Part One: I Ran Away to Canada, Only to Hit Rock Bottom

It’s 8pm on a Monday night. I’m struggling to find one piece of writing that I am truly proud of. Deadline for distribution is tomorrow and, once again, I’m faced with featuring subpar news and feature articles catering to industries I couldn’t care less about.

Let me put everything into context: after a disastrous stint reporting for a medical trade magazine in London – working with snobby, self-important hipster wannabes and being singled out because I come from a very working class background – I landed what I thought was my ‘dream job’ as an editor with a much smaller company in my hometown of Hertford.

From the get-go, I knew the salary was low compared to working in the capital, I knew a lot would be expected of me, and I knew everything from content to advertising would rest on my shoulders – but this opportunity was a step up the ladder and would show my former colleagues I could become a success outside of their pretentious bubble.

What I didn’t envisage, however, was to be treated just as bad as I was as a junior in a senior role. Sales managers and executives would try their best to humiliate me in advertising meetings, I would be berated for making or even proposing some changes to layouts, and they would constantly complain to my publisher whenever they didn’t get their own way.

I was subjected to constant scrutiny and, after finding out that my publisher had spent my bonus money on a networking event for another media brand – not to mention her plans for moving me away from my editorial colleagues to build ‘stronger relationships with the sales teams’ – I knew it was time to remove myself from of the destructive situation.

Since a small child, I dreamt of travelling the world and maybe one day building a new life abroad. I would read brochures and thoroughly search the internet looking at companies offering work abroad schemes such as BUNAC and Real Gap Experience. From doing this research, I knew Canada was a viable option for job prospects and the visa application was much simpler, and quicker, compared to the US or Australia.

By sheer luck, I managed to obtain my two-year International Experience Canada (IEC) visa within a relative short amount of time. It was a gateway to a brand new lifestyle; a chance to rethink my career path and, for the first time in my life, to really start thinking about myself and myself only. My relationship with much of my family is strained at best, and this was a good way of getting back at my guilt-tripping mother for making me stay at home during university, for working two jobs during my studies, paying for her car repairs and spending most of my hard-earned savings to cover the rent; as well as her addiction to buying new home furnishings and her insistence on only smoking the very best cigarettes.

To get ahead, I thought changing my location on Tinder would be a good idea to make new friends before I arrived in Toronto. I wasn’t used to all the matches I was receiving, but one guy really did stand out from the rest. ‘JD’ was a blonde, handsome junior doctor that physically wasn’t anyone I was used to matching with – admittedly a rather shallow advantage. We exchanged messages for a good few weeks in the lead up to my arrival in Toronto, and we planned to meet that weekend.

After checking into my hostel located in Toronto’s famous Church and Wellesley gay village, I hit the town with a girl I was sharing a dorm with called Emma, a journalism student visiting solo from Amsterdam. Our shared choice of degree was a real conversation starter, leading onto another shared interest in men as we sat in a drag bar with pints of Molson and downing tequila shots.

The next morning, Emma joined me for breakfast in the hostel kitchen. Besides nursing a sore head, I felt anxious and excited to be meeting JD that evening after what had felt like months and months of messaging. Emma was a great friend in calming my nerves, and even helped me to choose an outfit for my date. I knew I had to be back at the hostel by a reasonable time as I had to catch a bus the next morning to Brantford, where I’d committed to volunteering at a health food shop for eight weeks. But, as naive as I am, I’d imagined myself and JD reconnecting after the eight weeks, potentially building a relationship and even moving in together.

I saw JD at the corner of my eye walking up to me where we planned to meet outside a sports bar in Toronto’s CF Eaton Centre. He was shorter than I’d imagined, but still just as striking in person. He immediately went in for the hug (something I’d not encountered that much with guys in the UK) and lead me into the bar. Previous first dates consisted of asking the exact same questions already covered during the initial Tinder chats, but with JD it felt as if I were talking to a boyfriend I had been with for years: no awkward silences, no mediocre conversation and no sexual suggestiveness shown by much of the London set I found myself dating. A kiss on the cheek was how we ended the evening and he promised to drive to Hamilton (a town halfway between Toronto and Brantford) to meet for dinner during the week.

I’d made it to the bus station at around 6.30am on Sunday morning after dragging my suitcase through the thick mounds of snow, clutching a Tim Hortons with both hands and parka fully zipped in an attempt to beat off the bitter cold. My Lonely Planet guide kept me company for the two-hour bus journey to Brantford, and I was greeted to the small town by a group of revellers surrounding a lady collapsed on the floor, who was vigorously shaking and coughing up blood.

After listening to a bus driver call an ambulance, I proceeded to walk through the town where herds of homeless people occupied shop doorways with dogs and babies, but generously helped me find the health food shop as the manager had failed to send over any directions. I arrived to be greeted by a German girl who spoke broken English, who looked as if she hadn’t showered in days and sported a t-shirt with noticeable dark stains down the front. She left me to my own devices in the hallway as I waited for the co-owner, Justine, to show me around the living quarters. The kitchen was littered with empty cans, bottles, and even cigarette packets scattered on the floor and the one bedroom, housing six volunteers, was split into two bunk beds. The temperature was -10 degrees, and all I was provided with to keep me warm at night was one blanket and a pillow. More volunteers arrived back at the living quarters, failing to introduce themselves to me as they all hibernated to their bunks, miserable and snacking on what appeared to be dry cornflakes as they awaited their next shifts.

Without hesitation, and without saying goodbye to anyone, I grabbed my suitcase and escaped. I gathered my bearings to get myself back to the town centre, set up shop in the local Tim Hortons and searched high and low to find a cheap bed for the night. The only offering was a rundown motel off the highway, an hour’s walk through the heavy snow. That evening, I messaged JD to explain what had happened, anxious about what he would think, and feeling terrified about how I would find a job and a place to live.

I felt comforted by JD’s concern. He offered to drive all the way to Brantford that night to pick me up and take me back to the city, and offered for me to stay at his place until I figured out what I was going to do. I was appreciative of the lifeline but, exhausted from the rush of leaving the shop and finding the rundown motel, we agreed that I would get a bus back the next day and for me to meet him after he had finished work.

I made it back to Toronto, catching an early bus just so I could get out of Brantford as quickly as possible. I still had about six hours left until I could meet JD, which lead to using my ticket for the CN Tower I had purchased online before leaving the UK. I spent the remainder of the day anxiously waiting around in coffee shops, searching for rooms to rent on Kijiji and applying for any jobs I could to pass the time. We agreed to meet at a coffee house by St. Lawrence Market and, after being greeted with a huge hug, he grabbed my suitcase and lead the way to his house.

He shared a house with a group of students and young professionals a stone’s throw away from the Ryerson University campus, who were all very welcoming as I walked through the front door looking dishevelled and stressed from the past two days. JD assured me that I could stay with him for as long as I needed and, looking back, seemed grateful to have me around to keep him company. Although he lived with six other people, he regularly mentioned that he felt lonely as everyone else was too busy to hang out and he missed his family and friends back home in Uxbridge, Ontario.

He set off early in the morning for work, I tiptoed down the stairs trying not to wake anyone up and fixed myself some breakfast. After watching some TV, I then walked the 20 minutes to the CF Eaton Centre to hand out CVs, stopping by restaurants and coffee houses to hand out more CVs and trying to get someone to understand my English accent – the same routine went on for a week. Luckily, the little savings I had left was boosted by my last wage packet to keep me going.

One evening, he insisted on taking me out to Woody’s, a famous gay bar in the village where the TV show ‘Queer as Folk’ was filmed. Here, I decided to approach the subjects of paying some rent for the time I’d spent there, finding a job and looking for a new place to stay. The house he lived in was lovely, I loved being around him and, for once, I felt as if I was being looked after – but I wasn’t entirely comfortable. I never depended upon anyone before, I’ve always worked and found a huge sense of pride in fully supporting myself without the ‘Bank of Mum and Dad’ compared to a lot of my friends. Even though I would offer to pay for drinks whenever we ventured into the village, he would always beat me to the card machines.

I couldn’t work out why he was being so nice and supportive. Never had a guy looked after me financially, insisted on paying for dates, or even brought me a cup of coffee in bed before setting off for work. I still didn’t really know JD; living in such a confined space for over a week was a good training ground, but everything was moving incredibly fast.

Once I mentioned about arranging a viewing to look at a shared apartment on the other side of the village, he began to question why I would decide to leave after everything that he had done for me. I was perceived to be ungrateful, as if I just used him for a roof over my head and the opportunity to experience Toronto without a restricting budget – like many of the young travellers I shared a dorm with back at the hostel. I explained that I was craving my independence back, I needed to work and to also experience things on my own. I still wanted to keep on seeing JD; I thought by his attentiveness and nurturing nature that he was one of the rare ‘good guys’, but his immediate reaction to me making plans was startling and unexpected.

I reached out for his hand for him to leave the table and run into the men’s room. While he was away, I mentally prepared myself to be thrown out of the house and was searching through the app to see if I could book a bed back at the hostel. After 10 minutes, he returned with another round of drinks, took my hand and pleaded for me to stay with him ‘a little while longer’. His cheeks were flushed and his forehead glistened with sweat. I knew I’d made him mad, and I was worried that by provoking JD more and sticking to my guns would send him over the edge. I reluctantly agreed to stay, but this decision one would ultimately change my life….