Pine Barrens

I haven’t written anything in a very long time on this blog and my new year’s resolution for 2019 was to force myself to write something, even something short, every single day.

After all, how am I ever supposed to become the award-winning Netflix writer unless I give the gift of the gab a jolt of the keyboard on a Monday to Sunday frequency (that one was for you Kristinn Hrafnsson!). As I sat down to think about what to write about on this dreary, second week of January Wednesday – but still not first week of the year according to the saving principle of the Orthodox calendar, my thoughts abandoned me. Then, as I was perusing suburban Canadian cable television in all its glory, it hit me. Actually, it stared me down in the face straight across the room from a Samsung smart TV monitor. Pine Barrens.

It’s truly problematic when the first topic a person writes about as they are about to begin 2019 is their ex. Especially an ex of almost a decade ago. Or is it cathartic? Perhaps ‘pathetically- falletic’ fits the bill in this case. It was -9C outside, freezing rain pelted the streets of suburban Oakville, and my brooding over fair-white snowflakes falling on the beautiful city of Belgrade and upcoming New Year fun with my bestie was getting me down as Google flights kept increasing the price of my air ticket with each Chrome refresh. My significant other was all the way in Iceland, another Canuck friend wasn’t feeling like a Starbucks run, and it seemed like the only presentable option with 10:00pm EST about to roll in was green-tea, Netflix, dog and chill. I was feeling perfectly humbug, lethargic and pathetically-falletic with not much to do. There folks, you’ve now witnessed me craft a retrofit word out of an English lit term used to depict episodes in your life when the weather mirrors your emotions. Actually, I’m lying. The Webster’s definition states that it is a term used to attribute human feelings and emotions to inanimate objects and things, especially art and animals. Instead, I have bastardized it for my own selfish purposes. What a way to start the new year. I sighed, squiggled into the corner of the couch, dog on lap and piping green tea on coffee table and pummeled the arrow up button on the remote control with more tenacity than Serena Williams at a back-hand. Gloom and doom took over me. And then, just like that I froze. I couldn’t believe it. I sat up and hit the guide and info button on the sticky Bell remote control while a wry smile took over my face. What in God’s name could trigger memories of an ex from almost ten years ago you ask? Believe it or not binge-watching HBO.

About a decade ago I dated – better put: ‘squandered-time,’ with a man who I thought I was head over heels in love with at the time. Funny thing about relationships, you look back years later and you wonder how you could have been so stupid and what attracted you to the person in the first place? What were their defining qualities and characteristics? But as the adage goes, if you knew then what you know now, you’d both probably have been a lot better off if you had parted ways sooner. Be that as it may, a decade can go a long way in shaping a person and ten years ago he wasn’t just a boyfriend, he was more like the center of my very little world. Or so I allowed my mind to believe.

As with most ‘relationships,’ you lose yourself in them like a kid at a playground. You want the good times to last forever and you hang on to those good times when the seas of your ‘relation-ship’ become rough and wavy. Sometimes you put the good times on a pedestal they don’t deserve to be on. You know intuitively that they don’t deserve that pedestal, but it doesn’t matter. If your ship is to survive, sails and anchor intact, it’s best to preserve them and navigate the easier route, ignoring choppy waters and storms you can see forming from a distance. It’s easy to judge our ships from the vantage point of today. We all do it and it’s neither fair nor just. It’s the same process as examining history by applying the principles and standards of the present moment. One becomes a relationship-revanchionist.

I was neither happy nor content in the relationship. In all due fairness, neither was he. Yet we sailed along, hitting branches along the shoreline, lingering for a few months, then wading off when another current would propel us forward and so the ‘relations’ continued, uncharted and unmapped and utterly without direction. Sometimes the ship sailed full-steam ahead with all sails aligned, but more often it would sail alone, the Captain just as off course as the only other singular crew member onboard - myself. We were like the Titanic except we hit iceberg after iceberg and never managed to sink. We didn’t have the good fortune of a Carpathia to rescue us either so onward we sailed like goose in a fog. We just weren’t a good match, but every attempt by both parties to make a clean break never worked out as planned. By early 2010, we found ourselves in our mid-30s, sharing common friends, love and romance fading only to be replaced with a dependency on each other more from a work perspective than anything else. During this period, we often spent long hours together at one another’s apartments (probably to avoid dining alone) and to do the one thing which we both loved more than anything else at time – binge watching a particular television series to death. For us, that series was The Sopranos.

I’d like to believe I was the one who got him into the show, but it’s been so long that I cannot even remember. I only know I had been an avid fan of the show prior to meeting him and had binged it while working and living in the EU two relationships prior to him. I’ve always found that the odd thing about relationships is that when they end, and you’re filled with sorrow and heartache, you say to yourself you’ll remember everything about the person – every scent, every corner of their kitchen, every item on the coffee table and in the cupboard drawers. You’ll memorize every insignificant detail better than a treasure map or the wallpaper on your first childhood bedroom. But give it ten years and you struggle to even remember the color of the kitchen paint or which side the bedroom door faced.  

When I first met him, the only things he seemed to be interested in were Poland, conspiracy theories and UFC, something I abhorred (errr, UFC that is), but as with most people, I pretended I liked men-torturing-other-men-caveman-style to appease him and find a common banter for conversation. When it wasn’t UFC, his interests at least tended toward dramatic and crime-genre films and TV shows, which wasn’t too shabby as we usually landed on something we could watch together. I prided myself on introducing him to cable primetime network series and especially for forcing him to watch Mad Men, a show he genuinely got into and which we enjoyed together. All because of me. But it was The Sopranos, the famed HBO show about an Italian-American mafia head who struggles with panic attacks and anxiety while running an operation pitting two feuding families against each other, which really became our defining ‘thing.’

Nowadays I have trouble remembering the layout of his living room, which I swore to preserve in my memory after it all ended. The only thing I do remember was this great yellow couch. It was soft and big and unusual, in that no matter which side you sat on, there was ample leg-stretch room for two. The couch was the go-to-piece-of-furniture after a full day spent at our mediocre jobs, which at the time, we thought were uber important (note to self: far-from-it!). Popcorn, laughs, giggles, jokes, hugs, tidbits of gossip, world news, family news, the latest tech craze and the insightful fad had all been discussed on the safety of the big yellow couch. Numerous gin and tonics, Caesars, and gourmand platters of prosciutto and cheese had been sipped and nibbled on it and tremendous break-up fights and make-up hugs had been witnessed on it. The couch bore the stains of our relationship just as it had the small corner wine spill of girlfriends’ past, which, like Kramer he tried to hide by turning the cushion seat over. But if there was one thing that the big yellow couch was most remembered for it was the countless, wonderful nights where it sheltered and harbored us during hours of Soprano binge-watching.

We’d start at approximately 9:00pm on the evenings when HBO would air the series in back-to-back episodes and go until the wee hours of the morning, and wind up half-awake, hair dishevelled, plate-on-the floor, crumbles of cheese in those hard to vacuum corner bits, while we struggled to finish episode 5 at the God-forsaken hour of 2:30am EST. It was hard to wake up the next morning and get ready for work while shuffling around like silent zombies, yet nothing could deter us from the mediocre pleasure of four to five hours of straight sets with our favorite characters. After a while Tony may as well have made us Capo’s, so obsessed were we with the one-liners and life of Tony, Paulie, Chris and Silvio that you’d think David Chase had written the show just for us.

There was one episode in particular that had us racing home the minute we knew Rogers would air it in that week’s line-up. Pine Barrens. An episode that may as well have single-handedly won every Emmy award in the year it debuted. If you don’t believe me just Google it or stream this masterpiece on Why? Because its brilliant, genius and bona-fide, grade-A script-writing from beginning to end.

The plot summary: Chris and Paulie are sent on a simple mission by Tony to collect some dough from Slava, T’s Russian-doppelgänger. Instead, in typical Paulie Walnuts style, a simple collection-day turns into a horror show when the Russian they extort payback from attacks them for destroying his remote control. Chris’ attempt to avenge Paulie are met with anger by said Russian who is then wacked by both men before being wrapped in a wall carpet, slung into the trunk of a car, and deposited in a south Jersey frozen woodland. It’s only when they get to the proposed burial site – Pine Barrens, a remote park reminiscent of Algonquin to south Jersey, that they discover the Russian is still alive, multiple head wounds, slashes and all. As the Siberian giant is marched off to an execution site and forced to dig his own grave, my ex and I would howl with laughter at the Russian-to-English translation as he eyes Chris and Paulie with discontent and a blue moon in his eye: “You cocksuckers! I wash my balls with frozen ice!” What follows is a second botched murder attempt with the Russian running through the woods with the same ease and finesse as Federer finishing off Nadal, barefoot, barely dressed and oblivious to the sub-zero temperature of his surroundings, while a stunned and frozen-to-the-bone Paulie and Chris are left shoeless and totally in disbelief at their unkillable Rasputin. They’ve also got a lot of explaining to do for T, who is none impressed and doesn’t know what to tell Slava. “This guy better not come back to tell his story, you got me?!,” yells Tony into a 2001 unreliable Siemens handset that can barely hatch onto signal. “Slava tells me he was some commando in Chechnya. He killed 17 people and was in the elite unit!” On the other end of a poor cell phone reception in lower New Jersey, Paulie looks at a bleeding and concussion-shaking Chris and exclaims “No shit? Tony says this guy was an interior decorator. He killed 17 Czechoslovakians!” ….” Fuck me,” says Chris. “His apartment looked like shit.”

This incredibly well-scripted exchange would have both my ex and I at the edge of our seats and howling with laughter, literally punching the big yellow sofa cushions while wiping back tears. The Russian was someone we could totally relate to as we were both Slavic and we all knew characters in real-life as funny and primitive as Chris and Paulie. We’d re-watch the episode so often that at some point we knew the entire scene by heart, repeating the lines even before the actors did and laugh just as much the 330th time as we did the first time.

Fond memories of watching this series and this particular episode prevented me from watching the show after we broke up. This mimicked my behaviour with many things to come. Following the break up, my German-half was fully unleashed (although Croatians are just as volatile, especially Dalmatians). I’d still linger about in the same area we lived in, hoping to catch a glimpse of him, hoping for a reconciliation. Pathetic. Sometimes visit the same restaurants, and so it went on. Try self-inflicted wounds and torture and then tell me how long you last. But about a year after we finally broke up for good, he did something so unforgiveable that I stopped all these behaviours cold turkey. After about three years I stopped visiting the same area we lived in and the city of Toronto altogether. Then I enforced the no-go policy, meaning no visits to the same conjugal happy places ever again – none of the old restaurants that you used to visit with your ex, coffee shops, bookstores, brunch venues, parks, shopping malls, common outings and so on and so on. As television genres switched, I no longer had to avoid HBO and was free to watch what I chose. It’s now been over six years since I have last seen him, just casually walking on a street, and I don’t even remember what he looks like anymore. Every item or gift he ever gave me has been purged or re-gifted, every email erased, every photograph deleted (and in the case of prints – burned). Four years ago, I made the wonderful decision to cut off the last remaining common friend. It didn’t even hurt as much as I thought it would and with that, all ties to him were finally and totally severed. The one thing that couldn’t be cut however, were memories or the odd reminders.

A few years after the break-up, I entered and then ended a relationship with a German man who to this day I count as a very close friend, confidante and mentor. He encouraged my writing as more than just a hobby whereas my old ex had scoffed at it and on my occasions even belittled it. Parting ways on uber friendly terms with the German man made me realize that other than my acrimonious Polish ex, I had stayed on good terms with every past boyfriend prior to and since. A previous Polish ex is still a lifelong friend and confidante, as are his wife and children, who also happen to be neighbours in the Toronto suburb close to my family home. He’s also my tax accountant and a genuinely wonderful human being (and you never want to piss off your tax accountant!). The Croat ex prior to him is also dear to my heart and a person I regularly see during just about every annual visit to the Motherland. The ex prior to him was the first big love of my life and he passed away at the very young age of 53 much to the shock of many in October of 2018. His death came as a blow to me, because although we had parted on not so great terms in 1997, I would still nod hello when I ran into him twenty years later, even though words were never exchanged. The passing of this man, Franz, made me think about past ex’s and particularly the one I never speak to and with whom I never shall. But just as with far away countries and the benefit of an ocean of space, so too did I gain in distancing myself from Canada vis-a-vis virtually obliterating any memory of my decade old ex from my mind. Until recently.

In the past few years, a healthy and happy relationship with myself would take me to Iceland of all places, where age, maturity, contentedness, timing and providence, finally worked together and contributed toward meeting my soul mate. Or better put the human being who completes you and puts up with you, and who was probably always meant for you even though you never admitted or acknowledged it. My current partner is an older man who is more at peace with the world and his place in it. And when I met him so was I. This is why things work better now, and this is why it’s different ten years onward.

I acknowledge I wasn’t in a great place when I met my ex. Neither was he. As two directionless souls we steered a ship that wasn’t enduring much of our relations. We probably weren’t too different from many people in our generation at that point in our post-2007-recession-filled lives. Takes a wiser person to say it. Takes an even bigger person to admit it. I’m bigger now than I was then. Back then I was petty and stubbornly stupid.

Looking back on it, I was just plain miserable and lost in Toronto having just returned from ten wonderful years abroad in the US and the EU. Toronto did not hold any charm for me and I was truly unhappy and bored with my employment and life situation. Instead of acknowledging that and owning up to it, I wallowed in misery and sought comfort and shelter in a relationship with someone who was just as directionless and restless as I was. It’s no wonder the big yellow couch acted as a security blanket. For four wonderful years it weathered all our arguments, sheltered all our storms, and provided tremendous comic relief in the form of Tony Soprano mocking Vito Spatafore and Roger Stirling questioning Don Draper on his over-abundant mojo.

This past summer while watching the World Cup 2018 from our house in Iceland, my new partner began flipping channels during the half-time break. During the fifteen-minute pause of the Argentina and Iceland match he decided he wanted to watch the Mad Men episode where Joan is loaned to a Jaguar exec for the night so that Sterling, Cooper, Draper, Price could gain the account. I was cooking dinner and coming in and out of the living room, demanding he pause Mad Men and rejoin the football match in progress. Fifty-nine agonizing minutes later and the entire street screaming with excitement as Iceland tied, we settled into our cozy Nordic sitting chairs and hunkered down with a plate of steaming schnitzel, over-onioned potato salad and sauerkraut in hand (a lἀ moi of course), ready for a night of binging with Don Draper and crew. Episode after episode had us erupting in laughter, until we got to the episode - whose title I have forgotten - but where the climax appears to be the good-looking office writer named Ken getting his foot run over by an indoor lawn mower on demo display. My partner laughed like a hyena while I collected plates and went to the kitchen to rinse them. Once there I spooned out ice cream with his daughter and we took the bowls outside to the patio. My partner joined us, and we sat there for some time discussing the possibilities of Iceland and Croatia’s progression at the World Cup in Russia. After a while it began to rain softly, so we went back inside and called it a night. As my partner and his daughter switched to Icelandic and my understanding filtered off when I realized they were talking about “Kenny and the lawnmower episode”, my mind wandered off to a distant memory from the year 2010.

Then, just as now, I too had watched that Mad Men episode. In a different city, a different country, with a different person and on a different couch. I no longer remember the room, I no longer remember the conversation, and I no longer remember the person. But I do remember lots of laughter and visions of a big yellow couch remain.  I now know that where relationships are concerned, the ship can sail, the anchor can be harbored elsewhere, and the ropes that once bound can truly be cut. But the ‘relation’ can never truly be severed. Relations live deep in the aorta of the memory and come back time after time, triggered by a dream, a scent, and even that place you’ve buried so deep inside yourself and vowed to never reopen. There they hibernate, only to emerge when you least expect them to, despite all the self-inflicted barriers you’ve put in place. No matter how many restaurants, coffee shops, movie houses, streets, parks and Japanese restaurants on Bloor street you’ve Achtung-ed and made verboten, those relations come back to jolt you and reassert themselves in the most mundane things and places.

For me, and perhaps others like me, that relation revealed itself in Pine Barrens. It was 10:00pm and I was sitting in the living room of my parents’ house, filled with self-loathing because I couldn’t find the resolve to flip the channel and watch anything else. I’d been so strict with myself for the better half of almost ten years and stuck to the Bismarck-like principles of avoiding, cutting off, blocking, and guarding a wall. Jon Snow and Donald Trump would have been proud of me. But on the evening of January 6th, I hesitated. I lingered too long. Before I knew it, Pine Barrens had sucked me in and swallowed me whole. The bizarre thing is that after it was over, I didn’t feel the need to replay the many arguments or bad moments I had with my ex over in my head as I probably would have done even six years ago, just from being triggered by a memory. Instead I felt inner peace, a total calm and serenity. I felt nothing, yet I felt everything. Bittersweet, but bereft of any animosity. Why did it take almost seven years to reach this phase, I asked myself? Why not sooner? I wondered if somewhere out there on that cold January evening he too was still up, awake, and watching Pine Barrens from the comfort of the big yellow couch. Did the couch still exist in the corner of the living room or it had been replaced just as I had?

As that thought weighed on my mind, I grabbed the television remote, turned off the TV and made my way to bed. Present or not, the big yellow couch could never be truly discarded. I knew that now. It was an artifact of a time long-ago and remained entrenched in that room just like the relics of everyone who had ever lingered there. It just took the Pine Barrens to finally see that clearly.