How I Failed At Life In Quebec City
In March 2008, about nine months before moving to Montreal, I visited a medium-size one-bedroom apartment located in the St. Roch district of Quebec City. It was a dark day. Three p.m. had the feeling of nighttime. It felt like winter was prepared to go into overtime, wanted to borrow from spring, not only April but also parts of May. The apartment was mostly empty. I was told that some repairs needed to be made. We signed a lease for July.
It was mostly out of curiosity that I had decided to live alone. I had lived in all kinds of social arrangements, with friends or random strangers or a girlfriend or one roommate or several roommates, but I hadn’t lived by myself. I also wanted to live in St. Roch. In the past, when people thought, “St. Roch,” they shivered a little, felt uncomfortable, pictured in their heads police raids and slums begging to be bulldozed and vast, deserted parking lots that felt like being lost at open sea. Eventually, the city realized that a lot of buildings in the area had character and historical value and were being misused. Measures were discussed, contested, debated in open forums, argued over email, revised, voted on and, much later, adopted. The area was given a makeover, began describing itself as “trendy” and other positive-sounding things in citywide campaigns.
With businesses spreading like grass, St. Roch was in a transitional phase. Sometimes, the tension between the old and the new created depressing juxtapositions. In the summer, homeless people slept on park benches in front of an overlit Hugo Boss store and a boutique that sold expensive dinnerware items and wax fruits.
That year, in what would later become a signature move for me, I had begun to feel truly, deeply fucked and severely confused about life, especially mine. I was in my twenties and working 40 hours per week at a video game studio. In the span of 14 months, the studio had doubled in size and become more hierarchical and bleak. I had stopped eating meat and was vegan. I was losing weight. I was 140 pounds and then 130 and then 125. I wasn’t drinking much or taking drugs. I had tried and failed at all kinds of creative outlets, like crafts, music or short films, with none of these moving beyond the level of vague hobby. I was seeking something to devote myself to, to be truly passionate about. I thought making video games would give me that. I wanted to accomplish things and have goals and be productive. Instead, and without noticing, I had begun a kind of freefall, during which I wasn’t thinking, “I am going to hit the ground really hard” so much as, “Wow, I seem to be gaining a lot of speed all of a sudden.”
At that time, my social circle was composed of work colleagues, who liked to talk about video games a lot; former work colleagues, who enjoyed making bitter comments about the video game studio; my nephew, who was six years old; and hipster clothing-store employees, who intimidated me because they were very attractive, though I liked being around them because it seemed like they were the only ones who talked about leaving Quebec City at some point. Conversations seemed to repeat themselves, as if obeying some kind of underlying pattern. I was part of the repetition myself. I said my lines so that other people could say their lines. It felt, deep within, like having a part in a play that was doomed to suck, no matter how much it was rehearsed.
I had no girlfriend or love interest. I desired less and also masturbated less. I mentally classified most people that I met as either unattainable or suffering from a kind of sad, terminal inner artlessness. In my evaluation of people, there was no middle ground, only those two categories. I wasn’t being aggressively social because being social meant being underwhelmed.
The friends I had in Quebec City liked to pretend they were married. They got into stable relationships, moved in together, purchased things, felt good about them but then, it seemed to me, nothing beyond that. By osmosis, I had bought things myself, like Ikea furniture. I wanted to belong, but didn’t. I felt no satisfaction from owning, couldn’t keep my stuff clean-looking or in good condition. I kept thinking, “I am really bad at having.” I was feeling comically out-of-place and also ill-equipped to handle the reality I was in, like a lobster participating in a Miss America pageant and not realizing it’s a lobster.
On the day I moved into the St. Roch apartment, I realized two things. The first was that the apartment looked trashed and very different compared to how I remembered it to be, as if some kind of indoor rugby tournament had recently been held there. The second was that it was surrounded by tall buildings, blocking almost all access to sunlight, something I hadn’t noticed in March.
My landlord insisted that I buy insurance. I did. I listed several things I wanted him to fix. Promises were made. I felt deprived of sunlight. It was July and it was very bright outside and I had to keep most of the interior lights on. I disliked the apartment and then loathed the apartment. I felt claustrophobic. With my stuff in there, the space seemed smaller, much smaller than what I had imagined. The lack of space combined with the absence of light made the apartment feel like a deluxe casket. I had a work desk, a queen-sized bed, a futon with a mattress cover whose motif was ugly fauna, a television, a tall, slim lamp which, in this environment, amusingly went all the way up to the ceiling, a closet with sliding doors, a kitchen, a bathroom, generic clutter.
I also had a chair whose sole purpose was to accumulate clothes. My system for clothes was and still is kind of low-maintenance. I don’t use drawers or a closet or anything like that. Usually, I have a room and in the room is a chair and on the chair is a giant pile. I select things from the top of the pile and ignore the bottom, a kind of no man’s land where clothes go to experience extreme sun deprivation, psychological trauma and the most rewarding loneliness of their existence, coming up in the process with alternative life philosophies detached from the social norm. Eventually I go insane from wearing the same things all the time, so I grab a bunch of clothes and throw them on the bed and then shout at them something like, “What do you want me to wear?” Destroying the pile makes me rediscover items of clothing I had forgotten about. The feeling is the same as having new clothes, except cheaper. In the small apartment, even this system for clothes, which I feel like I’ve always had, seemed, somehow, lifeless and kind of demoralizing.
Soon enough, I began to miss living with people. I missed randomness. I hated coming home from work to an apartment that felt empty, almost eerie, with everything in the same state I had left it, no new mess made by other people to stare at, a profoundly defeating visual monotony. Even though I missed the presence of people, I felt so alienated from more or less everyone else’s goals and interests that I wanted to be by myself as much as possible, in the same way old animals prefer to die alone.
During those weeks, I lost more weight. I had less and less energy. I gave up smiling altogether and felt disillusioned and glum and embittered. I made no change to my diet, which remained strictly vegan. I babysat my nephew a few times, who failed to provide useful life advice. My personal time was spent blogging, to no discernible effect on the world around me, typing witty comments in internet forums to feel superior, staring longingly at my Facebook’s lack of new notifications, timidly reading books like If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino and falling asleep while watching movies that I knew I wouldn’t bother finishing the next day. I felt, overall, as if I had become impotent at having fun, either by myself or with people. Looking back, it seems like I should have been drinking more than I was drinking.
I also became increasingly frustrated with work. Since the expansion, the video game studio had hired a small army of mundane people, drowning out the initial group. At that point in my life, I felt I should be working on something that had some integrity or artistic merit, that wouldn’t be just another commercial product, some throwaway thing forgotten a day after its release. People around me had different objectives in mind. Some wanted to simplify their task list to a minimum and work at a leisurely pace, didn’t want the burden of having to care about what they were doing. For others, contentment seemed to be a daily muffin and pictures of themselves on vacation.
In August, my claustrophobia evolved. What was originally an uncomfortable sensation became a direct threat. To avoid being home, I brought my laptop with me to cafes or worked in public parks with wi-fi access. Even in wide-open spaces, I felt constrained, as if suffering from a kind of imprisonment that didn’t go away when I exited my apartment, but instead was following me around like a black cloud. I had plenty of time to think. I didn’t understand how my life had gotten to that point. I thought, “There’s got to be something better than this.” I thought about quitting my job and moving to Montreal. It was hard to imagine my life differently than the way it was, mostly because I hadn’t been really exposed to what I was missing.
In September, my weight slide continued. I was now 115 pounds. I slogged through my days, zombie-like. One afternoon, I received a call at work from my landlord. I wasn’t sure why he would call me. I thought, “Maybe he wants to apologize.” He hadn’t fixed what I had asked him to fix. He sounded alarmed. He said, “Someone broke into your apartment.” He explained that a person had smashed a window and walked in and left with whatever seemed valuable. This had happened in broad daylight.
I went home. My landlord was there. My apartment looked both upside down and inside out. Staring at the wreckage, I felt surprisingly neutral. There was a cigarette butt on my bed. Missing were my laptop, video games and video game consoles, electronic devices, my book from the library, my passport as well as two old backpacks that I had stored in a closet. I had used the backpacks themselves as storage for things like drawings by me as a kid and letters to a past lover. I tried to imagine what the person who had broken into my apartment would do with those.
My landlord had already called the police and said that all I had to do was wait for them to show up. He said that I should keep the cigarette butt because the cops would scan it for fingerprints. He left. I waited. I thought about how I didn’t seem to be feeling shocked or concerned or anything at all. This struck me as traumatic. My apartment had been pillaged and my only reaction to that was a kind of low-level apathy that felt buried under several layers of absolutely nothing. I thought, “I am a robot.” I thought, “Where are my human emotions.” Maybe they had also been taken from me, but by something else, and so gradually that I hadn’t noticed their loss.
A police officer knocked on the front door, which was wide open. He introduced himself. We filled out a little report together. He took sloppy notes and seemed annoyed. I brought up the cigarette butt. He said, “Your landlord watches too many cop movies.” I thought, “If this were a cop movie, you would have gone rogue and your superior would have told you to turn in your badge by now.”
The policeman seemed disinterested and borderline cynical. I thought about yelling at him for not going rogue. Filling out the report with him began to feel like a waste of time. No one would be caught, the cigarette butt wouldn’t be analyzed in a lab somewhere below ground level and the cynical police officer would, one day, be promoted to a desk position. I was okay with that. I wasn’t really sad about having lost material wealth. Some things on my laptop I would have liked to archive somewhere. I could get a new passport. I was upset a little about not being able to finish my library book. The more I thought about it, the more I felt liberated. I knew that the insurance company would send me a check and that with it I would buy a new laptop and then nothing else. In a weird way, I felt as if all of these future events had already taken place, a kind of half-prophecy, half-memory.
The next day, at work, I was inattentive and unfocused. I stared at my computer screen. Inside my head, I played with the sequence of events from the previous day like it was magnetic poetry, shuffling the events around, rearranging the timeline, trying to make sense of them.
I focused on my own lack of reaction.
I did work tasks on autopilot, doing things that required no thinking. Later, I ran into a crash and a broken module of the game. Later, I talked to a programmer. I watched him scroll up and down giant sheets of humourless code lines and add break points here and there. The programmer’s job involved describing an abstract goal to a machine in a language that neither of them spoke natively. It seemed to require a lot of negotiation. Break points allowed him to debug stuff and test things, by acting as a kind of interruption in the software’s space-time continuum, forcing the program to cease executing commands at deliberate points in the code.
Back at my desk, I thought, “This is exactly what it feels like” and “I am a robot” and “Yesterday was a break point for me.” I began to perceive my apartment being broken into as a kind of interruption in time that was forcing me to stop performing routine commands and assess whether my life was functioning as expected. At that moment, I thought, “That’s it, I am changing.” I visualized myself going rogue. I thought, “I am getting the fuck out of this apartment.”
That evening, I threw out as many things as I could. I looked for a new apartment. I felt that my short-term survival involved finding a new place to live and that my medium-term survival involved quitting my job and moving to Montreal. I had always felt like I would “eventually” move to Montreal. Growing up, this is how television talked about Montreal: famous musicians, shootings, protests, movie premieres, festivals, stabbings, biker gangs, drug raids, marathons, gambling, professional sports, excesses, extremes. It was hard for local news to compete with that. This led to a kind of mixed desire, like being outside of a mosh pit, looking in and thinking, “Should I go in, I might get punched in the face, or it might cheer me up.”
Finding a new apartment took about two weeks. I looked online and found nothing. Then I was lucky. At a grocery store, I saw an ad and called the number. Hours later, I visited a surprisingly large apartment with four or five people living in it. I hadn’t encountered that many surprisingly large apartments in Quebec City. A roommate of theirs had unexpectedly left for British Columbia and they needed someone right away. I moved in two days later. I didn’t tell my landlord that I was moving out, I simply vacated the apartment. By that point I was beyond caring about ethics or morals or leases.
In October, I started feeling better from simply being around people a little more. My attitude at work changed. What we were doing began to seem, to me, incredibly absurd, almost farcical, like a tanning salon for dogs. I sent resumes to the email inboxes of Montreal-based video game studios. Later, I was asked by email if I was a senior programmer with next-generation console experience. I was not. Later, I met a doctor and then a nutritionist about perpetually losing weight. I was now close to 110 pounds. I was told that the problem wasn’t medical and that I was doing the vegan thing wrong by not getting enough protein or even calories. I was shown charts. Sliced apples smiled at me. My doctor made several hypotheses. I could have borderline anorexic issues. I could be subconsciously using my body as a “cry for help.” I could be just stupid.
At the end of the month, I was called for interviews at two Montreal video game studios. I took a week off from work and made arrangements to stay in Montreal during that time. The first interview was for a programming position, something I didn’t know until I was assigned a written test with no answerable question on it. The second took place at a large corporate building. In the waiting area, awards earned by the studio were flanked by television monitors displaying nonstop commercials for their games. A person said my name aloud and then introduced himself. He guided me past several layers of electronic keycard doors and maze-like configurations of desks and people. The office looked, somehow, both insanely clean and incredibly dystopian.
We sat in a room. Before the interview began, my interviewers introduced themselves by name and job titles. I imagined their ideal candidate to be some kind of naive genius who could be easily undermined, to avoid threatening their power. Because the last year had been, for me, terribly humbling, a kind of shrink ray for the ego, I wasn’t feeling particularly confident or cocky, which they seemed to like.
After the interview, I walked to Chapters and bought No One Belongs Here More Than You by Miranda July. I sat in a park and read. Some of the lines were funny. I laughed. In the park, I felt like there was room for something beyond apathy. I also felt placeless, like I was no longer rooted anywhere or attached to anything. I thought about getting the job at the video game studio. I didn’t know if it would lead to another dead end or something that would provide me with meaningful work to accomplish.
Before this, I think I saw myself as kind of immune to personal drama, assuming that because I hadn’t faced that many hardships, hadn’t experienced things like war or extreme poverty or an addiction to slot machines or a hoarding problem, I never would. I am not sure I knew how to struggle.
I felt like I had failed at life in Quebec City, but that the failure was entirely mine, and not Quebec City’s. Maybe I would fail at life all over again in Montreal. Maybe the city would be better at downplaying or minimizing my flaws and shortcomings as a fully grown human person. “This is what we want from a city,” I thought, “for it to downplay our flaws.” Maybe I would gain weight instead of losing weight. Maybe I would just disappear altogether. I wasn’t sure what would happen. I felt anxiety. “This is good, feeling anxiety is good,” said my anxiety in the park. The sensation was oddly comforting.
A | A | A
If you’ve been looking for a chance to say something then this very well could be it.
I wish to God I’d had a list like this when I was 23.
Answer phones better than anyone else has answered phones before. Relay messages so brilliant, they bring people to tears. Turn the coffee run into the choreography of Swan Lake. Become best friends with every intern and every underling and every taxi driver you encounter.
I remember taking the pen and notebook from that woman outside the courtroom, flipping to a clean page in the book, and writing, JESSICA IS SAD in big, bold, uncoordinated letters. “My sister is going to be a good writer someday! Look at how nice her lines are!”