This summer I am writing a series of essays to celebrate the women in my life who have inspired and continue to inspire great things in me and for all the people they know.
I am so honoured to be friends with Jolene. Her kindness and authenticity has lifted me out of many ruts. Whether she knows it or not, she is always arriving at the very right moment. With great timing and an even greater heart, Jolene is inspiration to be confidently Free.
Jolene is a stunning, just-above-average-height-but-still-kind-of-a-runway-model-at-all-times, brilliant, open-hearted friend of mine.
It took me a while to learn that she had the same name as a Dolly Parton song.
Deep into our friendship, she is living with me at my house for the time being, in between places, we are smoking on my little balcony while I drink more with her than I ever will with anyone in my life at this very moment or the moment to come or the moment after that or my whole life, I ask her:
“You know the Dolly Parton song, “Jolene”?”
“YEAH I KNOW IT.”
I laugh at her exclamation.
“People sing it to me and it’s like “ok great, but I’m not a whore and I don’t have auburn hair.” So like. No.”
Her cigarette burns as I consider how fun it must be for such a beautiful, graceful woman to continuously shock people with her refusal to be delicate.
I meet Jolene on a bench just outside of Sidney Smith Hall on U of T campus.
The University of Toronto is beautifully terrifying. The buildings are monstrous. The pathways are gorgeous but hidden and oftentimes misleading. If you haven’t been a student at U of T, it is likely that the area of Toronto considered to be “campus” is unfamiliar to you and, should you step foot on it, you will get lost.
If you feel better about yourself for not believing that statement, go ahead and deny your ignorance.
Meet me in front of the Athletic Center.
Are you there yet?
No. You’re lost and afraid.
U of T is a scary place.
I love it there.
I am not the type to make friends.
My romantic entanglement with urbanity is heavily fixed in the sensation of not being recognized, not being important and not, under any circumstances, being encouraged to speak to a stranger.
Jolene is a sudden stranger.
She is gorgeous. Her subtly artistic existence includes a gigantic white purse, gigantic plastic sunglasses, naturally occurring long locks and no smile whatsoever.
“Hey is your light working? I’m sorry I don’t have one.”
Her chaos comforts me.
Without it, without that sense of completely individuated and probably glorified personal Mess, she would be intimidating. But, something humble gets in the way of her Elizabeth-Taylor-Level-Glam potential.
“That’s ok, here.” I tell her and I lend her my lighter.
She smokes standing in front of me for about a second until she looks at me and announces “you’re in that lecture”.
“Fine art history?”
“Yeah. I’m sorry, you know what? I’m just going to sit here,” she says and she sits, shaking the hair from her eyes and looking straight at the sky. Just by sitting beside me she is defying the unspoken law of campus cold bitch attitude.
I want her to like me. I say,
“Do you get the feeling that the professor has a lot of like….better shit he could be doing,” It is a question that has been bothering me for a couple weeks, ever since the course began.
The professor, Dr. Jan Wollenson, is an amazing version of Old Ambiguously-European Academic Man complete with a white moustache and a full head of white hair. He shows us slide shows of historical sites, but they are all personal pictures. “That’s my girlfriend standing next to the pillar”, he narrates as he gives us a taste of how kind-of-precious the world is when you happen to remember to look around.
I love him, instantly. His avuncular presence makes me admire him for deciding to spend the last third of his life simply just: Sharing.
Jolene turns her head, locks eyes with me and angles her posture slightly away. She thinks with a sturdy brow and remarks , finally, “Yes!” She continues, “Yes, he’s kind of over it. He’s strange.”
We look up and see Wollenson. He lights a cigarette and, within seconds, he smokes the entire thing. We both laugh.
“I wonder how long it will be before I inhale like that,” says Jolene.
I ask her if she is taking other art classes. She tells me she is a painter and she came to U of T instead of OCAD because she was hoping she could study art as well as a collection of other topics. I tell her I felt the same thing when I applied. I tell her I like to draw, mostly faces. I ask what she paints, she says lots of colour, lots of abstract. We bond over U of T’s lack of space in their visual arts studios, a deficit that renders the degree a bizarre joke, completely impossible to obtain.
I don’t know it at the time but I have a strong, vivid love for the abstract and I am endlessly grateful to those artists who are or who have been brave enough to construct abstract imagery, as if the task of representing “abstract” feelings and discoveries is easy. It isn’t easy. Most people can express nothing. They get tangled in all the shit they can’t articulate and they end their sentences with “I Don’t Know”. Abstract difficulties ruin most relationships. People forfeit their lives to abstraction.
Jolene paints it.
Of course we become friends.
We bond immediately over our nicotine addiction but we bond further when we discuss one another’s past drug usages. We both have different experiences with addiction, withdrawal and recovery. We both assign very little drama to those events. We speak in casual assertions regarding our demonstrably valuable life narratives. We get along very comfortably.
Jolene is from a small town in Ontario. She is living in campus residence. She is new to the city and discovering it for the first time. I hope I can help her feel comfortable here. I offer her my Toronto knowledge.
“Do you know of any raves?” She asks me.
I have never been to a rave. In fact, a “rave”, to me, has always been a mythical destination. I am charmed to hear that she’s been looking for one. With whom would she even attend these raves?
I wonder momentarily if this is one of those movies where a shy writer meets an outgoing painter and they get into trouble, the painter always encouraging the writer to be more outrageous, more potently edgy, louder, hungrier for life.
I decide not to be afraid.
“I don’t know. Of any raves.” I tell her, regrettably.
“Ok, I mean, I’ll find one. See you next week!” And gone she went.
Jolene shows me a photograph. It is 2009 or 2010. It is a printed photograph. Jolene stands in a boat. She is very thin. Already a slight woman as I know her, even in the photo, Jolene is strikingly thin. She is wearing large sunglasses. She calls them her acid glasses because they aren’t her prescription (she found them…somewhere). The lenses are very, very scratched and the experience of wearing them is almost akin to the experience of an acid trip. She tells me she wears them while driving.
Standing in the boat, there are two young men with her.
Jolene stares into the lens, as if she’s mid-sentence, forming a word with her mouth. We don’t know what she is saying.
Jolene has told me that her hometown is within an area that sees many drunk driving accidents in a year. She tells me that she has known of many fatalities that have had personal significance to her. I have assigned her home the same mythological weight that I assign to raves which is probably about the amount of mythological weight most people assign to Unicorns.
For me, Jolene provokes Unicorn-Level awe. It is the kind of awe that keeps me giddy. Everywhere Jolene goes sounds unbelievably dangerous to me. I don’t worry about her safety. She seems to always survive whatever she’s endured. I love her stories. She hardly acknowledges how important or even how ridiculous her stories are but I listen with an ear for commendable bravery.
Jolene finds herself at a Guns n’ Roses concert. She loses her coat. She can’t find her phone. She’s fine.
Jolene is working with a man who basically stalks her. She handles him fine. She is fine.
Jolene is more than fine. She is steady and recovered and going back to work and having a few more drinks and she is stunning, she is stunning all over again. She is not just Fine. She is stunning.
Jolene and I sit and smoke together every week for years.
We have a good time.
She introduces me to friends in her dorm, she invites me out with them, we go drinking and swearing and playing pool and I never for once feel like she wants me to improve.
Jolene calls me at odd hours to come have a pint at strange bars.
I go, with wonderment.
It is mostly against my nature to hop out of bed at 11 PM to “Go get a pint” but I do it because Fear has only ever kept me from being anything like Jolene but, ever since meeting her: Why wouldn’t I at least arrive to see if I can enjoy myself as much as she can. And I do.
Life is easier since knowing Jolene. Before I met her, I was tucked underneath a very hard shell. Her confidence was some kind of sign from the angels: Find ease for yourself, Rachel, you can do it because Look How Beautiful It Is When Someone is Just Who They Are (Cue Jolene’s descent from heaven).
While we were at U of T, we have very frequent experiences together. Since I graduated from school, we see each other less often. We aren’t that different but do we have the kind of differences that have pushed us into separate social circles. Jolene really loves a party (or a partyesque experience) and I really love thinking silently to myself in a room. Through that polarity, we separate but I love seeing her. When I am around Jolene, I feel relaxed and encouraged. I feel like never ending my time with her, never going anywhere else.
Of course, time does end occasions and as I step away from her I feel like I am exiting a specific charge. The world feels electric for a few blocks and then it dies until I am home alone again and I have to really look around to find the same vibrancy.
Jolene insists on supporting my work, any chance she has.
Summer of 2014, I have a play up in Toronto in a very grim location. Jolene texts me to ask where she’s supposed to be going. I step out to find her, running up the sidewalk, texting me, wearing a long summers dress and heels, looking like a red carpet goddess, yelling, “I FOUND IT” from halfway up the street.
Jolene is particularly beautiful for every mistake she can’t remember making.
One morning Jolene wakes up to a bicycle in her dorm room.
“I think I stole a bike last night.”
That’s what she says.
“I think l stole a bike last night and I can’t even put it back because I do not know where I got it from.”
It’s a huge dilemma.
“I guess I have a bike now.”
It is an old bike.
She gives to another friend who has to fix it up quite a bit before being able to ride.
I am not sure that the bike will be missed but what strikes me the most about the incident is that Jolene is not as worried as she is confused. Her lack of worry, for all her confusion, strikes me as being very sophisticated. I would have been worried not only for the bike owner, but for my brain. She didn’t worry. She was more focused on the outcome.
“I guess I have a bike now.”
She told the story enough times, shamelessly, with a sense of humour. Eventually she found the bike a new owner and it feels a bit like the world is a recurring safety net for this woman I know and love named Jolene.
Jolene comes to visit me in Montreal. She is quite thin and wearing all black, tugging a huge suitcase up my block. She is not bouncing quite as she usually does.
I take her inside and she tells me how her ex-boyfriend recently suffered a fatal accident. The details of her story are brutal. She was very close to him.
Jolene is not only sad, she’s discouraged.
I have heard about her anxiety. I have heard from her that she struggles but it is a little unbelievable sometimes since she is such a force.
We drink beer and eat Indian food, finding ourselves in a very loud bar later that evening, arriving home early for the two of us.
It is a very different occasion from the first time she visited me in Montreal. We had so much to drink, I passed out, face-planting into my bed with my pants around my ankles. Jolene tells me she walked by to go to the washroom and saw my bare ass on the bed but couldn’t remember how I could have ended up that way unless, oh yes cue the memory of shots in our friend’s kitchen and then an eventual after hours, or even previous to that, we left a wine bar and then went to, what we could have swore was a gay bar, but just ended up being a bar where we asked a number of people if they “are gay or what”, or even before that when we shared a dinner, seated at a bar in a gorgeous resto Jolene had picked out for us as she discussed Bitters with the bartender and flirted her way to some other delicious recommendations, should we find ourselves in the area for another dinner that weekend.
This visit is nothing like that first one.
The next day, we wake up early, we walk up the mountain with my dog, we get smoothies from the juice bar that is around the corner. Jolene starts to gain momentum. We walk through a street fair, we eat strange food on a strange patio, we come home, we rest, we get ready and we go to a party. The events become unimportant.
The visit is crucial.
I do not know her ex-boyfriend. I do not know anyone she grew up with. I cannot picture her hometown. I cannot even picture most of her life in Toronto at this moment, this moment that she shows up at my home tired and scared and unsure and uncomfortable. I am, in a very subtle way, a bit of a vacation for her.
It feels good to return the favour she’s given me for so many years: Of course, Jo, come into my home and only leave if you feel you can.
For many years I have felt like being with Jolene is time away from great sadness.
Thank you, Jolene, for rescuing me without even trying. How brilliant you are for not trying.
Mutuality took over her Montreal stay.
I didn’t try. I just opened my door to her. I believe it helped.
Jolene wore a dark hat the entire time.
She found a new one when she was shopping.
Today, you can find Jolene hobbling around the Annex, still gorgeous, but strutting a bandage she now requires because, upon a very recent trip to the Philippines she cut her foot on a screen door.
“It was a freak accident,” she tells me, “You could see bone and everything, I got nine stitches.”
She went on the trip with a man she was doubtful about but she had dated for more than a year. She left him there. The story is personal but the ending is fabulous: It was over and she left him on the beach.
She also met him on the beach.
So: I suppose poetic reasoning allows for her wide-open cut and his destination break up to make a lot of sense. Of course, compared to a chapter in the life of an average person, Jolene epitomizes Exceptionality.
“This is my first day wearing shoes,” she tells me, “I was cut right here,” she indicates the side of her foot.
She tells me how the doctor is referring her to a plastic surgeon to remove some skin that is overlying the cut “Go figure, I have to go to a plastic surgeon and it isn’t even for new boobs.”
Her figure is so slight, I can’t picture her with boobs of any kind.
Still, she sits in the patio chair, drinking sangria and I laugh knowing, she will meet a plastic surgeon one day, and he will likely give her boobs for free.