Where the Heart Is: Ottawa's cold grows warm in my memory

Ottawa is freezing, at least that’s what I say when people ask about it.

“Well, the weather is certainly different.”

Surface skimmed, interaction passed. Coworker, acquaintance, friend.

They nod, “I bet.”

If I am truly honest with myself, Ottawa isn’t that cold — it grows warmer in my memory the longer I am away.

Home is complicated, and my heart is buried like time capsules all around the nation’s capital.

I think I say Ottawa is freezing because the cold is easier to remember — it lasts longer on your skin and it’s easier to digest than sweltering summers where I bit off more than I could chew.

The plane ride is five hours one way and six the other. Instead of hours, I count my journey home by the number of times I imagine pushing the emergency exit door open at the exact midpoint between Ottawa and Vancouver and throwing myself out so I never have to make up my mind about where home is ever again.

Like I said, home is complicated.

When I went to Catholic school, I’d sit in the chapel and pray my quiet contempt for the world around me — for the suburb that I lived in, for the broken basketball net outside, for the feeling of my teeth cutting the inside of my cheek after a fist hit my face for the first time.

In my infinite Thirteen-Year-Old Wisdom, I knew I wanted to leave Ottawa, to become the gravitational centre of my own world. I never wanted anyone to look at me again — I wanted to go somewhere big enough to disappear into swaths of people who looked and spoke just like me.

Though I spent my free time in the chapel, I didn’t believe in God then. I believed in the University of Toronto’s promotional material on my Instagram and its ability to take me far, far away.

Or at least a six-hour drive away.

I’ve always been an anywhere-but-here kid. New York, Paris, San Francisco. Anywhere important people lived in movies and TV. Anywhere people said art and culture were.

I’d barely looked around my own backyard before I moved to the West Coast, maybe I was scared of what I might find. Maybe I was scared I would love the familiar cracks in the concrete or the permanently under-construction parliament buildings.

In Ottawa, I’ll always be sixteen spinning figure eights around the Catholic school parking lot, wine drunk or pretending to be. There, I’ll always be something I know how to be, something easy, slipping in and out of myself like a well-worn sweater.

And because of that, Ottawa’s bitter cold mocked me, seeping into my shoes after sinking my foot into the bottom of a slushy puddle and freezing my wet hair in spikes around my face.

I’m unsure if I ran from the closed fist and mind of Catholic education or myself.

It was hard to love a place that freezes your fingers until they can’t move, that beats your body blue. And when I say Ottawa is freezing I think of those days where the cold doubled down on my misery.

Nonetheless, my heart — or at least one of its beating atriums — is buried in the backyard of the house I lived in with the red garage door.

But spring came early the year I had my first kiss with a girl I briefly loved and when my dad would drive me to Baskin Robbins and the ice cream would melt down my wrists in the summer heat.

Still, I don’t usually say I love Ottawa. But I did and I do — I loved the people I met, the long sunny suburban stretch my friends and I would walk down in high school and the cupcakes at the bakery my mom liked to take me to when I was sad.

I think I still love everyone I have ever loved.

I think the city’s big cranes can actually look pretty when the sun sets downtown.

I can separate the people from the city, say I love them but hate the place they are from — but that would be a lie. To love them is to love the crucible they were forged in, to love them is to love the same snowbanks I resentfully trudged through for most of the year.

I can’t love them despite the city, knowing the kind of person it takes to come out the other end, corroded and smoothed like a rock on the shore. Ice soaked shoulders, frozen feet. That the warmth inside them needs to burn hotter and louder than the tundra wind numbing their cheeks.

I love them because of it, because of all the things I tried to hate, all the things I left behind.

Home is complicated. I’m from the over-salted sidewalks outside of the public library, from the triple knotted laces of the second girl I ever loved and from my high school auditorium watching the lights go down and the world begin and end a million times.

I wish I could say moving across the country made me definitively know where home is. I wish there was a big red pin on a map where I could stake my heart, where I could trace it back to.

So instead, I’m now filling in the negative space around home, feeling out what it isn’t before I know what it is. I am starting to think I’ll spend most of my young adult life doing that, cutting and running and sewing and pasting, throwing parts of myself at the wall to see what sticks.

Ottawa, Ontario is three hours ahead of Vancouver, and my mom sleeps while I watch the sunset. And I know that when I last drove past my old high school with my best friend, I asked her to slow down.