I wish I could explain how loss has made me the person I’ve been trying to be. Loss, the recipe for succotash soup, echoes of train whistles and bird whistles and referees, dog hair on my sweater, bread crumbs between the keys, the colour raspberry, Vancouver Island and the broken overdrive button on the stick shift of my car.
After living on Vancouver Island for five years I moved to Alberta, and now I live on a small farm in the prairies, off Highway 560, east of Calgary. The broken overdrive button makes highway travel slow. A song plays on the radio: “Imaginary Love” by Rufus Wainwright, repeating, repeating, two weeks straight. This morning the gold comes in uneven stripes: straw and sun-stroked snow, alternating patches of light. In the pasture the horse called Weave takes a whole hour to move nowhere at all. He is warmed by the same light that touches the ice and the banners of straw and the yellow leaves of the poplars that frame everything. There is a spider in the white double-pane window, retrieving an ancient crust of bread, and there is me on the couch, shoulder nudging windowpane. The dog called Tewk is outside, his golden rump thawing the ice-encrusted porch. We are all a little golden.
On the prairies winter is open skies, death and hibernation; Chinooks and ice storms; permission to be still. On Vancouver Island winter comes wet and listless, and the grass is only ever almost dead. When I met the woman my lover cheated on me with, I met her on the Island, and I was friendly. Thinking back, I wish I had avoided the niceties and simply said, “I don’t want to know you.” If it wasn’t for the rhythm of the rain, maybe I would have.
There is a story about a woman and a man and a basketball, and it unfolded on Vancouver Island just after the rain let up. Magnolia and crocus, blue sky, red dirt and new concrete. Paying for a basketball at the Canadian Tire checkout, the woman noticed a hickey on her lover’s neck. In the parking lot she asked him and he told her and she agreed to a game of basketball anyway. At the South Park court she started crying and dropped the ball, in that order. She walked away, and at some point she stopped walking and sat on a grassy boulevard outside a tiny grocery, where she talked to a homeless man about change. Later, no closer to knowing what to do, she noticed her lover on the street corner, basketball in hand. It was May, she had nowhere to go, and they went home together for the last time. Thinking back, she wishes she had just kept walking, while her lover spent the night alone, sick with worry.
The Pontiac Grill thanx to Mike Stack
Hotel California and the Pontiac Grill are friends to the same mythology. Dust-filled-hazy-gasoline-smellin-rundown-recycled- beer-drinkin love. In this dirty-lovin mythical world there are three rules: 1) The dogs don’t belong to anyone but themselves. They’re friendly when there’s shade and a shortage of bugs. 2) The men work with their hands and dream with their cocks. 3) The women serve the men, and wonder why they make themselves so difficult to love.
In this particular dreamscape, the Pontiac Grill is somewhere between Calgary and the middle of nowhere, by the Gas Plus and the pyramid of abandoned railroad ties. The woman who works at the Gas Plus writes a column about God in the local bulletin. She takes pictures of her customers and examines their wrinkles. When she prays for rain, rain comes. Some people call her the suburban prophet.
Since coming here weeks ago with a broken car and no ideas, I’ve started drinking beer, and the men seem to like that. I have their company when I want it. At night they leave the Pontiac Grill only for sleep, and they dream me to bed—so many ghosts, the repetition is tiring. But it’s the man on the road I want, fixing signs in nothing but a pair of ripped jeans. All I can see is his back: back pockets and beautiful skin. He’s oblivious to me, the beautiful travelling woman, so I guess he must see a lot of us beautiful travelling women, and maybe he’s even been hurt by a few. Every morning I pass him on my way to the Gas Plus, where I buy handfuls of licorice babies to keep the prophet-woman’s attention. Since I can’t have the man on the road, I hope for her instead. I hope her holiness will rub off on me like baby powder or pixie dust or sugar. That’s what she calls me, “Sugar.” Women like this are not bothered by dead animals. They are their own society, and I want in.
This is the point at which the men stop understanding. They walk into the Gas Plus, see us women holding hands and talkin God, look at us bewildered and slightly annoyed, and then leave for their Ducks Unlimited meeting at the local community centre. We understand that their guns are an exercise in sheer petrified power. We wish they’d leave us alone long enough to share a kiss, one kiss beyond our fiery conversations. But this is Alberta, a prairie province, which by itself doesn’t sound very forgiving. In this particular dreamscape, I exaggerate the romance and the dust. Today I’ll discover the Pontiac Grill, and keep walking. The woman at the Gas Plus takes the garbage out at noon. I’ll watch her from the road.
See this woman, me, in a boat-neck, blue-bottom gown holding the dirty sleeve of a cowboy in a drop-in chapel on the outskirts of a town I don’t have a name for. I waited years for the hoopla: pearls and orchids, white white white, and now—here—I seal forever with a kiss under the tickle of a handful of confetti tossed by some roadside stranger. My new husband is gracious. After the vows, his big hand on the small of my back urges me out the dusty hall. The gown is loose around my shoulders, and the July sun burns my newlywed neck.
A flatbed truck waits in the chapel parking lot, a few rogue streamers trailing the hitch. We drive it to a lake west of the derby where we met. The honeymoon is five days of canoe, sandy toes, barbecue and warm wasp-infested beer, a moonlit lake and us, breathless, beside each other on a moonlit dock. My peeling shoulders, his water-soft fingers, the moonlight and the motion of the dock: this is all we want at the time.
Telling it now, there’s a list of details that make this love realistic—the space outside the photograph. There’s the way he holds children, the smell of his skin—a mix of soap and sweat, his scabby knuckles, his thundering laugh. And there’s the way he avoids my eyes in the morning, and reserves a fist of grief for emergencies. And there’s me, too. Either smothered or starving, a fast-food brand of affection. And there’s the quickness of it all, the meeting, the falling, the hitching, my impatience for love and his I-don’t-know-what that led him to the altar.
This is the other side, this is the bookend. One home. One small idea about love. Tonight, I look out the window of a small house to a field crossed with straw, watch it break under the boots of the man I loved that hasty day a couple years back. Tonight, his face wrinkles in new places and his arms hold me a little less tight. I’m sure we exist—this land, this marriage—in a calendar somewhere under the month October, an audience of strangers thumbing through our days. Autumn. My life is picture-perfect this time of year.