2016 has been a tough one, no denying. Still, I keep hope, because the alternative is too depressing to bear. In the spirit of sharing hope, my gift to you is one of my favourite holiday memories. Enjoy.
Valentine Davies was serving in the coast guard in 1944. He had a shy smile, a receding hairline and an impressive nose. He also had a story that started as a question. What would the real Santa think if he entered a department store and saw how commercial his season had become?
Writers know that speculating outcomes to impossible scenarios is a great substitute for inspiration. It’s more reliable too. From Valentine’s question came a short story and then a movie, Miracle on 34th Street. It was a childhood favourite of mine; a film where a young girl was allowed to be clever, a film that confirmed my existing bias that miracles were real.
I was living in a group home in 1996 when I met a boy. He had a shy smile, a receding hairline and an impressive nose. He had captivating hazel eyes and a wonder that he applied to every pursuit. He carried hope like it weighed nothing at all. We met in a mall. My newly minted cynicism and his unqualified optimism slid comfortably together
In February, we saw the re-release of The Empire Strikes Back. He was so excited, he shook the whole row of theatre chairs. By the end of it, we were dating. By that evening, we were living together.
Our Eglinton walk-up apartment, shared with a roommate, was my first safe home. We painted our bedroom bright yellow and squeezed in to a single bed. I bounced my madness off his serene strength, painting goddesses on the wall next to his posters of punk bands and space cowboys. I sidled up to happiness and flirted with it, wondering if we could put our differences aside.
By June, we were homeless.
I had experience with scarcity, but for him it was all new. Still, when family offered to take him in – if he was willing to leave me behind – he refused. I convinced him to use what money we had to rent a storage room for a year.
“Take everything that matters and pack it up. That way, when it’s all done, we won’t be starting with nothing.”
With our possessions homed, though we were not, we discovered the city. Some nights we stayed up, wandering Toronto’s PATH system like priests in the Roman catacombs. Vagrancy in Toronto, like burial in those ancient city limits, was illegal, so down we went, hiding from the elements, walking until our legs ached. The tile echoed our voices back, a call and answer with each whisper.
Friends took us in for a day, a week, when they could. We carried two backpacks each, one on the front and one on the back, with clothes, food, notebooks for my poetry, whatever we might need. My experience proved less valuable than his buoyancy, as he made a game of washing our hair in the park or resting in primary-coloured climbers behind schools. He declared the sidewalk to be lava and made it from the Eaton Centre to CityTV without touching down once.
For my birthday, he took me to an outdoor movie, playing for free at Nathan Phillips Square. We stretched out on the cement, our disheveled appearance easily mistaken for grunge cool. He gave me a Blues Traveller CD.
“For when you have a place to play it.” He said it like a promise.
For his birthday two weeks later, I bought a box of powdered mini-donuts and put a candle in each one. I gave him a twenty-five cent vending machine toy for every year he’d been alive, with a note slipped in each enumerating the ways I loved him.
We tried to find work, but without an address or a phone, it was difficult. We tried to get welfare, but seeking help was a rat maze with no promise of cheese at the end.
If homelessness during a Toronto summer is hard, homelessness during a Toronto winter can be deadly. As November’s gloom crept in, we relied more heavily on friends with empty couches and floors, finding the edges of generosity. His college acquaintances proved our most consistent benefactors. Many nights we ended up at the Parkdale rental of Alex, a computer programmer, and Zeus, a TV tycoon in the making.
We were occupying their couch when Santa came to Toronto. Despite having lived in the city my whole life, I had never seen the parade.
“Let’s do it!” He cast off our circumstances with a speed I could not match.
Using precious tokens, we traveled downtown. The streets were full of children stuffed into snowsuits, parents hopping foot to foot against the cold. He found us a perch atop a fence and we cuddled close, borrowing seasonal spirit from the gathered crowd.
“Look!” He shouted with each new float, pointing out details, flaws, bits of whimsy.
We laughed at the creepy upside-down clowns, boogied to the marching bands and clutched hands in anticipation of the man himself. When Santa finally came, we cheered through chattering teeth, caught up in the shared fairy tale.
After the parade, we pooled our change for hot cocoa and walked through Queen’s Park, teasing squirrels and making up stories about statues. I kissed him a hundred times, wanting to set the moment, make it official with a stamp that said “This we get to keep.”
It took one day for our sugar plum visions to crash up against reality. Sucking on candy canes tossed out by minor celebrities and city politicians, we attended our last appointment at YouthLink. We were aging out of their counseling demographic, something I had experienced before. I cried, always finding easier access to sorrow than he did. He ground his teeth and flipped through newspapers in the waiting room. He zoned in on the Help Wanted and For Rent sections, assuring me that one of us would find work soon.
Out of ideas and seeking some extension of the previous day’s fantasy, I opened one of my notebooks to a blank page. He read over my shoulder as I wrote.
Dear Mr. Santa Claus,
My name is Heather. I’m not a kid, but I do have something I want. My boyfriend and I are homeless right now, so I’m writing to ask for a home for Christmas.
I figure, if it can work for the kid in Miracle on 34th Street, it can work for me.
We asked the receptionist, a sympathetic woman with a cigarette-stained laugh and seasonal nail art, for an envelope and stamp.
“I hope you get what you asked for.” She patted my hand.
We walked back to Alex and Zeus’ apartment, dropping the letter in a mailbox on the way.
It was Alex, who had patiently accepted our intrusion on his orderly life, who helped me find a job. When his work was looking for data entry clerks, he made sure I was one of the first people interviewed. Though my pay was small, it was enough for us to start looking for an apartment.
Our Christmas day was spent as our summer had been, wandering the PATH system, enjoying empty shops still lit up for the holidays. The sparkle had outlasted the celebration.
On New Year’s Day, we found a place. It was a basement under a Chinese food restaurant that had roaches and mold and ground level windows that drunken passers-by peed through if they were left open. The buzzer still said Meryn Cadell, proof that I was not the first poet to live there. It was $500 a month. We took it and made it ours.
I opened our mailbox close to Valentine’s Day to find an envelope with a white bearded man on the front. The return postal code was H0 H0 H0. Inside was a standard form letter from Santa Claus, as created by Canada Post. On the back were a few lines, hand-written in blue ink.
I hope you find a home for Christmas. Maybe there’s a service that can help? I am thinking about you and hoping for the best.
I showed it to my love, who started to laugh.
“I guess we did get this place right around Christmas, didn’t we?”
But I am a writer and writers know that speculating outcomes to impossible scenarios is something like inspiration. Somewhere out there, a person had written a response and had held on to it until we popped up in the address book. That person had answered our letter, despite the fact that it had no return address.
He grinned like a kid who’d just seen a very convincing mall Santa.
I smiled, imagining a person opening our letter, reading it with compassion and picking up a blue pen.