On the first day the wait to try it was two hours: far too long, we agreed. I myself have no head for heights but my eldest, unconcerned at nine, finds them no trouble. In Japan the Ferris wheels are giant and slowly revolve, each cabin sealed. She went alone. What did you do up there, I said, after I had waved goodbye and then paced struck by terror, suddenly picturing her opening the door and falling to her death. The phone call to her father, my weak explanation. She wanted to go. I thought it would be fine. I don’t speak the language, how was I to know? And finally: I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.
I had a conversation with Lightning, she told me. Her imaginary horse. The two of them chatting, as they ascended slowly over the city. For once the sky seemed a peaceful thing, for once I glimpsed her ease.
The next time we went to check, the lineup had swelled to three hours. Whew, we said. Imagine waiting in that. People wandered Robson Street. Down some steps, underneath, was the rink. The ice was finicky, forever being barricaded for chilling or Zamboni smoothing or the infernal mascots on ice. In the brief intervals of admittance, Japanese girls wobbled around the oval in tiny shorts and black tights. White girls in skimpy tops, their chests heaving as they skewed violently. Insolent boys who cut between us at a glide, low-rider jeans crumpled over their battered hockey skates.
I took the bike trailer onto the ice, made a few decorous circles. We recommend that they wear a helmet even in the stroller, said a volunteer. I ignored her.
2. No Vote
The crowds made us happy. We lived downtown, so every errand turned into a party, what with the general good humour. Anyone who lived outside of the perimeter was staying away, though, because of their cars and the dire predictions. He, for his part, had retreated, temporarily we thought, to his highrise fortress. A castle in a tale. You can survive anything for two weeks, I had reminded myself when the talk on the bus before the games turned gloomy: random reroutes, security searches, cordoned-off streets, no way to get into the office.
Now everybody else on the streets looked to be having fun, except for the Russians. Still, they had the best tat, Cyrillic script that looked like ink, happily red and white like ours. My friends, for their part, were more principled.
“I wouldn’t go near those Olympics. Spending our money. What about the homeless?”
There was no reply to be made. After all, I’d voted No too. But the street drew us out, spurring internal excuses: I’ve got kids. It’s only for two weeks. It’s not like anyone would notice if I boycotted it. It’s not like it would make a difference.
One day on the way home from school our bus stopped so long we finally debarked in the middle of the street, a flagrant breach of practice, but then everything was changing, wasn’t it? Ahead of us, stalled traffic. On the sidewalk, behind, the hyped-up screams of some muscle guy randomly striking poles to make them ring. At the intersection, I saw the reason for the stall. A roiling mass of protesters filled the space, hoisting signs. They shouted and howled. No Olympics. Housing Now.
As we made our way around the fringes of the demonstration I passed the police, coming up in twos and threes. “Be nice,” I said to them as we drew abreast, “be nice.” Turned out they were. A miracle, one of many.
Giant outdoor screens had been set up under the street, in the courthouse plaza, and above, on the side of Sears department store. Grainy figures criss-crossed and twirled. From far away you could hear the roar of the crowd. At Bavaria House they were serving nine-dollar beers; we drank the kegs dry halfway through the games, so that new supplies had to be imported. Everybody sat on long benches in the dim tent and watched the snowboarding. Someone pointed out the American man with red ringlets, the favourite. A guy wearing a horned Viking hat complete with girls’ braids sat one row over. The Slovaks were shouting. I had never watched sports like this before in my life.
Another night I stood in line to see my favourite band. It became clear that we would never be admitted in time but for some reason I stayed. Through the netting and behind her instruments I could hear the singer. A man behind me began talking, and I spoke back. Where are you from, I asked finally. A look of mild surprise. Here. I live here. What about you. Me too, I admitted.
Canada wasn’t doing well, even I could tell when I arrived at his place and turned on the game. Away from downtown I was restless, missed the ever-present crowd. I want to be watching this in a pub, I told him. Not home, not alone. Normally I won’t even drink beer.
We went over to our lesbian friends’ for dinner. Can you turn on the TV, I asked, and they complied, not even wondering. We watched the last of the game in silence. Later the women’s team would get in trouble for celebrating with cigars right there in the arena, would be required to issue a statement. A quiz for our foreign friends. What is the greatest crime in Canada? A) Infanticide? B) Deliberate massacres of native peoples (historical)? Or C), smoking indoors?
5. Five Hour Wait
Another day, both girls in tow, I stopped by the bottom of the Zipline lineup again. Two helpful volunteers. How long is it? I asked. Five hours. I noticed the prominently placed sign too late. Wait from here five hours. I sent my daughter down the stairs to see if the rink was open or if there’d been one of the usual emergencies: seasonal weather, ice ruffled, mascot down. Apparently the kids at school called one of them Crotchi. Later all their furry outfits would be archived or destroyed. No details given. Later still we’d heap abuse on the design of subsequent mascots, recall with relish how the press of the next host city had branded ours Worst Olympics Ever. Schadenfreud,e a specialty.
There were rules at the rink, my eldest complained. No Tag. They hadn’t been playing tag, just chasing each other around the ice, but the volunteer outfitted in referee stripes didn’t care to learn the difference. Afterwards we’d stand in our stocking feet on the cold floor, toes shrinking from the wet as we grabbed the towels to wipe down our rental blades.
Upstairs, dialogue. How long’s the wait? people asked, as I stood there with my stroller.
Five hours, answered the volunteers.
Hey, how long do you have to wait to get on?
Is this the lineup for the Zipline? So how long is it?
The volunteers told them.
Five hours. They repeated this wonderingly.
How much of a wait is it? someone else asked, coming up to the barrier.
Wow! Dad, did you hear that? Five hours.
Yeah. It’s a five-hour wait? Five hours did you say?
That’s right. Five hours.
Wow. Imagine waiting in that line for five hours. Imagine your sister.
My offspring came back to report that the rink was open for the next six-point-five minutes, better get on the ice. I tried manoeuvring the stroller down the zig-zag path to the lower level that criss-crossed the rows of concrete steps.
A man stood on the path. He moved his feet incrementally, a centimetre maybe.
Another little shuffle, still blocking the path.
Then he looked at me. Where are you going?
I swore under my breath as I humped the thing down. Fucking Americans.
6. Deux Coleurs
The bus we took to school went on to the figure skating practices at the Coliseum. One day I boarded and there they were, two of them, strapping young men in the handicapped seats in front. Stringy wigs, one side red, the other white. White sunglasses with slats. They had red jumpsuits and flag capes. Their faces painted with maple leaves. We thought it was normal, then, to break into song. I stuck a flag in the side of the carriage. My older daughter counted vehicles with the Olympic logo on the walk home. Two blocks and she was up to twenty.
On the day of the final he and I returned to the city from the south. Things were not going well. I was fed up and so, it turned out later, was he, although more seriously. Baby and bathwater.
The radio came into the car as we neared the city, and as we turned onto my street and drove up the alley sound joined it from the street itself. There was a kind of collective moan, a hush as everyone gasped, a near-save. The game was tied in overtime, each stroke of a stick counted, the announcers couldn’t keep up. Each window was open, each occupant sat in front of her television, each reaction floated onto the street and joined its fellows. Everyone watching was in a fever. A cheer. Had we scored?
He had the cases out, we said goodbye stiffly, another half-stifled cry rose above the street: the Americans maybe, their dastardly ways. I hadn’t liked their manners in the preliminary, thought them thuggish compared to ours, although even I understood that one’s affiliation to a particular country was more a matter of convenience than anything else in this context. Afterwards, they would return to regular play, go back to Buffalo or Los Angeles, rejoin teammates who had been opponents.
He drove away. There was a rising, disbelieving scream: I stood there listening, intuiting the game. We had done it, we had won. I waited for the cheer to die away but it never happened. The noise remained, a sustained continuing note, filling up the street. I mounted the steps and unlocked my door and stepped inside. From my windows I saw how the sidewalks were filling in their turn as people began to stream down the street, wearing their Canada flags like cloaks, high-fiving one another as they passed. Where were they going, I wondered, as I stood there with the baby, looking.
It’s hard, one of the American players would complain afterwards, under pictures of their glum faces in the paper. You lose and then the medal ceremony is right there on the ice, you have no time to prepare.
As for him, he reported how it had been driving out of the city when we spoke later. One of the last times. As he drove away, he said, he could see the people pouring out onto the street behind him, jamming it, trapping the cars like amber. The movement of the city slowed to feet. He rolled down the window and made the V for victory sign with his free hand. He kept his other hand on the horn as he drove. I’m one of you, this is my win too, let me through: this is what he meant to signal, with his horn and hand. But despite the citizenship ceremony, the waived quiz on Canada customs, I had always thought there was no making him one of us.
He described it as a disaster movie: the tunnel collapsing behind, the bridge sliding into the sea, the explosion in the rear-view mirror. This was what the city was to him always, a place from which to flee. I had twitted him about his clifftop enclave, the isolation of it. This is what he prefers, what he wants. In a store I saw a newly printed T-shirt for sale, announcing the exact timing of the win in overtime, and its author: Sidney 7:40.
8. The Heights
The Zipline was open again for the Paralympics and this time we took no chances. Two hours seemed a luxury, the lack of room for the giant stroller a minor inconvenience. The baby wanted to crawl on the muddy ground. A tattooed man standing with his elegant incongruous wife told the girl in front of me, not a local by the looks of it, to take her cigarette elsewhere. The baby, man. Geez. She complied, surly, saying nothing.
We got cold. We got hungry, so hungry we imagined our stomachs as holes you could see through. We ate the orange, the other orange, the nut bar I found in my purse. All the hot dog carts had been quarantined, I found out when I went to reconnoitre. Not only weren’t there any extra, they weren’t even in their usual places. Hot chestnuts. Who needs those, we wanted meat. Had to make do with water and gum, glum chew.
I signed the waiver and went to wait. My eldest climbed the tower, appeared finally above. From where I stood she was a tiny figure in a speckled raincoat, impossibly small on the tiered platform. Once again I suffered agonies: what had I done, what was I thinking, how could I have allowed this to happen? She took a step closer to the edge, another step, hesitated. She won’t go, I thought all at once. She’s reached the limits of insouciance, now she will know what it is to fear; and I couldn’t have said whether I was glad or sorry. Then she launched herself into space and, hanging there, slid all the way across the sky. »
From issue #57