more persistence from my side, she gave me a polite little smile, said, “okay,” and that was that.
The following day, we made our way to the park shortly before opening. We waited in line for fifteen minutes before we passed the gates and were inside.
“What do you want to try first?” I asked. I was thinking we should go for one of the big drops or the main roller coasters right away, to build up our adrenaline and get right into it.
“Let’s see what’s here first,” she said, leading me down the cobblestone path to the stalls and carnival games. We ended up doing the full tour of the grounds, pointing out to each ride as we passed it, but never stepping into of the lines for big attractions. Instead, we did the teacups, the saucer, couple of merry-go-rounds. Mostly the kinds of things you could find anywhere. As I tried to steer her to the big sellers of the park, she constantly came up with a reason to avoid them. Either the line looked too long, or that we’d have the sun in our eyes, or that it just didn’t look like it would be fun. Finally, after having gone ahead and played yet another round at some ring tossing booth, I asked her what was really up.
“I’m having fun, aren’t you?” she asked, almost nervous. It was easy to tell that it wasn’t truly the case. There was something bothering her since we arrived. Heck, even earlier. Ever since I had asked her to come here, it was like she had gotten more reserved with me. I couldn’t make sense of it.
“Is there a reason why we’re doing all these basic things and none of the big rides?” I asked.
She bit her lip and looked away. I thought she would remain silent, but she spoke, almost in a whisper.
“I can’t do roller coasters,” she said.
“Are you scared of them?” I asked, leading her to one of the nearby picnic tables so we could have seat while we talked.
“No, it’s not heights, or anything like that,” she said, adamant.
“Then what is it?”
She looked away, seeming to fix her gaze on one of the big rides, watching, with almost complete detachment, as a passenger-filled car moved up the first wooden hill.
“It’s hard to explain,” she admitted.
“There’s nothing wrong with having phobias if that’s what this is.”
“No, it’s one of those things…” her voice trailed off a moment. “Like I said, it’s probably better keeping it bottled up. It’s not really something that you can just uncork and put back in after.”
I was honestly baffled at what she was getting at. Part of me sensed she was giving me a way out, and maybe even hoping I would take it, but I was too curious not to go on.
“Try me,” I said. “People have told me plenty of odd things and they never affected me before. I promise I won’t be weirded out by what you say.”
“Okay,” she said. She sighed and then looked like she was gathering up her thoughts. “But you might not be able to keep that promise.”
She took a deep breath and then began.
“When I was young, I used to have this dream. Or at least that’s how I explain it to myself.” She spoke slowly, like she was carefully choosing her words. “I mean, if I say it’s a dream, well then that’s the only way I can make sense of it without getting completely spooked.”
I wasn’t sure what she meant by that, but I asked her to go on.
“So, it started when I was five or six years old, but my age isn’t really important. What is important is that in these dreams, I always see an older version of myself.”
“How much older?” I asked.
“Probably about the age I am now, but it’s hard to tell. Anyways, it always starts with me being seated in a roller coaster. The straps are secured, and the ride has already started because we’re in motion, somewhere at the start of that slow climb before the first big drop.” She takes a moment to look off into the distance. “I remember the view. On one side, it’s forests. Thick, green, seem to go on forever. On the other is a river, probably the Saint-Laurence, slow moving, glistening, and grey. It’s also always late evening, dusk, right before the sun sets. And my parents are there, seated in the row ahead of me, not because I recognise the back of their heads, but because I can feel they’re there.”
“So, the roller coaster climbs, and I inevitably get focused on our surroundings. I feel fine, comfortable even, maybe even a little excited, but then something changes. A feeling. I look around and suddenly my parents are gone, and so are the people in the rows around and behind me. The roller coaster is still moving, still climbing, but I’m the only passenger. I start to panic. I’m not supposed to be there alone, but I’m trapped in that seat, trapped on that route, taking me higher and higher towards some ridge I can’t see. I have this feeling that once we reach the top, there’s nothing on the other side. No tracks, no drop, just nothing. A sort of oblivion.”
“Then what happens?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” she said. “I never reach the top, never go over the other side, or anything like that.”
“So, you wake up?”
“No,” she shook her head. “It’s like there are some missing frames. I always have this memory of the dream, of having dreamed it, but there is never any memory of it ever ending, nor of waking up after.”
“Well, I mean it obviously ended right? You’re here right now.” I said, feeling more confused than ever.
“That’s the problem,” she said. “Other dreams have stayed with me all this time too. I can recall having them as dreams, of waking up after, or of what I did the next day. The same goes for memories of things I did. I remember experiencing them. Having lived them. Of doing them. But this dream, or whatever you want to call it, had none of those characteristics. It’s like it was something that happened and keeps happening and is still happening.”
“It must be your brain getting confused,” I suggested. “Maybe it’s a mix of childhood fears, odd memories, and other things, all blended together. Like, perhaps you did go to a roller coaster when you were young, but you also dreamed about it. Now, your mind can’t make sense of reality and unreality.”
“I wish it was. I’ve even tried to tell that to myself, but it doesn’t change anything,” she said, lowering her gaze. At that moment a slight breeze passed us by, rattling the leaves on some nearby bushes.
The two of us were silent for a moment. Normally she was so active, so full of life, but she sat there largely motionless, almost like a statue, or a painting of a person. The only thing that moved were her fingers, playing with the strap on her handbag.
It was then that I recalled that first conversion we had at the café, about people watching and how it made her uncomfortable. At the time I thought she was joking, just kidding around, but now I knew that was not the case.
“You’re feeling that right now,” I said. “Like you’re still in that roller coaster, stuck in that dream.”
“It’s always with me,” she said. “That’s why I’m never alone. Because when I am, it makes it easier to remember that feeling, that oblivion that’s just over the ridge.”
“Then let’s confront it,” I said. “We can face this dream or whatever it is together, right now, and prove to yourself once and for all there’s nothing to fear. Pick a ride, any one of them, and let’s see how it ends.”
“I…” she began, but then looked embarrassed, like continuing would somehow cause me to lose respect for her. “I can’t. In fact, it would be better if I headed home. Got as far away from this place as possible.”
“But that’s silly,” I said. “Don’t run away, let’s just –”
“I said, I can’t,” she repeated, her voice sounded harder than it ever had before.
She looked away while I sat there, unsure what to say next. I wanted to press her, to get her to come with me on a ride and finally overcome it, but the words got caught in my throat. Instead, we simply sat there at the picnic area, listening to the screams and roars from the other visitors carry by in the breeze.
Eventually, we stood up to go. Neither of us said anything, we both just knew it was time to go. When we passed the gates, the two of us stopped there a moment, not really making eye contact, having that awkward sort of moment like we had after our first date. For some reason, I didn’t invite her back to my place nor did she invite me out for a drink. Instead, we gave each other a hug and a quick kiss, the way we might before each of us rushing off to their respective classes back during the semester. I watched her head to the metro station, while I made some excuse about wanting to go check something out elsewhere on the island.
Walking along the waterfront, I couldn’t shake the feeling that day had left with me. I should have been more considerate with her feelings about the ride and the dream, but my thoughts kept returning to what she had said about that feeling of oblivion, of disappearing.
I stopped to look over at the Old Port and realised that somehow the evening had crept up. I wasn’t sure how much time I had spent sitting on the benches with Piril and how much I had spent walking, but there was still some daylight left and maybe half hour before the park closed.
I had to know for myself.
It took a bit of convincing at the gate, but they let me back in. I hurried my way over to one of the big rides at the back of the park with only minutes before closing. The place had quieted down, and there were no lines anymore. I took my seat a couple rows from the front where and waited as the last few stragglers took their seats in the rows around me.
There was a rattle, and then slowly the ride made its ascent up towards the first ridge. I shot a glance over my side, watching the ground push itself further below me. The last of the sun was like a squinting eye just above the horizon. I turned and saw the river, the dark waters glistening all around.
It was then that a feeling struck me. I turned my gaze back towards the front, expecting to see the backs of the heads of the people seating in the rows up front, but there was no one there. It was the same behind me, all the way back to the last row. Though I remembered seeing other people join me, now it was just me, all alone on this roller coaster that continued to climb like nothing was out of the ordinary. I looked again at the ground below, trying to spot any signs of life elsewhere in the park, but apart from the lights along the paths and walkways, there was no one. Not a soul.
I took a deep breath and calmed myself and tried to make sense of things. I must have been mistaken. I was the only one who queued up the ride, and the reason there was no one was that the park was closing any moment. I tried to remember how long it had been since Piril and I parted ways, what I had done earlier in the day, and the day before that. My thoughts inevitably turned to my empty apartment, and the places in my life where close friends and family could have been. To my surprise, I saw that there was nothing there, just shadows and cobwebs. Silhouettes of people I never knew, who had already disappeared before they came into view.
Or maybe I was the one who disappeared, not them.
We continued to climb the first hill, the ridge curving only a few feet ahead of me, before the track disappeared out of view and there was only sky. With a cool sort of resignation, I let it be. I loosened my shoulders and simply sat there on my roller coaster into oblivion, wondering whether like Piril if my life up until that point was all just a dream, and whether I would ever wake up.