Where the Heart Is: Edmonton is being known

I met my friend Alex when I was 13 years old.

I was a shy kid, with glasses and braces and an untamable cowlick. Before meeting Alex I’d had friends, but he was the first one who made me feel truly known. Alex was someone that I admired before I ever came to befriend him. He had a way of putting people at ease, of winning people over simply by being a genuinely kind guy.

One day in grade eight he invited me and a couple other kids over for a movie night at his house. We talked and played Broforce and paid precious little attention to the actual movie, and a couple of weeks later, he invited the same group over to do it all again. Those few guys – Alex, Christian, Finn and later Herbert – became some of the most important people in my life. They still are.

So it was hard to leave them after high school.

A few months after graduating from high school, I left home to work in Jasper, an Albertan mountain town. The month I spent there was the most memory-dense I’ve ever had. I was living away from home for the first time, and in those thirty days, I crammed in elation, heartbreak, bear encounters, my first ‘adult’ job and a deep sense of isolation. Every day swung wildly between ecstasy and despondency as I tried to navigate my new world.

When I visit Jasper now, there’s a sense of loss. I recognize the town but don’t really know it. Not a single person I know still lives in Jasper, and it’s been more than four years since I’ve talked to anyone I met there. No one is around to share those memories in the visceral way that only someone who lived them with you can. There is a certain beauty in this, but a joy that only you remember leaves a bittersweet taste. It’s the ghost of a relationship lost, a smile from a friend who’s become a stranger.

Home to me is being known.

With my friends at home, there’s nothing to explain. I can talk about what my 13-year-old self was like, or tell you about myself at 18 when I went to Jasper, but Alex just knows. When I think of Mark at 13, I see insecurity and awkwardness. When I think of Mark at 18, I remember how lonely I felt, and I regret the people I hurt and the time I spent feeling sorry for myself. Alex, though, remembers me better than I can. He has a lot of kind things to say about the prior iterations of Mark. He was friends with them, after all.

Whenever I go home, I visit a certain bench overlooking the river valley. It’s one of my favourite spots in Edmonton. The city, and the memories it contains, spread out in a panorama.

To the left, nestled amongst the skyscrapers downtown, is the Alberta Legislature, where I had my first job. Immediately below is the river valley itself. The North Saskatchewan River bisects the city, brown and languid in the summer and a jagged sheet of ice during the winter. To the right is the University of Alberta, which so nearly had me, and Hawrelak Park, where I first gained the courage to put my shaking hand in another’s.

My whole life, it seems to me, is contained in that image.

It doesn’t matter if I visit the bench alone. I can feel my friends beside me, who have joined me there so many times. I know without having to look that an A + M is scratched into the wood, a quiet nod to our friendship made years ago. I can remember being there with my sister, as she told me about her writing and I told her about the high school crush I couldn’t stop pining after. I can remember countless runs past the bench with my dad, our conversations warmly predictable, our strides in lockstep. I remember, maybe most importantly, myself; the hopes and dreams and anxieties that I have brought to that spot year after year, the city always in front of me, its lights sparkling upon the water.

When I am home, I feel understood. Edmonton, and the people within it, is not just where I come from – it’s a part of the very fabric of my being. Being away from home now, just as during those few weeks in Jasper, l feel scared. I don’t know quite who I am, or where I belong or what it means to yearn for a place you no longer live in. I often look at myself and still see the scared boy, insecure and adrift with the same untamable cowlick. When I return to Edmonton, though, everything feels a bit better. The city, and my friends and family within it, know me.

Sometimes, when I am kind with myself, I believe they know me better than I do.