Oct 6, 2015 · 9 minutes

Previously: Part II

Next, we bought a boat. 

Of all our disastrous moves, the very worst was buying that boat. I wish I could say we squandered our savings on drugs or tropical vacations, but it was nothing as frivolous as that. What pauperized us was my idea to escape Victoria’s outrageously high rent: 

“Hey, we can buy a boat and live on it!” 

It might have worked if I’d bought the right boat, if I’d taken time to choose one that had a few options like a toilet, a heating system, insulation, a roof that kept out the rain... Not me, baby. I zoomed down those ads looking for maximum size and minimum price. I saw that big ol’ trawler for sale and fell in love. When a fit like this takes hold of most people, their friends talk them out of it. When you’ve immigrated without a single contact in the new country, there are no friends to dissuade you from your fatal enthusiasms and they grow without check. 

We purchased a big (42-foot) extrawler from a stoner who called himself Odin. Here’s a good rule: don’t buy a boat from guys named Odin. And if you do, make sure you get the boat’s papers. Odin didn’t have them at the time, and asked if that was fine with me. He’d bring them later. It was fine with me. A year later we still didn’t have the papers, so we couldn’t resell the useless old tub. Again, it’s the kind of stupidity that makes you think you’d never, ever be as stupid as I was. Maybe you wouldn’t. But I’m telling you, when you immigrate to a place where you think everybody’s “nice,” you do stupid things. You think I would have bought a boat without proof of ownership in Moscow? I wouldn’t have bought a loaf of bread except in a store my friends told me I could trust. That’s why we survived Moscow and died in Canada. 

On its maiden voyage the boat started making a funny noise. That noise cost us $5,000. Then we trustingly let Odin borrow the boat back for a weekend. We got a call next Monday telling us our dinghy was floating upside down. The outboard motor was a write off, and we had to buy another dinghy. That was another thousand. And because we were trying so hard to be green, we had to get solar panels, another thousand, and hire somebody to put them in for a few hundred. Also, since the toilet on the boat didn’t really work, we decided to do the green thing by shelling out $1,800 for a composting toilet that turned human waste into healthy, odorless mulch. Later we found that the city of Victoria, packed with 100,000 wealthy retirees, still pumped raw sewage into the ocean and had voted for decades against spending any money on sewage treatment. That’s the thing about rules in Canada: there are lots of rules for newcomers, and none at all for the locals. 

Then there was the problem of bringing a Great Dane puppy to live on a house-boat. Naturally, she hated the dinghy, which we had to row to where the boat was moored a half-mile from shore. And she hated the water. Most of all, she hated the boat. That meant we couldn’t leave her alone for even a minute or she’d howl, and more “nice” people would zoom up in their expensive Zodiacs to ask us pointedly if anything was wrong, then suggest that we might want to do something about that dog. 

So as the summer passed, we fell into our wretched marine routine. I spent most of my time dog-sitting on that miserable boat, and on my brief trips ashore applied for every teaching job in Canada, without result. Katherine kept working nights for minimum wage at a bakery in town. It didn’t pay anywhere near enough to live on, and it demanded that we wake at two a.m. so I could drive her to work in our beloved, trustworthy Hyundai. We had to take the dog with us, of course — and oh, what fun we had each time, getting a tall, uncoordinated puppy into a small, tippy plastic dinghy in choppy water. It’s amazing we didn’t drown several times over. I’d drop Katherine at her job and wait in the car with the dog until Katherine got off work in the morning. Then she’d take her shift staying in the car or walking with the dog and I’d go up to VIRCS, Victoria Immigrant and Refugee Centre Society. They were nice people who tried to help new immigrants walk through the porridge-y quicksand of Canadian life. They meant well, that’s about the most I can say. 

I applied for every teaching job I could, in remote Cree villages in Quebec, in Inuit villages that were icebound ten months of the year. If there was a snow-choked hamlet in Canada that wanted a teacher, I applied. And never got a nibble. I still don’t know if Canadian educational institutions have some hyper-efficient blacklist, or if that job I lucked into in Victoria was the only one in the whole country. All I know is that for three months I applied for jobs in Nunavut, the Yukon and Newfoundland. I begged to be allowed to teach at schools on the Porcupine River and Pelican Narrows. Pelican Narrows, Saskatchewan, that is. Reachable only by floatplane. I’m not making those names up. I have the letters on file if you want to see them. They didn’t turn me down; they didn’t answer at all. 

I was starting, belatedly, to panic, and actually wrote to Yukon Community College to ask why I wasn’t shortlisted for the parttime writing job they’d advertised. I got a very careful email informing me that those jobs were for members of the “Yukon community,” and that since I was “not a member of the Yukon community,” I wasn’t eligible. Lying in the bunk that night telling Katherine about it, I yowled, “How am I supposed to become a member of the Yukon community if I can’t get a job in the fucking Yukon?” But though that sort of tautological refusal is easy to mock, there was something frightening about it, something horribly Zen, teasing, a closed loop: “You can’t be one of us because you’re not one of us.” 

I kept applying, as the days got shorter and the nights got colder, just to be doing something. I branched out, applied for call-center jobs, fast food jobs, anything. Nothing. Now the terror was already beginning to bubble in our guts. No one wanted us at all. That was clear. Our money was gone. We were chained to the boat and to the dog. 

As autumn came on, the other discomforts of shipboard life — no working toilet (we never got that composting thing going, and just used a bucket), no light — started to seem minor compared to the cold. The only heating was the propane range, which meant buying 25-pound tanks of propane, driving them to the docks, humping them to the dinghy and rowing them out to the boat. A 25-pound tank lasted two nights, though as the nights got longer and colder it was more like one night. 

Then the plot turned ridiculous: in the middle of the night, on a quiet residential street near the docks, somebody torched our car, our beloved Hyundai that had never failed to start. One morning we walked up the hill to where we’d parked it and found a smoldering hole. The trees were singed, the ground was blackened; it looked like somebody had hit the car with a Hellfire missile. But even a missile would have left wreckage. Here there was nothing, just a burnt license plate and a scrap of melted tire. And that was that. We were carless in the vast North American suburbs, where everything is miles away on narrow semi-country roads with no sidewalks. Instead of driving, we walked to the store and lugged back drinking water, propane tanks, groceries and laundry on our backs. We were pedestrians. 

I read somewhere that that’s what Gwyneth Paltrow calls non-famous people. What they are to her, we now were to the ordinary people zooming by in their huge pickups. Without the car or a reliable bus service, Katherine had to quit her bakery job. Instead she got a part-time job caring for a woman with spina bifida. It paid less, but at least the house was within walking distance. 

Then came winter, and real poverty. Days are long when you’re sitting on a boat in the middle of a bay. I watched the seasons change, as the poets say, but there was nothing pretty about it. I’d already spent too long staring down into the algae blooms and jellyfish swarms of summer. Now it was my turn to see the storms and die-offs of late autumn and early winter. I was in the middle of Nature, and it was nothing but cold and fear. One day an otter came and lay on the bench at the stern, grooming itself, waiting out yet another storm. In the old Disney days I’d have been ecstatic to be within a couple of yards of an otter, but it didn’t seem so great now. The otter didn’t look like a jolly, playful mammal up close either. It had a flattened head, an unhappy expression, and didn’t seem any more excited about its life than some loser who works at a car wash. After a few hours it left without saying anything. It seemed we’d been on that boat for about a decade, but it had actually only been five months. 

That was enough to make some changes, though. The one good change was physical: we’d both gotten very lean, very mean. I didn’t realize the extent of this change until the day, just before our car was torched, when I got into a stupid parking dispute in downtown Victoria with a tourist whose car had Oklahoma plates. He screamed at me in his twang, and, to my and Katherine’s surprise, I screamed back — convincingly; rather frighteningly convincingly. And when we both got out of our cars for the inevitable bullshit confrontation, he actually backed away and said, “You better watch it or they’re gonna revoke your parole!” before getting into his car and leaving. I didn’t know whether to be insulted or flattered at being taken for an ex-con, but settled for being flattered. After all, it was the only compensation we’d gotten for all the nightmares. 

Next: Part IV