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Lesbian couple not saved by fostering trans teenager

Nicola Harwood’s memoir takes stock of decades of denial and survival

In Flight Instructions For the Commitment Impaired, Nicola Harwood faces her self-delusions, and learns something about relationships.  Credit: Caitlin Press

“Come on, it’ll be fun.”

Fateful words spoken by Nicola Harwood, recalled in the opening pages of her new memoir, Flight Instructions For the Commitment Impaired.

A newspaper ad, a crumbling relationship, a last-ditch effort to save it. In the background, a cold and blustery night in a cramped yet expensive San Francisco apartment situated “on the border between upward and downward mobility.”

Harwood had recently moved to the Mission District from Victoria on a love-blind whim. Accompanying her: a smelly dog and a butch older spouse referred to only as The Lover.

A possible remedy for the couple’s marital doldrums, the proposed “fun” was a tall, pre-teen black boy named Antwan, struggling in the foster care system. A crack addict’s child with virtually no recognition of personal boundaries, he had a fondness for girly dressup and a spectrum of behavioural issues such as impulse control.

Acting on a kindhearted if shortsighted instinct, the teetering couple began the coursework (and paperwork) required before meeting him.

“We wanted,” Harwood writes, “to rescue a severely emotional, gender-disturbed genius.”

A few pages later she adds a note of clarity that retrospect sometimes grants: “The great thing about denial is that it gets things done. If we humans had any vague idea of the pain certain decisions would bring into our lives we’d never leave the couch.”

While the desire to protect, guide and nurture was genuine, plans did not go as envisioned.

Within a couple of years of wrestling with the tough everyday of parenting, Harwood’s regretful admission that “I don’t think I can do it” was met by Antwan’s generous reply: “You all tried. I know that.”

Antwan was, Harwood states, “every teenager — just turned up past the full volume mark.”

“He wore his miniskirts far too short, waving seductively at men driving by in cars, and turned every home into a war zone, attacking vehemently and violently those he needed the most,” Harwood writes.

Though spirited and creative, there was no overlooking Antwan’s meltdowns, vibrant fantasy life that didn’t blend well with typical responsibilities, and outbursts that now and then required physical restraining. The couple’s coping strategies ultimately came up short.

Still, as a couple (and later as exes), they fostered a kind of caregiving friendship with the adolescent that continues to hold a valuable place in all their lives.

Now a creative writing instructor at Kwantlen University in Greater Vancouver, Harwood is publishing her memoir some 16 years after the events of its last chapter (in which Antwan — still an exuberant handful but now identifying as Tavia — announces, on the eve of her 18th birthday, a desire for a porn industry career).

Harwood’s candid memoir recounts her trials during and after San Francisco, and pays close attention to her own capacity for self-delusion, the impossible entanglements of her faltering (and later dissolved) relationship, and the difficulties of sharing space with Antwan.

Her witty candour, even in the face of painful circumstances, quickly surfaces in our interview. Asked about the book’s planning and writing process, she quips, “Well, I had to do the research, which took about 45 years of crashing and burning through relationships and homes. Then it took about two years to write about it.”

“I wrote from my gut,” she says, “partly as a way to process a huge disappointment in my life and partly to make fun of myself while I was feeling very sad. Sick, I know.”

As for the often light-hearted tone amid sobering events, she explains, “Humour is a family inheritance. It didn’t amount to much in my bank account but it does get you through the difficult bits.”

In writing her memoir, Harwood says she learned some hard truths about herself, her naivety about relationships and her growing understanding that couples don’t always get along. “I just thought that once you got sort of chronically annoyed with one another the thing was done. I’m getting better at fighting. It’s amazing.”

Her idealistic heart may have been trampled in San Francisco, but since the book’s publication she now thinks she may be able to return. “When it looked like the book was to be published I contacted both the Ex and Tavia to make sure they felt comfortable with the stories being told. Last I talked to Tavia, she had a job at a restaurant and told me she was a grown-ass woman now and that I’d better be there for her 30th birthday. So I guess I will be.”