Ennui in the City, or; When It Seems Like a Good Idea to Wander Around Calgary in the Middle of the Night


I haven’t been able to sleep lately, and since school has ended I’ve run into a streak of depression. I dread going to bed. No matter how tired I am, I just lie there for hours. Lately, I’ve got in the habit of waking up and working on my laptop in the middle of the night, finally sleeping at 4 or 5 AM until 10 or noon and feeling miserable the next day. Melatonin and sleeping pills have helped temporarily, but my mind is too resilient to be shut down.

Nighttime, depression, and a mind that won’t quit is not really an ideal situation. I feel crushed by the world around me and, for a moment, I feel that pressure materialize as a physical sensation. I snap out of it. How did the world get this way? I had so many hopes for what the future would be like and it didn’t involve me lying in a messy apartment questioning my life and future. I think about the pile of dishes on the counter and think maybe I would feel better about myself if I used my insomnia to finish them. But I’m feeling really tired and have been lying awake for an hour already – maybe I’ll get lucky and fall asleep within the next hour and I don’t want to mess up the chances of that happening.

I lie awake some more, thinking about what I need to make myself feel better. Why do I feel so bleak? I try thinking about the last time I felt good about discovering something new. I remember the joyful pain of discovering feminism – how it answered so many of the questions I had in life, how I felt hopeful for a new start, a new sense of self worth. I felt on top of the world, like the curtains had been pulled away and I could see things as they really were. I felt excited for life. Now that knowledge crushes me further. Each new thing I learn about the world doesn’t bring wonder or excitement, but a sense of exhaustion. I feel like I know too much.

Travel. I need to travel, I think. I remember the sensation of swimming in the Mediterranean Sea at sunset. Of exploring the back alleys of Tel Aviv. The golden gilding of the cathedral in Jerusalem. I need the feeling of discovering something beautiful.

Maybe I need to go for a walk. What is my city like in the middle of a Tuesday night? I don’t have the luxury of being spontaneous and booking a random plane ticket and “finding myself” like they do in the movies. I’m married. I have two nieces I need to be able to babysit so my sister can work. I have classes. I don’t have my own money. Rich people say I’m just making excuses for not living my life to the fullest. Fuck them.

This is a dumb idea. What do you think you’re doing? Are you going to find the meaning of life in the streets of Kensington at 3 AM on a Wednesday morning? I don’t know or care – I just want something more interesting than lying in bed with my own depressing thoughts for another hour.

I slowly move out of bed, trying not to wake my partner. I grab a pair of leggings and a tank top out of a laundry basket. In the living room there’s my pullover hoodie. I grab my purse. I secretly hope I’ll find someplace open that I can get a drink, or maybe a convenience store where I can get some cigarettes. I’m not a big drinker and I don’t smoke, but either of those things seem like an appropriate thing to end up doing tonight.

I grab my winter jacket, slip on some tennis shoes and very carefully open the front door. I don’t want to freak my partner out by just leaving in the middle of the night. I contemplate leaving a note in case he wakes up, but he’s one of the lucky ones who can sleep through the night.

I step outside and the cold air hits my ears. I regret not bringing a toque. I throw up my hood. My jacket is heavy black wool and the hood is pointed. As I start walking towards the main road, I think about how lucky I am that I can do something like this looking the way I do and probably be fine. I think about the damning consequences of hoods. I think about Trayvon Martin. I think about how safe I am. My heart is heavy and thankful at the same time.

And then I don’t feel so safe. I look out at the street and notice how empty it is. This is how people disappear – in the middle of the night. Nobody is around to notice. In my giant jacket and hood I am still aware of my pixie cut and girlish face. I am an idiot, I think. Is there any discovery worth putting myself in a vulnerable position like this? I grab my keys and weave them through my fingers, feeling a bit better. I remind myself that I have walked through Kensington late at night countless times. And then I think of all the much more dangerous things I have done when I was much younger and more naive. I calm down and start to enjoy my walk.

What am I looking for? I take a few Snapchat photos of things that look interesting, but delete them shortly after. Graffiti on a construction site. A wire fence. What is this? This is not profound or beautiful, it’s just random stuff.

I notice a flashing light that says “tattoos piercings.” I take a video Snapchat. I like it. I’ve never noticed it before. And then a potted plant with an umbrella covering it. It seems so absurd and cute.

I walk across to the river. There are benches and lights everywhere lighting up the trees. I look out at the river. It’s beautiful, the way the light glistens on the waves and ripples. The current makes beautiful designs. I’ve always loved water and realize I haven’t appreciated the river in my own city enough. I think about why I don’t like walking by the river during the day: it’s the people. The bikers, joggers, dog walkers, the noise of the traffic. Right now it feels like the river exists only for me.

I look behind me and notice a tree that has a perfect nook I immediately determine to climb. But before I can, a man on a bike whizzes by and stops at the promenade not too far away from where I stand. I am upset at him for ruining this moment I feel entitled to. I walk towards the promenade and debate going up to him and asking why he’s here. Maybe it’s my depression and lack of sleep, but I think maybe we’re supposed to meet and have a moment. Why else would someone come to the river at 3:30 AM?

I walk past the promenade and circle around to a bike path that runs below the promenade. I look up at the man and notice he is smoking. Dammit, I would love to smoke.

“What are you doing here this late?” I call up to him. He responds in broken English that he just came for a smoke. I feel let down that its not some young person I can talk to. I realize how absurd it is that I desperately want to romanticize this walk, but it doesn’t seem to be turning out as romantic as I want it to be.

I keep walking below the tenth street bridge. There are quotes lit up in lights everywhere. I never come here at night, I’ve never seen these words lit up the way they are now. They look really nice. I look up above me and see large block letters sticking out of the wall that say SOLACE. Well, if I were a screen writer with no subtlety, I would definitely write something like that into a script. What is the protagonist looking for? SOLACE. As trite as it seems, it’s not exactly wrong. I’ll take it. I try to take a photo but there’s not enough light. This is not for me to share right now.

I look ahead at the two pedestrian bridges ahead: a narrow bike path below the c-train bridge, and the glowing Peace Bridge further down. I think about nice it would be to walk along the bridge and look down at the water, but how dark it is on both sides of the bridge. I would be in downtown, more unfamiliar territory for a nighttime walk.

Before I can decide, the man with the bicycle rides up to me and dismounts, walking his bike alongside me. Great, I think, you wanted to have a new moment with a stranger, but this isn’t a movie or a TV show. This is a moment you have had many many times before, having to strategically ward off advances of middle aged men. We walk along the path making small talk, myself trying to understand his broken English. He lives in Sunnyside. He works long hours for his friend in Okotoks. He often comes out here to smoke. Tonight is a lot nicer with me here.

I turn around and say I should head home and he swings his bike around to keep walking with me. “You live in Sunnyside?” “Yeah,” I say, even though I actually live in Hillhurst. A bike ramp to a pedestrian bridge is ahead, I start walking up, he walks beside me. “Well, have a good night!” I say as I quickly backtrack off the ramp and back onto the path. The ramp is too narrow for him to conveniently swing his bike around and I feel a sense of pride at being able to outsmart him.

He resigns himself to keep walking up the ramp and across the bridge, finally taking the cue. I cross the street at the intersection ahead and duck into a side street and head home.

My body is slowly realizing that holy hell it’s 4 am and you are out for a walk why. Before I make my way home I notice a tiny bird making tiny adorable sounds.

I slip back in my apartment, being very careful to not wake my partner. I’m not quite ready for bed yet. I need another moment, as if the entire walk wasn’t enough experience to have in the middle of the night.

I sit down on the couch, put on my headphones and listen to one of my favourite songs, REALiTi by Grimes. I close my eyes. Oh baby, every morning there are mountains to climb / taking all my time away / I wake up this is what I see / welcome to reality. I want a different message, but this is it. Even genius musicians who I dream of being face the same drudges of daily life. I guess that’s it, then. The song is comforting.

So what did I discover that night on my ill thought out 3 am walk? What romanticized meaning do I now assign to it? Not much, only that for a brief moment in time, I felt the city was mine. This city which often gives me the feeling of claustrophobia of cement walls and glass ceilings and ten dollar bottles of juice – for moments tonight, I feel like it is here for me. I know when I wake up that feeling will be gone.

This post was originally written May 13, 2015.


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