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

CTV’s ‘Your Morning’ was my only company when I woke up. The sound of regular co-host Anne-Marie Mediwake’s voice was my substitute for an alarm clock and, by that time, JD had already left for work to beat the subway rush hour from Dundas to Lawrence.

I’d jump out of bed, wrap up in JD’s dressing gown and walk down the three flights of stairs to the kitchen to make some cereal and creep back up in time for the ‘Life & Style’ segment. I’d then walk across the hallway – towel, clothes and toiletries in tow – to the bathroom for a shower (hoping no one else was already in there and one particular girl had left the sink plughole free of any long, curly hairs) then back to the bedroom to finish getting dressed in as many layers as I could find that fell out of the full to the brim wardrobe of mine and JD’s clothes.

By this point, the snow had worsened and temperatures plummeted. Torontonians knew how to soldier on as if it was part of everyday life but, as a Brit, I was used to everything being shut down or trains cancelled even if the slightest flutter of snow had hit the ground. While JD and many other young city professionals braved the chill in Canada Goose jackets and sturdy Hanwag hiking boots, my H&M green parka (not at all waterproof) and mud-stained Timberland boots kept me from contracting frostbite or falling arse over tit as I walked through the financial district or on Bay St.

I would sit for hours at a time in Starbucks sipping on hot chocolate and write blog posts, send messages to friends back home and even check up on how things were going at my previous job. Honestly, I found great satisfaction in finding any spelling mistakes or formatting errors on the websites I once edited as I’d heard from a former colleague that they could only get a junior to fill in after my abrupt departure. As for my family, I hadn’t had any communication with my mother since I messaged her to say I had landed safely in Toronto, my father sent one or two messages but mainly communicated through memes instead of picking up the phone, and my sister was fairly preoccupied with getting over her latest break-up and drowning her sorrows in the dives of Hertford with a mutual friend of ours.

In the afternoons, I would face the bitter cold winds by walking past Union Station, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) building and the complex for the CN Tower and Rogers Centre to a quiet café in Chinatown. Here, I plucked up the courage to apply for part-time work in order to try and reach some kind of agreement with JD; I couldn’t keep on with my lifestyle the way it was, and I needed to start working for my own sanity.

Even the number of messages from JD throughout the day had started to dwindle – no longer was he checking in every hour to see if I was still at home or out buying food and, although I started to feel more relaxed about our situation and our growing trust for one another, he was coming home from work later and later in the evenings. I knew from his overall demeanour and reaction to my initial plans in finding a job and a new place to stay that it was best to keep questions at a minimum. He would come home stressed and tired from what he would say was the ‘day from hell’ dealing with back-to-back patients, and that’s how we left it. No prodding and demanding explanations – this was my first serious relationship and I wasn’t going to let everything fall apart just yet.

Woody’s and Pegasus Bar were our regular hangouts on the weekend. The same faces that sat at the bar with their heads down in a newspaper or trying their luck at one of the fruit machines became regular acquaintances, the barmen knew our orders before we even sat down on the stools, and if we went day drinking, we would always get caught up in having to talk to the elderly gay men that stumbled out of the bar where they played all day bingo and were entertained by 19-year-old strippers desperate for some extra cash.

One Saturday, we arrived at Woody’s and bumped into another acquaintance who was propped up at the bar. Daniel was someone we met a few weekends previous at Pegasus. He claimed to be an immigration officer: tall, dark, finely groomed beard and always alone. JD handed over some cash after I’d offered to pick up the drinks while the two exchanged pleasantries and moved toward a table at the back of the bar. I walked to the table with the tray of drinks to what appeared to be a quiet showdown of over-expressive faces and hand gestures. They both stopped when they noticed me slowly approaching. I put down the tray and sat on the only available seat between the two. “Everything alright?”, I said as Daniel immediately changed the subject to what I thought of my time in Canada so far. He asked if I’d made plans to visit any other cities. “I’ve always wanted to go to Vancouver”, I replied only to get a scolding glare from JD that I noticed at the corner of my eye. There was an awkward tension around the table, and I was relieved that once he’d finished his drink, Daniel left us to hit another bar across the street.

“Let’s talk”, JD said once Daniel had disappeared out of sight. I thought this was another moment where his blood would boil and guilt-trip me into staying with him. “How would you like to come and visit my parents with me on Monday?” I was taken aback by his unexpected proposal. Very seldom would he mention his parents or anything about his childhood, and I was the same. “They are going to love you!”, he said. I reluctantly agreed, excited that a guy actually asked me to meet his parents, but bewildered by JD’s seemingly heated exchange with Daniel a few moments ago. “We’ll set off Monday morning and come back on Sunday. It will give you a chance to see the real Canada”.

JD had pre-ordered tickets to set off at 07.30 Monday morning. We jumped on a Go Bus from Union Station and headed to Uxbridge, a small town an-hour-and-a-half north of Toronto where he had grown up. The roads were pretty treacherous and progressively worse as the bus drove further away from the city. The scenery along the way reminded me of all the times I went to visit my nan from my mother’s side as a child; the countryside was near identical to that of Cambridgeshire, and the isolation away from a big town, supermarkets and pubs brought me back to when my sister and I would have to make our ‘own entertainment’ by feeding the ducks, setting up a badminton net or helping our granddad on the compost heap.

His mother, Lisa, came to meet us at a bar in the town centre where the locals were startled to come across an English person as they recognised my accent when I’d ordered a drink. A short, stumpy lady with gold chains and rings waddled her way through the door, embraced JD and extended her hand to introduce herself to me. I was introduced as his ‘new friend’: not partner, not boyfriend, just ‘new friend’.

We arrived at the house to be welcomed by a bichon frise jumping up at the driveway gate and his step-father, Rodrigo (he liked to be called Rigo for short) working out of his garage and flinging garbage into a skip. As soon as we stepped inside through a side door, I was given a pair of slippers to wear: “We never wear shoes inside the house”, Lisa said. I took off my Timberland boots, slid on the pair of white slippers and entered the hallway. “This will be your part of the house, Jack”, Lisa said as we continued down a narrow corridor to the bedroom. She held the bedroom door open for me as I struggled with my luggage, hitting a stone-crafted stand that had a collection of travel minis and two towels on top of it. Lisa cringed at the possibility of potential damage when the stand grazed the wall, but thankfully I escaped any rage as no marks were made.

I messaged JD to come and meet me in my room. I’d lost him along the way when Lisa was showing me where I would be staying; I thought JD would be with me, but I’m sure Lisa and Rigo would not approve of ‘new friends’ staying together in the same room. I unpacked my stuff, checked my phone and still no response. I left the bedroom and found my way to the living room where they were all slumped on the sofa watching Judge Judy. ‘Rigo, this is Jack. Jack, this is my step-father, Rigo’. His handshake was firm, his tone overpowering and remarked that my accent sounded ‘weird’.

On our first night, Lisa suggested we all go to a chinese restaurant a few towns away. I was under the impression that this was to make me feel welcome, however I soon realised they already made plans to meet a business partner there to discuss a second spa opening in Ottawa. Lisa ran a small beauty spa at the side of the house, and due to its ‘popularity’, was excited at the concept of expanding to a second location.

The next morning, Rigo asked for JD and I to join him in picking up some rock salt from a local supplier. Here we bumped into Rigo’s neighbours: two brothers that, once they saw us pull into the parking lot, had noticeably tried to avoid eye contact. Rigo, with his overbearing arrogance and dictatorship was someone to try and avoid at all costs. The brothers didn’t get away too easily and were subjected to a mini presentation of the new spa – picture after picture showing the new layout and surrounding grounds. I found some kind of solace in the brothers’ giving sly eye rolls to each other and breathing a sigh of relief after Rigo ordered us to get on with picking up the heavy bags of rock salt.

We returned to the house and straight away put to work in helping dispose of any junk out of the garage, clearing a mountain of boxes from the bar area and moving new equipment to the spa. I stayed there for an entire week moving heavy boxes and furniture in and out of the spa, cleaning all the equipment and even helping to clean the back rooms, and I never saw one customer walk through those doors. The spa was open, the spa assistant made herself comfortable by putting her feet up on the reception desk sipping cups of tea, but I struggled to understand how this ‘popular’ spa would be able to open a second location.

Not only did I help these strangers get their house in order, I regrettably mentioned that I had a background in writing marketing material for conferences and business networking events. As soon as they heard this, they preyed on me to write all of the content for their new brochures. “We need the content to be quite substantial: a biography, a description of all the treatments, prices, special deals. Can you manage that?” I really wanted to say, “Do it your fucking self”, but it’s not like I could say no – I was in the middle of nowhere, if they asked me to leave I’d have been dragging my suitcase for miles to the nearest bus stop and end up living back at the hostel.

That’s how I spent my evenings, writing page after page for them to not even look at the final product. No time was spent with JD; I tried sending messages for him to come down to my room late at night, but no response. When we did have a quiet moment together for me to confront him, he would always say he was asleep by a really early time, or Rigo needed a hand in the backyard. Alarm bells were ringing: something wasn’t quite right.

Sunday morning. It had probably been the longest week of my life and I knew that I only had to endure one more breakfast around the kitchen table before we set off. I excitedly made sure my stuff was already packed the night before, and as we were about to leave, Rigo wanted to have a quick word with me in private. Maybe he wanted to say thank you for all the hard work, maybe he suspected that I was more than just JD’s ‘new friend’. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous to have a one-on-one conversation with him. He lead me down the staircase to hallway. “Here, this is for you – something to remember me by”. A calculator. A fucking calculator. After the suffering of adhering to his directions, pretending to laugh at his god-awful jokes and all the work I put in to help convey the right message for their spa, my efforts only equated to a calculator.

Lisa dropped us off at the station; a warm embrace for JD and a firm handshake for me – no thank you, just a handshake. I clearly remember thinking I never want to see these people ever again. We waited for the bus back to what I call civilisation, the journey back was packed and felt like an eternity to get to the city and my comfort zone. JD was still being cagey, and we only spoke if I needed to move out the way so he could use the toilet. I read a book, he watched some bullshit comedy on his phone, and that’s how we left it. I never did ask him why he never introduced me as more than a ‘new friend’. I didn’t want to push him in divulging any uncomfortable information; I just hoped he would turn back to the affectionate boyfriend he was before we left for Uxbridge.

Over the next few days, his behaviour started to claw back to what it was when we first met. He was even making more of an effort to get home from work at a reasonable time, and I would wake up to a hot cup of coffee at the side of the bed before he left in the mornings. My life went back to how it was before: waiting around in coffee shops, making friends with the gay village regulars and venturing out to either the local Metro store near King Street or to the CF Eaton Centre, where I would browse high-end stores that I dreamt of shopping in ever since I read my first issue of GQ at age 14.

We planned to stay in one Friday evening. Nothing special: movies, pizza, watch some Netflix and then an early wakeup call as he promised to take me to the the Hockey Hall of Fame. I ordered the food and flicked through Netflix’s ‘Recently Added’ while JD was in the shower. His phone was left under a pair of jeans at the end of the bed and I could feel a vibration for a few seconds, then another as I was about to select a film to watch. I flipped the jeans on the floor with my foot and pressed the menu button. It’s hard to explain the compulsion I felt to press this button. I never thought I would be one of those people that would snoop through a partner’s phone; I always looked down at that kind of behaviour. But something at the forefront of my mind was telling me that I needed to take a look. ‘D’ must have been enamoured with me, “So what’s the plan with Jack?” Another one a few moments later, “Have you spoken to him yet?” I look back with regret and think I should have just left there and then, but hindsight is a wonderful thing. I kept the phone in my lap and waited until he entered the bedroom. “D must be very concerned that you haven’t told me something”. I held the phone still with my right hand as I watched him focus directly on its screen. He then proceeded to hide his face with a nervous embarrassment, his cheeks and temples flushed with a shade of pink and he started to ferociously dry his hair with the towel.

“You need to trust me…”

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 Booking.com 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….