Messages in Bottles

missed exits

I stood outside the door of my room, leaning with one hand against the bannister that enclosed the second floor of the motel.  Above me the night was still, and below me the dark parking lot that assumed the shape of a courtyard, surrounded on all but one side by the building, was vacant except for a couple of cars that were painted the same shade of dusty as my Civic.  I wondered, as I produced a cigarette from the pack in my breast pocket, what sorry circumstances brought their owners to this rundown heap of poorly patched walls and windows that wouldn’t open.  But then why does one do anything if not out of necessity?

You have a lot of time to think about these things when you’re on the road as much as I am.  People think travelling salesmen are a dying species, but I think there are more of us than there have ever been.  Everywhere you look these days, someone is peddling this solution or that addition which promises to make your workday worth getting through.  It’s a wonder we have any questions when the answers are being provided to us for two easy payments of fifty-nine-ninety-nine.  I smile as I light my cigarette, satisfied with my dissatisfaction.

In truth, I haven’t always been this bitter.  I was married once, to someone worth marrying, and that, maybe, is why she left me.  To be honest, I no longer think back to those days with resentment — I’m happy she stepped out of the car when she did, to be with someone who held the door for her.  I only wish she didn’t take the map with her, because it takes two people to make this business worthwhile: one to drive off, and the other to wait at home.

But maybe I think about it more than I’m admitting.  Mostly it’s about the things I would do differently.  The reality is I don’t have many memories of our being together anymore.  It’s not that it happened long ago, though it does feel that way.  Nor is it because I’ve chosen to forget, because the bit I do remember still makes me smile.  It’s just the way things happen.  Sometimes you stay at a nice hotel, but you always have to check out in the end, and when you do, your wallet’s a little lighter.  I can’t say I left with nothing though.  I’ve forgotten about what happened in the first grade, too, but I apply simple math whenever I must.

As I took from my cigarette the last that it had to offer, a door opened across from me on the other side of the courtyard.  Out stepped the silhouette of a man.  For a moment, I considered heading over to say hello, but I saw that he had lit a cigarette of his own.  It struck me like a single brake light off in the distance.  I lit another cigarette in response, with the hope, I suppose, of communicating to the stranger that he wasn’t alone — that this road he was on was being shared, even if we were going in different directions.

time and tide

I’ve taken to walking through town while it’s cloudy outside.  When the sky looks as it does this evening, pregnant with the promise to deliver rain, I empty out my pockets, change into old clothes, and make my way towards the beach a half hour from my apartment.

My children tell me that I’m not as young as I used to be, as if the protest in my knees isn’t reminder enough.  They tell me that one day I’ll be sorry that I let myself get wet because I’ll develop pneumonia, and maybe one day I will, but the only instances I recall regretting a downpour have been the times I couldn’t be a part of it.

Perhaps this sounds like crazy behaviour to you — reason clouded by sentiment, or senility manifested into a false friend.  But when I smell the change in the air, a scent that has always seemed to me like the pages of an old book, I’m reminded of the life I have led in a way that makes it accessible to me.  When the rain starts to fall, whether softly at first, or suddenly with all its strength, I am inseparable from the ocean that has fed my family for generations; that feeds the deluge as it unstitches the weakening flesh that surrounds me.

Sometimes the rain stops before I make it to the shore.  If it does, I turn back around and head home, content to have had those few minutes of meditation.  If it’s still raining when I arrive at the ocean, I take off my shoes, roll my pant legs up to my knees, and wade ankle-deep into the water, far enough that the retreating tide never ceases to touch me.

I think of my wife, who passed before me.  I think of our son, the one who drowned while fishing at sea.  I think of my hands, twisted with arthritis, identical to my father’s, inherited from him, like my last name.  I think of my tears, how they taste of the ocean, and I know, without a doubt, that the Atlantic is as much within me as it is indifferent to my existence.

in plain sight

You’d be surprised how comfortable the bed of an old Chevy pickup can be if you have the right person laying beside you.

It was a clear night, warm despite the wind, and if not for the full moon, bright and big, hanging like a mirror to reflect our upturned faces, it might have been perfect.  As it was, the added light made it harder to accomplish what we had set out to do.  The shooting stars that should have been plentiful were instead like the mosquitoes, invisible to us, felt in the end as an itch that could have been prevented if we had only seen them coming.

"What would you wish for anyways?" I asked into the darkness, breathing in the smell of strawberry shampoo as she lay with her head on my shoulder.

"For another shooting star."  I could tell from her voice that she was smiling.  So was I.

"Seriously though."

"I don’t know.." she said, but there seemed to be something caught in her voice, some loose strand that, if I tugged on it, might unravel her thoughts, leaving her exposed in a way that she wasn’t yet ready for.  "You?"

"I don’t know either."

But I did know, and I squeezed her against my side, like a secret.


Momma always told me to be careful around a man who says in three words what he can with two, but she never made any mention of you fleet-footed, jive-stepping city folk, I suppose because—and bless his heart—daddy’s never been much of a dancer.  It’s just as well, I think, being that he’s always had a way with his words, though for all her advice, her warnings, and her wisdom, boy, do I wish momma had seen you coming straight my way, like a twister trampling down Tornado Alley.

What right did you have to sweep me into your arms, to twirl me on the tips of my toes, and dip me, like a strawberry into melted chocolate?  All brown eyes, big smile, and shined-up shoes, it should have registered somewhere beneath your slicked-back hair that nowhere is it polite to play with your food.  Maybe you’re used to getting away with it, coming from the city, but out here we have ourselves a saying: It’s time to eat when dinner is served.

If you have a request for your last meal, let me know.

Or you can talk to daddy.  He’s the judge around these parts.

to fill a cavity

There is a cost to caring.  The thought occurs to me without context.  No faces flash through my mind as signposts, no past conversations find their voices from the distant side of my memory.  Sitting beneath so clean a sky, looking out at the bright morning as it spills over the clear water of Georgian Bay, I am only barely aware of my individual existence.

Nature has always had that effect on me.  Back in Toronto, the trees form tribes in the shadows of tall buildings, huddling close together, like threatened herds.  Here, on the shore of Boulder Beach, my senses roam freely.

I close my eyes in appreciation instead of retreat.

Maybe one day I will practice here, making dentures at special discounts for my friends, taking the time to answer their questions, and to ask some of my own.  But that is too far a future to fashion a reality from.  I know that in a few short days, I will be bumper to bumper in the race towards stop lights, contemplating the quickest route back to Tobermory.

And after closing my eyes, I will remember the cost of caring.

event horizon

It’s never once surprised a person when I told them that my favourite part of serving aboard the International Space Station was the view, but that of course hasn’t stopped them from asking with the enthusiastic politeness of a person bumping into a lost acquaintance, maybe one that they used to be friendly with back in college, or from an old job.  I’m polite too.  They couldn’t possibly know that you can see such light while orbiting the dark side of the Earth, not when the reality of it, the experience, is so much more powerful than the idea.

The brightest areas of the planet indicated a greater population density, but I preferred to penetrate it a poet’s perspective deeper and imagine that the light was given off by the souls of the people congregated there.  Where else could I entertain such a notion, if not in space?  And so it warmed me that, from a distance, the light was all the same colour.  It wasn’t red in places, and blue in others, but within a spectrum of yellow that ended before white.

When I landed back on Earth and told my wife, she said, with a knowing smile, that she hoped the stars hadn’t been ruined for me.  While it’s true that the stars were dimmer than the world’s major cities, across such a distance, against such a darkness, capable of burning red, and blue, and yellow, and white, how bright a light they must be shining.  But I didn’t have to explain that to her.  She’s been an astronaut for longer than I have.

gaining perspective

I remember the moment I decided it would be a better investment to drive across Canada than to pay for my next semester’s tuition.  I was going into the final year of the concurrent teaching program at the University of British Columbia.  But then I saw the balance owing.

I packed a few bags, and I was off the next morning, towing the Vancouver sunrise behind my Civic, towards the eastern most cliffs of primordial Prince Edward Island.

Canada, I learned, is like a sleeping woman.  Her beauty is in the slow transformation of the landscape — in her ability to make a shift of the body something more significant because of how seldom it happens.  The same wheat field spanned all of Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba.  The six days it took to drive those three provinces were sewn into an epoch, a period, in geological time, that lasted about as long as a yawn.

All in all, the trip across took fourteen days.  I wasn’t in a rush, of course, and the drive back seemed shorter absent the weight of the question I had set out to answer.  Now I had proof.

There was something to be appreciated in the most gradual of changes.

for love of country

There was something unsettling about the way she handed me over to the media, unceremoniously, like tossing dirty clothes into a hamper.  Especially after what we had gone through up to that point.  Especially since I was finally starting to believe that just maybe we had gotten away with everything.

She was Susan to me, but by then she went by Susie.  Susie had spent years planning, plotting, and scheming her ascent up the social ladder in Ottawa.  She endeared herself to the right sort of people, and like a mountain climber after testing his footing, would elevate herself by the greatness of those around her, until finally, she found herself near the summit, as the mistress to a man who couldn’t afford to have one.  He was going to run for Prime Minister that year, and might have won if she hadn’t told the press.

Susan and I were both from Dryden, Ontario, population of eight thousand, so we knew what it was like it be on the outside looking in, riding the outer edges of the social solar system, fighting for a moment in the sun.  Susan, to her credit, had this beauty that could have translated to cash in any of the major cities around the world.  That sort of beauty could have stamped her ticket to anywhere, and would have, I suppose, if not for the kindness in her heart that afflicted her with the most unfortunate of temperaments: too trusting a nature.  Susan, you see, believed she wouldn’t always be the other woman.

I wasn’t so handsome, so instead I had to be ruthless.  I studied hard, and made friends, too.  My mountain culminated at Parliament Hill.

I might have made it to the top.  I would have made a good Prime Minister.

But I needed to know why Susan started going by Susie.

highly suspect

My law class is composed mostly of guys that look like me, and of girls who look like they might be our cousins.  Sometimes I think admission is really about recruiting for a family tree.  Those with dark hair, dark eyes, and different skin colour, they’re the same as us, too, if not in appearance, then crucially in the belief that we could each be the best in the class.

If I plotted everybody on a Venn diagram, enough would exist in the overlap labelled “acceptable human beings” for me to find friends among them.  Thinking of it like that makes it easy for me.  I just have to avoid the people who would sell that friendship to stand on my shoulders, and the people who are far too nice to possibly be any fun.

Beyond that, the thing to know in law school is that you should never sleep with someone in the cohort unless you’re alright with everyone knowing what finishes you off.  If you’re getting into the pool, you’re sharing the same water.  It’s a critical part of the contract.

Greg and Holly didn’t mind.  Part of me believes their having sex on the first night of orientation was strategic, to announce that they had no objections to extracurriculars, provided they came without commitments.  Others, Brad and Kim, for example, wanted to keep it private.  But once you’re in the water, a ripple can be traced back to its source.

So Kim went and told Holly that Brad liked to take it in his ass, and Brad told Greg that Kim needed to be choked before she could finish.  Word of it spread until the class was a drunken Friday night away from making it the after school topic of discussion.  And if there’s a third thing to know about law school students, it’s that every last one of us drinks.

purple prose

I blow smoke rings out of my bedroom window.  They remain intact as they pass through the screen.  The far side of the sky is the colour of a grapefruit cut in half, and the sky still above me is a deep, primordial darkness that I more easily relate to.  Somewhere down the street the silence dies when an engine turns to life.  I lift my fingers to my lips, inhale through my cigarette, and contemplate how I could have missed the closing of a car door.

Unemployment is the undoing of insomniacs everywhere.