Dispatches

Short Term

Tara McGuire

Nora’s in the passenger seat. Nora’s riding shotgun. It’s not that I don’t trust her to drive. I’m looking, through the corner of my eye, at Nora who’s looking through the corner of her eye at the curtain of tall evergreens sliding by her window as Highway 3A dips and curls along the bank of the Kootenay River. Between her knees a latte with a smudge of lipstick along the edge of the lid is going cold. Ripe plum. Her lipstick is always perfect. It’s high summer. The longest days. The air conditioning allows us to forget the heat.

That was a really great weekend, Nora says. And then she says, But it’s kind of weird to take a trip with just the two of us. Isn’t it?

Other summers Nora and I snuck cigarettes while our children weren’t looking so we could be more than just mothers. We spread blankets on beaches together and drank cold beer from thermal coffee mugs with our husbands. Those children got taller and learned to build elaborate sandcastles without our help. With our lawn chairs side-by-side we watched those children venture into deeper water. When I think of Nora, I think of freckled shoulders and golden-pink sunsets and peeing in the ocean.

Nora’s eyes are open wider than usual, she’s chewing on a piece of loose skin at the edge of her manicured fingernail.

How long is the drive? she asks.

It’s about eight hours, I say.

She puffs out a breath. That’s a long way.

It’s a beautiful day for a drive, I say. It’s going be lovely, and I turn up the music.

We are on our way home and Nora is staring at her shoes. Shiny, silver running shoes with extra-large grommets and thick white laces. She’s admiring the shoes at the ends of her legs. Swivelling her feet in slow arcs, the metallic material catching the sunlight.

We sing very loudly along with Adele and the road cuts through a high mountain pass then descends into another lush valley. We talk. Nora is planning to spend more time riding her electric bike, she likes a new kind of beer that tastes like grapefruit, she only plays pickleball because the name is so funny.

I already know all of these things.

We are not old women. Our hair is still long and we understand Instagram. This road trip is to fill the gap. The gap is where Nora’s executive-downtown-law-firm-career used to be, until recently, until she just couldn’t fake it anymore. Nora used to babysit lawyers. She would hire, fire, negotiate contracts, massage egos, and tell articling students who had just worked a seventy-hour week, It’ll all be worth it if you just hang in there. After multi-million dollar victory settlements, Nora would toss around trips to Hawaii like frisbees, and every day her heels matched her bag.

Tell me again how long the trip is? she says.

It’s about eight hours, we left at ten so we should be in Vancouver by dinner time.

On our first day in Nelson, we walked by a shop called Shoes for the Soul, located in a squat brick building on Baker Street. Mountain bikers clustered outside on the sidewalk sharing a joint. Their dogs wore bandanas around their necks. Nora stopped to talk to the dogs and something in the window caught her eye. Inside the shop, Nora held up a pair of silver sneakers with thick white soles.

I love these ones! she said. What do you think?

I think they’re super cool, you should totally get them, I said.

She tried on the shoes, then looked up at me and smiled. The creases fanning out from the corners of her lively blue eyes fluttered, she squinted and her face kind of went slack, as though she was trying to focus on something just out of reach in the air above my head.

Aren’t they groovy? There’s just something about them, she said.

I was happy for her happiness about the shoes.

How long’s the drive?

Well, we left Nelson at ten, and it takes about eight hours. We should be home by six.

Eight hours? Nora’s shoulders drop a notch. I’m not great at long drives.

Tell me about your first boyfriend, I say.

Oh my God, his name was Adam Jensen. He was fucking hot. Her voice is bright against the dull road noise. One time we made out for so long I got chapped lips. He eventually came out of the closet, but that boy was an incredible kisser. And he had a great butt in his Jordache jeans.

Some things she remembers.

We snake through Castlegar, Christina Lake, Grand Forks. Gravel crunches under the tires as we pull into the parking lot at the Tarnished Turkey cafe in Greenwood, a town famous for winning the 212 Tap Water World Championships. The same cafe we stopped in on our way to Nelson three days ago.

Let’s fill up our bottles with the world’s best drinking water, I say.

How do you know it’s the best? Nora says.

I guess I must have read about it somewhere.

Nora used to throw elaborate parties, with guest lists, multiple courses, complicated dishes from Italy or France. Wine glasses were rented. Now, when she tries to follow a simple recipe she gets stuck. Did I put in the oregano yet? Where is the sesame oil? Her husband Jason tells me Nora sometimes takes two or three trips to the grocery store for missing ingredients. Days later Jason might find a bag of rice in the refrigerator or a jalapeño pepper in the pantry. He told me the jalapeño in the pantry made their daughter cry.

Tall trees turn to long grass, jagged peaks to stunted, velvet hills. A log farmhouse with a red roof nestles on a plateau, like a painting. It looks idyllic; it also looks deserted. We pass an elaborate fence constructed entirely of used tires.

How long is the drive?

It’s about eight hours, we’ll be home by six o’clock. I turn up the radio.

On the second day we hiked up to Pulpit Rock, a bald face of stone that overlooks the town and the jagged black mirror of Kootenay Lake. At the trailhead a sign warned of bears in the area. Be Bear Aware! Make loud noises, keep your distance, stand tall, never run! Less than an hour later we broke out of the trees into clean sunlight and scanned the steep, green valley below. A gentle updraft hoisted a sail of ravens and cooled the sweat on the back of our necks.

Look, there’s BOB, the big orange bridge, I said. And there’s the white sand beach near my sister’s house. We can swim there tomorrow if you feel like it.

Oh shoot, I didn’t bring my swimsuit, Nora said. Bummer.

On the descent, we heard whistling and clapping from the trail below us. We passed a woman with very muscular thighs hiking alone.

Three bears just around the next corner, she warned.

Holy shit, Nora said, and her eyes flooded with fear. I didn’t know there would be bears.

Over lunch, I told my sister about the big black mama bear and her two cubs eating berries in the meadow.

Even though they didn’t seem to care about us, I said, I was still really scared. I mean, a bear is one thing, a mother with cubs is unpredictable, right?

I was terrified of a wildness I didn’t know enough about.

How long is the drive?

Nora was the one I called first. I couldn’t say why I needed her, couldn’t say the word overdose, but when she heard my voice she knew to come. She was the one who ran to our door the day our son died. And she kept coming, every few days, for at least a year. With tea, with a flower from her garden, with her exuberant dog.

I won’t stay long, she would say, I just popped by for a quick hug and to see if you need anything. And her being there, standing on our front porch in her yoga tights and her lipstick, was something I could believe in.

I lost my son quickly. And now, it seems, I will lose her slowly. I will witness her gradual disappearance, ice cubes melting in a glass until there is only water. The Nora I know will dilute until there is nothing left but a body. Just organs, bones, and hair. When all she knows of herself, of her own child, is gone, who will she be? What will I believe in then? What shall I bring to her doorstep?

There are times I envy Nora’s clean slate. If my memory were erased would that also rub out the ache of my son’s death? Would I trade the knowing for a gentler unknowing? Tell me the difference between memories lost and remembering loss.

And what are we in the absence of the fat catalogue of mental pictures we store of our former selves? How much of our self-worth is built on the foundation of our past experiences—that promotion, that romance, that house we built, those summers at the beach. How is our identity tied to what we know of the badges we have sewn onto our chests?

How long until we get home?

Well, we’ve been on the road for four hours now, so we’re about halfway.

It’s an eight-hour drive?

Sure is.

On our last day in Nelson we decided to walk down to Six Mile Beach and cool our feet in the lake. Nora dug around in her bag looking for sandals.

Oh, here’s a bathing suit, she said. Oh, here’s another bathing suit. Silly me.

So we did swim in the lake after all. It was icy cold but we plunged in anyway, and our joyful whoops rang out across the water.

Small towns flash past. Midway, Rock Creek, and the jumble of mustard and sienna coloured condos along Osoyoos Lake. It’s too early in the season to stop for a box of peaches at the roadside fruit stands in Keremeos. They’re not ready until later in the summer.

Can I ask you something? I say.

Of course, anything. Her expression is childlike, innocent.

What has your neurologist said about what’s happening with you?

That there’s not much I can do about it.

Nothing? No therapies, no drugs, no brain gymnastics?

Nora’s eyes are open extra wide again, this is what happens when she doesn’t know what to say but thinks she should know what to say.

Actually, she turns to me, I don’t remember. And she laughs. We both laugh. We laugh until the laughing isn’t really laughing anymore.

Fuck, I say.

Pretty much. She nods slowly.

Hedley, Princeton, Manning Park. Hope. Orderly farms flank either side of the highway. We both stare through the windshield. The dotted line dividing the long straight stretch of highway through the Fraser Valley rushes toward us in an uninterrupted chain.

We need some ABBA, Nora says.

Yes, we do.

We roll down the windows and howl.

Just before 6 p.m., we pull up in front of Nora’s house and her husband Jason strides out to greet us, arms wide. He’s been cutting the grass or picking the kale. He’s grinning.

Hello ladies, how was the trip?

Nora springs from the car.

It was great! I hear her say as I climb out and stretch. The drive wasn’t too long at all. Nelson is so pretty. And look, I bought these beautiful shoes. She extends one leg and points her toe, showing off her undeniably splendid new silver shoes.

Those are nice, Jason says.

Nora squats to greet her spiralling, blonde cloud of a dog, Hello sweetheart, I missed you!

Jason walks around to the back of the car and I meet him there to lift the rear door. He leans toward me and his voice softens to a whisper. You know, she’s got a pair of shoes just like that already, he says. She bought them a couple of weeks ago.

I hug him, and he hugs me, and then he unloads his wife’s bags and carries them into the house.

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Tara McGuire

Tara McGuire is a former broadcaster. Her work has been published in magazines and featured on CBC Radio. Holden After and Before is her first full-length work. She lives in North Vancouver, BC. Find her at taramcguire.com.


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