No. 2 | Writing Retreat: Artscape Gibraltar Point, Toronto Island


The GM picks me up at the ferry in a dark red van, one of the only vehicles allowed on the island. She’s wearing a KISS t-shirt under her army green wool coat and a black toque. We load up my food and other supplies for the week and drive at the speed of a country parade. We arrive a couple minutes later.  

The GM gives me a tour. The arts centre is the old Toronto Island Public and Natural Science School, most of which was built in the 30s. It was saved from demolition when Artscape took over in 1999 and gave it a cursory renovation. It’s like the dive bar of artists’ residencies, only it's situated on a stunning piece of land. The hallways are lined with strange objets d'art and the fountains are installed at kid-height. There are also these lamps all over the place that look like rough pink quartz. There’s even a matching chandelier in the communal kitchen. Further aesthetic travesty: the dish soap is dispensed from a mustard squeeze bottle. 

My studio is near the end of one wing and is where the GM leaves me to get settled. It's the size of half a classroom and nearly empty. The flickering overhead lights make it feel like a movie set for an interrogation scene in Stalinist Russia. I sit down at a huge desk that's covered in butcher paper and write "JM wuz here."

It’s blustery out so the windows mutter and shake. Otherwise it’s quiet, except for the sound of bounding up and down the hall that I assume is from the dancers. I'd noticed them earlier on the tour. There are visual artists around too, identifiable by the paint splatters on their clothes, but the whole day passes without spotting any writer-kin.

CJ, the resident ginger cat, wakes me up with incessant mewling. I make tea in the kitchen and take it down to the beach, which is essentially the backyard. The lake looks, but doesn’t smell like ocean, which, being from the west coast, always feels like a rip-off. The temperature has dropped, so I don't stay long. 

Back in the building, there’s a film shoot happening. I think I see a naked guy in the shower past the cameras (unless it’s a mirage, but I’ve only been without a naked guy for a day). I get to work in my studio, taping pages to the walls, then moving them around. 

Before lunch, I call Manuel—whose number is on the board in the kitchen—about renting a bicycle. He gives me a combo to try on the clutter of bikes locked up outside. The second one I try springs open. It’s an old yellow Raleigh with a red milk crate bungeed to the rear rack. I test drive it out to the pier. 

Later, my friend Tiger visits. She’s wintering on the island. She tells me the hideous lamps are made from Himalayan salt and are natural air purifiers—good for health. “Try licking one,” she says. 

I don’t, but all that evening when I’m working I think about it.  

So tired. 

The bed is too hard. Spent the night turning like a rotisserie chicken. 

Still I get right down to work staring at my studio walls. I’m irked by my neighbour yakking on his phone. He’s planning a journal launch party in the UK. I know this because I can hear all the details: he’s got the pipes of a Shakespearean actor. 

At sunset, I walk down to the beach to be at one with nature. Nature wants to be at one with me too and the wind blows sand in my eyes to prove it. I blindly hustle back to rinse my contact lenses. The incident makes whiskey o’clock come earlier, then I need a nap. 

Thunder Feet, one of the dancers—who’s surprisingly lead-footed for someone of that calling—thuds down the hall and startles me awake in time for dinner. In the kitchen, I get a good look at McYakkerton in the kitchen. He’s white-haired, fit, and wearing socks with sandals. He fries a steak before heading to his mens’ meeting in the city. When he leaves, I talk to the GM about him. She says he’s already been asked to make calls in “the privacy room” and that she’ll remind him again. Satisfied, I find a little wok to cook my dinner in. I’m stirring my broccoli, marvelling at the wok’s exceptional cuteness when a musician who’s pulling out a box of Rice Krispies casually tells me it’s not a wok, it’s a serving dish. He doesn’t find this as amusing as I do. 

I think the artists here may be depressed. 

A whole empty beach again, so I chat to myself out loud about my work until it feels pretentious and I switch to a bad heartfelt rendition of "Wade in the Water" à la Mavis Staples. 

In the studio, I do my best writing yet, but then I have to stop because my friend E.’s book launch is tonight. I get dolled up and head out on the Raleigh. I ride along the shore, past an impressive gaggle of geese. They’re very good at sharing the road. There’s a wedge of geese overhead too. And there's geese poop. A lot of geese poop. 

I’d never ride a bicycle in the city because of the cars, so I lock up the Raleigh at the ferry terminal. When the ferry docks, I head home to meet A. first. I act like I’m visiting because I’m still on my retreat. He pours me a drink and I ask him how long he's lived in the neighbourhood because it's kind of hot to pretend that it's his pad and I'm there on a date. A looks confused for a moment and then puts his arm across the back of the loveseat and confidently replies, “About two years.” Adds, “I have a decorator.”

The book launch is at Nobody Writes to the Colonel in Little Italy. E.'s pappy looks sharp in a red button-down shirt and is sitting right up at the front. When E. reads from her new book, I get a little misty like I would at a wedding. When the event winds down, A. walks me to the streetcar stop and I head back to the island. 

Near my stop to get off, there's a shaggy-haired man wearing a Santa suit with the jacket unbuttoned, givin’ ‘er on drums along to “Don’t Stop Believing” blaring from his ghetto blaster. I have to wait a while for the ferry. We cross the lake in the dark and the freezing rain, then I retrieve the Raleigh and ride back with the song stuck in my head. 

I dream that celebrity hamsters will be visiting today. 

I wake up disappointed. 

The depressed artists are making me want to socialize with famous rodents. I head to the kitchen to fix breakfast and see that a long-term tenant who has a resting smirky face, has left his studio door open. I can hear his self-help tape. It’s about being vulnerable. He’s wearing banana yellow pants. 

Someone has done laundry and spread her underwear on top of a radiator in the hall. Her buttocks can be no larger than two dainty cinnamon buns, so I’m guessing one of the dancers. Then I notice the different items of clothing and try to picture all the dancer’s faces. And then it dawns on me: there is only one dancer; she just keeps changing her clothes and is so fleet of foot that it feels like she’s everywhere.

After lunch, and more wall staring, I ride to the amusement park, which is shuttered up for the year. You’d think it’d be eerie, but it’s not. It’s lovely. I visit the peacock and the truly enormous pig at the farm and talk to them both. It makes up for the hamsters. 

When I get back, I edit pages and try to tune out Dinky McYakkerton who’s at it again. Later, in the kitchen, I politely remind him that he was asked to make his calls elsewhere. He apologizes and says he “forgot.” I want to say: Yeah right, go tell it to Iron John, Dinkwad. 

I take dinner to my bedroom. The halls are dark, but I can still make out the big painting of the naked dude on all fours with a skunk atop his rump. 

Up early. There are snow squalls! 

I see no one, but Dinky McDinkerface is on the blower again. I stomp on the floor because my knickers are too knotted to be civil. He wraps it up. 

After a few productive hours, Dinkerton starts working his way through his RSVP list for the party. He keeps reciting his phone number, so I consider dialing it to ask whether he can really afford the suckling pig. Instead I pound on his door like a cop and ask him HOW MANY REMINDERS he needs to use the "privacy room", which makes me feel like I'm asking him to jerk off somewhere else. Then I slam back into my studio.

I’m now too mad to work. I go walk it off on the beach. When I get back, I retreat to my bedroom, hardly having worked at all. This leads to me feeling like a failure and a lousy writer, which then leads to watching YouTube tutorials on how to cut your own bangs even though I don't have bangs.

My duvet has the weight of roadkill, so I slept with the windows open despite it being -17. It felt like camping. I look like I’m camping too: braids, fleece-lined leggings, plaid. 

I’m allowed to have a visitor on my last night, so A. is joining me today. Dinkerton must’ve found the privacy room because I can hear myself think for a few hours. Then I have to un-tape my notes from the walls, pack up my papers, and ride out to meet A. from the ferry. When I see him, I ride really fast to get to him. He’s brought my down coat that makes me look like a puff pastry, which I quickly exchange my wool one for. I ride and A. trots alongside me the half-hour back to Gibraltar. Our faces & legs get flaming cold. 

We make hot toddies as soon as we get in, then make pizza. A. gets elbowed by a depressed artist in the kitchen who doesn’t apologize. We find an empty classroom to eat in, and sit on either side of the teacher’s desk. There's a bright green apple on it that the film people must've left behind. At one point, Dinkerton barges in, phone in hand, looks startled, and leaves.

After dinner, while  taking our plates back to the kitchen, we see a woman at the end of the dark hall. She looks like a schoolmarm with a bun, high collar, and a bustle skirt. 

When we pass back through the hall a couple minutes later, she’s gone.

Woken by Thunder Feet. It turns out that she’s not a dancer, she’s a performance artist (later I hear about a performance she does wearing a garbage bag that she throws garbage out of.) 

I’ve been walloped by a cold and feel gross. 

I still want A. to see the beach. Outside, the wind churns up little waves in our mugs of tea—seriously: little tidal waves. We scurry back inside and pour our cold tea down the drain. 

The GM says we can stay one more night to make up for Dinkerton, but I’m sneezing and want my own bed. 

My childhood habit of pocketing stones from the beach has remained intact; I have three to pack along with the rest of my stuff. The GM gives us a lift to the ferry. While we cross the lake, I try to bury my face in A.’s down hood even though I have my own.

I think about those purifying salt lamps and wonder if I should’ve given one a good lick after all.