We sat opposite each other at the kitchen table, silently stirring our coffees, mine black — so having no need to be stirred — and hers with two sugars, and two creams.
People who don’t use their hands when they’re speaking have a hard time grasping this, but sometimes the desire to be truly understood, comprehended as lucidly as one’s own idea of colours, is so powerful that it requires more than words. It commands a second form of animation. She didn’t talk with her hands, but after eighteen years of married life — seventeen of which included our daughter — she knew that my having to fidget meant something important was about to be said.
"I know you think I should be more upset," I began, each word deliberate, sent out like a lifeboat, "but at least the condoms mean she’s being safe."
We sat opposite each other at the kitchen table, silently stirring our coffees, mine black — so having no need to be stirred — and hers with two sugars, and two creams.
Panting, hunched over my knees, I held my cell phone to my face, and checked the time. I wasn’t going to make it.
Chris is my gay older brother. Being the idiot he is, Chris said I wouldn’t be able to run from our apartment to the movie theatre in time to catch the trailers. Being the idiot I am, I told him that I could.
You might think I would know better by now, especially because Chris and I have a lifelong history of posing proposition bets on just about everything we’ve ever disagreed about. We must have exchanged thousands of dollars like that over the years, failing to do what we claimed to be able to. Though, to be fair, that we can both still afford our share of the rent probably means neither of us is netting much.
But as it were, even if I had thought things out and realized that I was being corralled into a no-win situation — the best case scenario being a few extra dollars at the expense of a soaked shirt — it didn’t do anything to change the fact that Julianna was there, watching silently from the corner. So, really, what else could I have done but shake Chris’ hand?
I could blame my not making it on having rolled my ankle the other day. Chris was there, he saw it happen, so after he’d finished failing to suppress that smug, sarcastic, I-told-you-so smile of his, when I’d paid him his money, he’d have no choice but to eventually admit that I wasn’t making things up. It was, after all, his unkept dildo I’d stepped on. Even so, I know when I’m wrong, and this was one of those times. If I hadn’t rolled my ankle, it was still too great a distance for me to cover in so short a time.
Don’t misunderstand me: I don’t mind being proven wrong. Saying you can do something doesn’t cost you anything, but having something on the line to lose when someone tells you to prove it makes you push yourself harder. I’m alright paying money to know my limits. I think that knowledge is a good investment, worth more to me in the end. That’s why, when I say I’m alright with having lost the bet, I’m telling the honest truth. What bothered me while I was walking — there was no more reason for me to run — what didn’t sit well with me as I took my time on the sidewalk, was losing in front of Julianna.
Would she try to balm my embarrassment by saying no one could have run that distance? Certainly, she’d think to herself it was childish of me to even entertain such a wager, but almost as certainly she wouldn’t say anything about that.
I was so engulfed in my thoughts that it wasn’t possible the honking nearby could be meant for me. Julianna had to make a u-turn, step out of her car, and call my name to get my attention.
"I wouldn’t have made it that far," she said when I’d gotten into the passenger seat.
"You’re wearing flip flops," I retorted with a smile.
At the end of the night, after Julianna had dropped me and Chris back at our apartment, before we had taken five steps in the lobby, Chris put his hand on my shoulder to stop me.
"I have no idea why she likes you," he said, and took out his wallet.
"Neither do I," I replied, and took the money that he handed me.
Like me, Chris knows when he’s wrong.
And I also know when I’ve just gotten lucky.
It wasn’t until Lisa broke up with me that I committed fully to the camping trip. After that, it didn’t seem like there was really much of a decision to be made — it was down to either a final drunken weekend of summer vacation with the rest of The Quartet Crooners, or continuing to stare into an empty apartment that, among other things, meant I would no longer be able to afford it.
Like I said, it wasn’t a hard choice, but when Henry came knocking around the night before we planned to leave—equipped with his most empathetic voice, prepared to let me unburden myself if that was required of him—he was still relieved to hear me say that he should pick me up at eight the next morning immediately after we had greeted each other.
Henry and I were once two of the four members in The Quartet Crooners: an all male a capella group comprised of students from the University of Toronto in Mississauga. It’s the smallest of the three university campuses, but having taken courses at each location, and despite my graduation from the more esteemed downtown Toronto institution, my Mississauga campus experience constituted, for me, the difference in what would have amounted to a disappointing college career.
Let me clarify. It wasn’t the quality of teaching that had me wanting more from my university campaign. At any prestigious institution—and I dare say that in those days, the University of Toronto’s global reputation was more impressive than it ever had been—there exists a very real danger of taking oneself too seriously. At the downtown campus, regardless of what program you were in, everyone in the same classroom was seen to be your competition. Engineering students sitting in a Shakespeare study were to be made examples of by the art historians. Social psychologists would be damned if the future dentists were to continue unchallenged as they proposed that the key to morality was genetically encoded.
Stand-offs were imminent and occurred often. If you weren’t taking part in the discussion, attempting to pry away whatever purchase a classmate had gained with their argument, it was only because you were too busy taking notes. Two hours of class was never long enough to understand another’s position, especially when so much of that time was spent formulating, testing, and bolstering a defense against them.
I remember one instance after an ethics class, this guy and this girl who had disagreed about something were looking at each other, seeming as though they wanted to continue debating while everyone else proceeded to pack up. They struck me like they were on opposite ends of a deep chasm, each wanting to build a bridge to the other, but neither knowing how. So instead of trying, instead of inviting the other to carry on over a coffee, they both collected their belongings, because it required less effort than asking.
It was during my final year of study when I took my first course at the smaller, more secluded Mississauga establishment, so by then I had accepted that my remaining time would be in keeping with the time already passed. It was a law course I was admitted into late, so I found myself a week behind on what was only the seventh day of classes. That’s why when Henry insisted on sharing with me a book I hadn’t purchased yet, it made such an impression.
It’s been nearly a decade since then, and Henry has continued to be a generous friend. But let’s be honest, he deserved that punch I threw while we were sitting around the fire, drunk beneath the night sky. When he told me he was sorry, and that he was seeing Lisa.
"Women oughtta come with warning labels. Like they put on the packaging of this shit." Jack hands back the lighter he’s borrowed from me. He starts sucking on the cigarette I’ve given him. "Causes impotence and all that other good stuff. So we aren’t surprised when they end up killing us." He ashes into the shadows on his right side.
I nod—not because I agree, but because I don’t much feel like arguing—and continue looking out at the empty church parking lot.
There are puddles where tomorrow there will be cars, absence where there will be overcrowding, and emptiness where there will be a desperate hope that something better than all of this exists, and is still to come.
"They say that’s what we pay for."
"Sorry?" Jack exhales a cloud of smoke along with his question.
"The packaging. They say that it’s the packaging we pay for."
"Oh. Yeah. Definitely." Jack looks far away, deep in a thought that threatens further conversation, so I seize my opportunity.
"I better be off," I say. "Early start tomorrow."
"Alright," Jack says. He uses the outdoor ash tray to put out his cigarette butt instead of the underside of his foot like I’m used to seeing him do. "I’ll see you later then Father."
"Will you be coming tomorrow?" We shake hands.
"Ha. Not in the morning." Jack claps me on the shoulder.
"Be a good man and take all the empties then." I smile at him, not sure what I mean by it.
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.
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.
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.
"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.
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.
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.