Clifton Hill is awake and pulsing, moving like a living, breathing thing. A voice radiates from a loudspeaker inviting tourists into the Movieland Wax Museum of the Stars. Couples pull wagon loads of children into the great Canadian Midway, the Guinness World Records Museum, the Rainforest Café. Loud music emanates from a rooftop bar where karaoke singers croon ballads for their friends. It’s early springtime, and Mary-Jane can’t believe how many people are here. It’s still cold enough for a toque and gloves, the sky is a dreary grey.
Mary-Jane watches the Maid of the Mist struggle through choppy waves. She’s been on it only once when she was small. She held onto her grandmother for dear life as the boat tossed through the waves in a fury of thunderous noise. Oversized yellow slickers did nothing to protect them from the soaking they endured.
When family visited from far away, Mary-Jane and her grandmother took them to see the Horseshoe Falls, to observe them through the famous coin-operated binoculars that line the boulevard. They ate pizza and ice cream and watched fireworks explode in the sky. They bought t-shirts and keychains and fridge magnets and took a thousand photographs. Mary-Ann still doesn’t believe there is a more wonderful place on earth.
Extricating herself from the tourists, she wanders into Queen Victoria Park at the base of the Falls. There is a particular bench she wants to sit on, the one where she met Matthew in the eighth grade. Her class had been sent on a weeklong retreat to Loretto Academy, an old convent nestled amongst the trees right next to the Falls. Under the vigilant eyes of the nuns, mentors taught them about God, showed them how to make friendship bracelets, and took them hiking in the gorge. When the nuns granted them free time for sightseeing, Mary-Jane went off on her own, vying to get a better view of her beloved Falls.
She sat on the bench watching people enjoying picnics and a group of boys playing hacky sack nearby. After much gawking and huddling, one of them approached her. “The guys dared me to talk to you,” he said. Here with his family for a week, he and his cousins could do whatever they wanted while the adults drank too much and gambled at the casino. Mary-Jane watched the play of shadows and light filter through the trees on the skin of his arms, his face. He promised to sneak out of his hotel and stand outside the convent that night. She agreed to open a window on the third floor and drop a letter down to him.
They plotted to see each other every day that week, concocting elaborate schemes for the secret pleasure of waving to each other from some location or another. On the last day, Mary-Jane broke away from the group to say goodbye to Matthew, and they made a pact. “Let’s meet back here in twenty years,” he said. “If we’re both single, we’ll get married. It’s the honeymoon capital of the world, after all.”
They set a date and time, and now Mary-Jane is sitting on the bench and Matthew is not here. Of course she knew he wouldn’t travel across the ocean after all these years, he probably doesn’t remember she exists. She sits all afternoon, nonetheless, under the spell of the rolling mist, the dull roar of the waterfall. Thinking about all the people who went over the Falls in a barrel and lived, all the people who jumped and didn’t make it.
The best time to see the Falls, she knows, is at midnight in the dead of winter. The stone walkways lining the river will be empty, ghostly compared to the thousands of bodies that fill them in the height of summer. The road, normally jammed with traffic, will be a blank space, so you can park for free. You can lean over the wrought-iron curlicues decorating the wall, to hear the deafening rush of millions of tons of water. Ponder the ten inches of rock that have eroded each year, every year for a millennium.
In high school, Mary-Ann had done all these things with a boy who took her there to tell her he didn’t love her anymore. After he said those words, he asked her what she was thinking. “I’m thinking about the Falls,” she said. And she was.
She was thinking, in the depth of the vacant night, that this was as close as she could get to understanding how the Falls felt hundreds of years ago. Before the blinking lights of hotels and motels advertising heart-shaped jacuzzis, before the giant caricatures of Dracula and Frankenstein perched atop haunted houses promising thrills and chills. No hot dog vendors or bowling alleys or extreme mini putting. Just lush forests cut through by a wide gash of surging water.
Mary-Jane gets up from the bench and walks back to the bottom of the Hill. She knows she will return countless times because the waterfall pulls her with an invisible tether, offering a solace no one else can give. An emotional balm, a restorative treatment, reminding her that nature is more powerful than anything, even her loneliness.
She stands in line for the Sky Wheel and purchases one ticket. She glides high into the air inside a fiberglass bubble. At the top, she watches a hawk circle above the rapids, the people below moving like insects around a fathomless wonder of the world.