“Kingwell” (postcard and other stories)

Last night I had my fifth Mark Kingwell dream. I had my first one about a year ago, the next one about six months later, and the others in rapid succession. Last night, he was interrogating me, not in the capacity of a professor-student role, but more like we’d had a discussion as friends, and I had played the devil’s advocate a little too inadequately for his taste. Which is weird, because Kingwell’s not my friend. I don’t even know him. I don’t remember all of the dream, just that I was suddenly aware, as though outside of myself looking in, that I was dreaming about him and then suddenly I was inside myself again, looking at him while he was deep into his diatribe of the hermeneutic circle of authenticity or something.

I do remember this, though—the whole thing ended with him suddenly kissing me.

Yeah, I kissed him back.

So I’m in love with him. Does that matter? You don’t know who I am. It would be easy for you to say, You’re not in love with him, you’re in love with his brain, his image, his media punditry, but you don’t know that I was his neighbour once—for about a year and a half—and that I happened to be reading his treatise on happiness while I was falling out of love with one person and in love with another (no, not him), so that changes everything, doesn’t it? Good.

To clarify, I am no longer his neighbour, and am no longer in love with the person I was falling in love with when I was reading that treatise on happiness. To clarify even further, I am no longer living in the same city as Mark Kingwell—in fact, I now live in a place that has no hope of ever harbouring someone like him, though it has other, more aesthetically pleasing qualities. I live in the foothills of the Rockies, just outside of Calgary. From my cabin, I stare at snow-covered peaks all day, listen to the Elbow River run below a quiet highway and worry about things like cougar tracks and how much wood I’ll have to chop before the storm they’re calling for hits. And books. Where to get books out here? I read fiction and philosophy, mostly. Here, in this place, I am a less intense (if she’s intense at all) version of Annie Dillard. I like her, too, though I’ve never had a dream about her in which she kisses me.

I like it out here, but I miss Toronto sometimes—not so much the city itself (out here I have to apologize for being from there, and really have to work at punching through a presumption of elitism or frivolous unconscious demand that Torontonians seem to emit)—but its specific intellectual nature, which seems to be prized only by excessively self-conscious Torontonians. I’m a book designer — freelance, which means that even in Toronto I was able to work at home, and that my moving out here did not so much disrupt the amount of work I had as it did my visibility in the publishing scene. And Toronto is a city where visibility is paramount. Which is mostly why I left. To try my hand at hiding for a while, to see how it fit. In any case, I miss it sometimes, and that’s probably why I had that dream about Kingwell last night. I’ve been out here for about six months now, and lately, I’ve been feeling a bit out of the loop, as Torontonians are prone to do when away from Toronto for any length of time. I spent the winter in my cabin, in all this silence, reading and absorbing other people’s great ideas, notions, transcendences above the norm (in books brought from Toronto), and there’s no one to talk about them with. Except Bob, the older guy who owns the hardware store in town, ten clicks down the river. He once ran away with a young, nubile, European thing and understands thinking of the non-cookie-cutter kind. But even he thinks I’m a little crazy. He asked me once, while we were having coffee in the back of his store, what I thought about going out for dinner, and I went off on some tirade about it being a way to merely apply a template of romance to one’s life—about how “dinner and a movie” was really what a friend of mine calls “indiscriminate rigmarole” and how could those things possibly express a level of interest in someone that was superior to any other person you’d engaged in those very same activities with? And what did any of it signify? He finished his coffee in silence. It was only on my way back home that I realized that he’d asked me out on a date. And that I needed to get out and talk to people more.

Out here, they call Toronto “the dot.” I’m not sure why. District of Toronto? Because it’s the biggest (and simultaneously most revered and resented) dot on our map? Because that’s all it means west of Stratford? A dot? In any case, it’s interesting to view Toronto from a place that really doesn’t give a shit about it. Because that’s exactly how the dot feels about the rest of Canada. A self-perpetuating prophecy. Or at least lots of noise playing back on itself in a big, giant loop. Feedback.

But if you’re not from the dot, and don’t read any of the “national” (read: dot-centric) newspapers and magazines, you may not know who Kingwell is. He’s young. He’s über-hip. He’s a philosopher. Seriously. An honest-to-God live one. And if you’re not from the dot, you may not know that for people from Toronto, it’s important to make distinctions about who you know. Not only because that is just its style—you hang on to the name of every person you’ve met, because you may need their collaboration (in a creative, business-like kind of way) one day, or at the very least their help to get you further in some way—but because it’s a big city, and so the likelihood of having an encounter with celebrity seems like a long shot, until you realize how many celebrities live in Toronto. I mean, Prince just bought a house there, for Christ’s sake. But, as stated, this seems only important to Torontonians. And if you are one of those Torontonians, you know that your chances of meeting an intellectual celebrity in a neighbourhood called The Annex are greater than meeting a janitor, or a housewife, or a baker or a plumber there. I lived in The Annex. So does Kingwell. We were sandwiched in between Jane Jacobs and Stuart McLean and Naomi Klein, right across the street from Judy Rebick, though those names only mean something if you live in Toronto, as much as Torontonians like to think that there’s a greater, ironically national-type importance attached to them.

Well, OK, technically speaking, we (Kingwell and I) did not live in The Annex. We were a few houses west of Bathurst, the official demarcation of The Annex/Not-The-Annex, but really, what’s a few houses? We were in a neighbourhood called Seaton Village which, to our credit, was less expensive and even cooler than The Annex for a number of reasons (but only to Seaton Villagers): partly because The Annex was a place where it was impossible to live without employing that Toronto trait of needing to mention that you lived there and partly because Seaton Village was a place where those people who really knew how to sniff out a good place to live in Toronto lived. I lived in a crazy, maze-like building that was once alternately the Seaton Village municipal building and an asylum for the insane, pre-999 Queen Street West. Which will mean nothing to you if you grew up here, in the foothills of Alberta, or anywhere outside a hundred-mile radius of the dot.

At that point, I didn’t know much about Kingwell. I had heard his name in conjunction with U of T a couple of times, and, in that typically Toronto fashion, hung on to the connection even though it was useless to me outside of potentially connecting the dots in a party conversation on which I might be eavesdropping. And if you work in publishing in Toronto, you know how many parties there are, and how many of them consist entirely of conversations more laden with names than actual words. It’s surreal, almost like that scene in “Being John Malkovich” when Malkovich is inside his own head, except that the names change. Now that I think about it, it’s amazing that I never saw Kingwell at one of those.

Regardless, I certainly didn’t know what part of the city he lived in. I had just picked up his book on happiness, but I can’t remember what drew me to it. Perhaps the fact that I was, to a great degree, depressed and elated simultaneously for the first time in my life. It was like being at both ends of the pendulum at once, and I tend to buy books blindly when in either one of those states, let alone both at the same time. Or maybe I just liked the idea of a philosopher. A good-looking one, just a handful of years older—enough to be attractive in a flawed, wiser-than-thou sort of way. In other words, a tangible, graspable one. Even if he was married. Socrates may have been cute for all I know, but really, what good was that to anyone, on the other side of the world, 2400 years later? So. Seaton Village. Apartment #7 in the former asylum. A sunny, unseasonably cold afternoon in September. Falling out of love and in love at the same time. Lying in bed reading Kingwell’s book. He makes a reference to living near a certain intersection. I put the book down, hear the traffic rumbling through that certain intersection. I close my eyes and feel my heart stop. I take a deep breath. I start going through all the houses on my block in my head, and stop at the fourth one. That kind of brown, bricky one. Looks like all the others, really, in this area—a typically Toronto Annex house—tall and old and with some character, but not as Annex-y as some because, after all, we are in Seaton Village, which has more cement and cheap iron railings and phrases shouted in Italian and Portuguese. And Holy Christ, suddenly I’m his neighbour. I put the book away and listen to the traffic from that intersection and determine to spend the rest of the afternoon dreaming about him, until I remember the prism-like cast of my predicament. The blue of an ending relationship, the red of one just beginning and the blinding refraction of the proximity of celebrity that I hadn’t even been aware of ten minutes before.

I think it was the whole notion of being a philosopher that intrigued me. I mean, how many philosophers do you meet in your life? And how do you go about casting aside those images of Socratic circles and togas that pop up in your head? It’s sort of like getting to know a nun. You really want to, but you don’t know how to go about it. And so I became obsessed with merely catching a glimpse of him. When I walked past his house, I’d imagine the glare gone from his windows and hope to arrest a view of the corner of a bookshelf warping under the burden of Russell, Kierkegaard, Spinoza, Descartes, Rousseau and a million other philosophers I knew I’d never read before I died. My, an existential thought. Must be contagion.

Personal sightings were few. He walked past once when I was in the laundromat around the corner, and I went out and watched him continue down the street, just to make sure. A couple of times I saw him sitting on his front step, reading thin, dense books and watching his cat pick its way through the flower bed. And while those incidences were certainly educational in terms of learning just how quickly my heart could pick up pace, they were not as telling as what I saw when I didn’t see him. Which was, namely, an empty house.

Rarely a light on. Never him with anyone, which, for a philosopher, might not be as unusual as for someone with a more traditional job in Toronto, but nevertheless, when I walked by his house and looked at it, it felt as though it needed someone else in there with him. And the funny thing was, the more I read his book, which was an occasionally personal book, and the more one love replaced itself with another love, the more I thought to myself that there seemed to be a blindness to it, or, no, again a refraction—of a certain light coming in and him deflecting it to the other subjects despite the personal aspect to his treatise. Let me cut to the chase. About a third of the way through the book, and I don’t know why (though reasons became apparent later on), I remember thinking, “My God, his marriage is falling apart.”

Now, about that same time, it should have been obvious to me that my very own relationship with my newly instated lover was also doomed to disaster, but we stretched it out over eight more months and even an ocean. Just to make sure.

Which is neither here nor there, really—just proves my point about the ease of distraction at moments when one can least afford to be distracted, that’s all. And reveals a certain empathy for our hero. The key to our respective happinesses, or at least contentednesses, lying in the very places we were ignoring.

Anyhow, a few months later, a few months after the breakup that should have happened before the relationship even started, I was at a dinner party at a friend’s place (not in The Annex), and after all of the wine had been tucked away and everyone had left, I was helping her clean up and she was telling me about her new roommate, who wasn’t there that night. (She worked at U of T, she said, but was doing research somewhere in Central America for the next few months.) It’s great, she said, she’s never around. She’s either at the university 24/7, or in some other corner of the world. When did she leave? I asked. Oh, last week, she said, which reminds me—I have to drop off that envelope for her. I was drying the glasses. Actually, she said, it’s on your way home. Can you do it? Sure, I said. And we finished the dishes and I put on my jacket and she gave me the envelope and I tucked it inside and we arranged to meet for coffee later in the week and then we said goodbye.

It was late, but I decided to walk home anyway, so I pulled the envelope out and looked at it, to see how close this place was that I needed to drop it off at. There wasn’t quite enough light, so I walked down the street a bit and pulled the envelope out again under a street lamp. It said Mark K. The brown brick house’s address underneath. I looked up, thought for a minute, looked down at the envelope again. Just to make sure. I looked up and down the street to see if any-one else was around. And then I threw my hands up in the air and danced down the block. I ran the rest of the way home.

And so there I was, at two in the morning, standing outside Kingwell’s house. With a purpose. There was a light on in the back somewhere—I could see fingers of it slipping through to the front rooms. Now, clearly, I wasn’t going to go up and ring the bell, but I mention this merely because there was a big mail slot in his door, so the sensible, two-in-the-morning thing for me to have done would have been to slip the envelope through the slot and have that be that. Right. Are you kidding me?

I hung on to that thing for nearly a week. Because I wanted to make sure that he was home when I delivered it. I wanted to be able to say something to him. I didn’t have a clue what. But the next Saturday morning I woke up in a cheeky mood, and I figured, this is it. Do it now. So I had a shower, got dressed, decided not to have a coffee because I was jangly enough already. I walked out of Apartment 7, down the stairs and out of the former Seaton Village asylum. Cut across my lawn to Kingwell’s house. Walked up the steps. Rang the bell.

I heard something in the back. I looked away for a moment, out onto the street. Looked back when I heard the lock on the door flick back. There he was. I smiled at him through the glass. He looked back at me, opened the door, pushed out the screen, kind of tilting his head. “I have something here from a colleague of yours,” I told him. “Jane.” I held the envelope out and he looked at it blankly. Then he remembered and started nodding his head. “I…” I started.

“Thanks,” he said, opening the envelope and leaning back into his house so that the screen shut. I stood there. He had his back to me, pulling out papers from the envelope. Then he walked in, and kicked the door shut with the back of his foot. I looked away, out onto the street again. After a minute, I walked down the steps. I stood on the sidewalk for a while, facing the street, not sure I remembered which direction to turn to get home. Eventually, I decided on left and walked back to the former asylum. When I turned up the pathway, I looked back down the street toward Kingwell’s place. And there he was. Standing on the sidewalk with the papers in his hand, staring after me.

That night was the first night I dreamt about him.

Oh. I get it now.

Toronto.

T.O.

T-dot.

The dot.

My friend Bob, the one who owns the hardware store ten clicks down the river, says that thinking about things like love never got anyone any further with it; that you still have to go through the same basic moves—falling in love, getting disillusioned, then falling out of love or being mistreated—whether you’re philosophical about it or not, and that thinking about it doesn’t stop you from making the same mistakes again. Funny thing is, he’s one of the most pensive people I know. When he said that, I told him that he’d like reading Kingwell. He looked up at me for a while and then asked who Kingwell was.

I have his picture on my computer, Mark’s. It’s a goofy one, a leaning, grinning, shiny bald head. It comes up whenever I boot my computer, which is a laptop, so it comes with me everywhere I go. It’s a small picture, the size of half my thumb, and I have it there as a bit of a joke, mostly because I’ve read enough of what he’s written to assume he’d be mortified to know that his image pops up on someone’s screen every day. He writes about commodification of culture a lot, enough that it makes it funny for me to do this, or witty, at least. Though he might argue, in a devil’s-advocate kind of way, that true wit cannot be so blatantly manufactured, or thought out in such a Machiavellian fashion.

And out here, I have a lot of time to think about all of that. Out here, in all this physical and intellectual silence, where it’s impossible to care about something like The Annex except in moments of nostalgia, I think a lot about why he gets poked around in the press so much. The people who do the poking say he deserves it—he’s a media pundit, he brings it on himself—but if you look at it from his point of view, or perhaps, if you’ll excuse my amateur approach to philosophy, a little less presumptuously (from a Jungian/Freudian perspective, say), it’s a way for the journalist’s unconscious to relieve repressed feelings of intellectual inadequacy (read: threat). You could draw the conclusion that some journalists are insecure when another writer uses their medium to say valuable things, as opposed to using it to publish acerbic expositions on our fair philosopher king’s once- (voluntarily) bald head and goatee. And, clearly, they haven’t dreamt of Kingwell like I’ve dreamt of him. Kingwell didn’t finish his imaginary rant to them with a kiss. And they didn’t kiss him back. Or maybe he did and they did and that’s what’s bothering them. Maybe even a pen as penis (envy) kind of scenario. In any case, what it comes down to is this: he makes us think about things that are worth thinking about. And that’s threatening.

Because, I mean really, if you look at it, here’s a guy who writes a book on something we all think we know something about—happiness—and right off the bat he says forget about that because you really don’t. None of us does. And by the end of the book, which you figured he wrote to explain it, make it all a little more concrete, he’s deconstructed it to a point where you haven’t got a clue what happiness is anymore. It’s not a feeling, or an emotion—it’s this ephemeral state that has always, forever, been impossible for us to identify, namely because we’re obsessed with deconstructing it with a view to identifying it.

I have a friend who takes photographs. I want to say “not your average photographs,” but really what makes them not so average is how really average they are. They’re photographs of normal things—of a rock, a piece of wood, a window, a dead bird, maybe. The thing about her subjects is that they’re utterly ordinary, and she takes photos of them in an utterly ordinary way. No filters, no special lenses—she doesn’t even worry about composition. And you know what? She wins awards for these things all the time. It baffles her. It doesn’t baffle her husband so much (“Look,” he says, “obviously you take pictures of things that people can relate to… things that they thought were simple, but aren’t”), but it baffles her kids. Her most famous photograph is of her neighbour’s garage. It’s a pale-yellow garage, new, something he built himself, from a kit. Nothing special. And she says she was out on her porch one day, just after it had rained, and there was Lyle’s garage, kind of bubbly through the raindrops on her porch screen, the light all low and grainy. So she took a photo of it. With a disposable camera. And she’s constantly winning awards for this photo. She calls her kids up and says “I got another prize for Lyle’s garage,” and they all shake their heads. It really is an incredible photo. You look at it and you think, I’m looking at a garage. I am looking at a garage. And then you notice that it feels a bit out of focus, the photo, a bit blurry. And suddenly the raindrops on the porch screen draw themselves up to you and you can’t see the garage anymore. But still, it is a photo of a garage. And poor Lyle? He’s dead. Never got to see it. Which is kind of Socratic, in a way. It’s all Socratic, this whole damn thing.

So this dream I had last night. The fifth one. I don’t remember how we got there, but Kingwell and I are standing in this vacant parking lot somewhere in Toronto. It could have been somewhere around University and Richmond. And he’s ranting at me but I’m not really listening—I’m kind of more taking in everything around me… the fact that he’s in front of me ranting, the fact that we’re in a parking lot in Toronto, and because it’s empty, that has to mean that it’s really really early in the morning, but it’s light out and neither one of us is dressed all that warmly which must mean that it’s summer. So suddenly I start thinking I’m dreaming about Mark Kingwell and it’s the longest day of the year. And for some reason I keep repeating to myself, as though avoiding some sort of self-delusion or instinct toward mistrust, “everything is okay everything is okay everything is okay.” And I look at him and he stops talking mid-sentence and he looks back at me with those steely grey-blue eyes of his and he leans down and kisses me. On the lips. And I kiss him back. Yeah. When he pulls back, he’s opening his eyes. He looks at me for a moment longer, then says “What now, huh?” and then he looks down, takes a security card out of a pocket, turns away and walks towards the back of a building at the other edge of the parking lot. He flashes his card at a big steel door set flush with the building and walks in. I’m alone. I’m alone at quarter-to-six in the morning on the longest day of the year, the sky crisp and blue and the air cool and clean, like Alberta air. What now? not even having occurred to me.

Copyright © Anik See, 2009