After I pass through security, I’ll have left them. Beergut, Special Son, and I hang out in a loose triangle several feet away from the glass doors. Nothing left to say or do, the time of my flight to Seoul heavy and ticking. I avoid Beergut’s icy gaze, look to metal crossbeams. The airport houses enticing shops, carvings, totem poles, renovations showcasing the upcoming Olympics. My eyes fall to the red spot on Special Son’s cheek, strawberries from this morning’s waffles. Had he been walking around like that all these hours? A sob ripples through my ribcage and I pinch it in. On the early ferry in the cafeteria we had our last breakfast as a family.
One of Beergut’s friends once said, a man leaves a woman for another woman. A woman leaves a man for herself. I’ve spent the past months thinking about my future self in the second person. I’m doing this for you.
In less than a couple of days, I’ll be as far away from my old life as I can get. Standing there, I am certain of only one fact: that up until now, this is the most difficult thing I’ve ever had to do.
What am I doing?
* * *
The morning of the day I decided had started like any other. The far wall shook; the horses were kicking their stalls again. I opened my eyes to the same tin roof and wooden beams. Last night hadn’t been cold enough to bring a two-litre bottle of hot water to bed, but now, breath nearly visible, I yanked the duvet above my shoulders to block the draft. The Quonset had a breath of its own, corrugated sheeting rose and fell. Now the dome creaked, whispered: Aren’t you tired of living in a shed, camping for a living?
Beside me, Beergut stirred and grunted. His square torso rose from the sheets, feet slapped on the loft floor. He yawned like a cartoon bear. “Getting up, Babe?” He squeezed my knee-bulge. “Want some pancakes?”
“Don’t bother.” I rolled onto my side. As Beergut gathered his clothes, I followed his every move. Even after everything, I liked to watch him dress, hypnotized by the pace of deliberation.
He stood in boxer briefs and a frayed t-shirt. A good three inches shorter, he didn’t have to duck like I’d learned to. As he slipped chicken legs into dirt-encrusted jeans, the metal loops of his belt (’70s-era) jingled. On went the maroon turtleneck, the oil-stained sweatshirt from his industrial college friend. Beergut ran fingers through what was left of his salt-n-pepper hair. I caught a whiff, wanted to tell him he needed a shower, but was sick of being a nag. No doubt he knew that he wasn’t like Special Son.
“How about bacon and eggs?” he asked.
Had that whole conversation about needing to eat healthier been forgotten in the past twelve hours? I’d gone up two sizes this past summer. True, every day I wore the same elastic waistband sweatpants, but it niggled now and then. When I’d met Beergut, I’d been running 10Ks. I didn’t answer.
Now he was talking. I pushed out a yes, throat tight.
Island life. Morning on the Property, another day’s purpose buried in the back lot with the tangle of fir, arbutus, and moss-covered car parts. Jen-with-a-J had the morning milking; the WWOOFer had the evening, which meant this was my day off. Just another bowl of time-gruel slopped out.
“What’s wrong, Babe?” Beergut laid a dry back of hand to my forehead, searched my eyes with baby blues.
“I don’t know.” I didn’t. As Queen of the Quonset, my loving partner was responsible for cooking breakfast. Is every woman so lucky to be doted on?
I rolled towards the window so he couldn’t see the meaningless tears. Drawing into the fetal position, I clutched Teddybear to my belly. Usually I’m a morning person: a smug, jump-out-of-bed-chirping-with-the-warbler type that drives night-people mad. Recently, I hadn’t felt like any kind of person.
“I’m going to stay in bed for awhile. Call me when it’s ready.”
“Ok,” Beergut slipped into his clogs. I squeezed my eyes as I heard them thud down the workshop steps. From the landing the dog squeaked his yawn, four paws padded down; the front door opened and slammed as Beergut let him out. The clogs tapped to the main door, the sticky click of the knob and then, “Hey, you got that fire going, lazy bugger?” Before the door slapped closed, a peal of giggles rose like the tinkle of wind chimes. His dad was up so Special Son would be tickled.
I closed my eyes against the dim light. The roar of nothing tolled against my brain, as the far-off din of Special Son’s one-sided conversation told me to keep going. Another day like the eight hundred that had come before.
* * *
“How do you like your coffee?” Beergut asked in the kitchen. Our first morning together called for such a question.
“I like my coffee strong and my men weak.” I’d stolen this line from a co-worker (another lifetime). Beergut chuckled. Good, still got a laugh. I inched towards him and he grabbed me around the waist, a caveman in the mancave (as my friend had labeled the Quonset, before he’d introduced us).
“That’s not true,” Beergut said.
“No. I like my coffee bitter and my men sweet.” I retreated to the armchair at the far end of the room. Men. I liked them all ways. Had I been an egg, I’d have been over easy.
And how did I like my Beergut? Stale, hot, bitter—no, sweet. Definitely not rich. More complex than instant, but no fancy espresso. A simple roast, home brewed like his yeasty beer. Once tasted, I’d known—this is for me.
Beergut had a schoolboy face for a senior, smitten in wrinkles. He lumbered over for a kiss. “I’m kind of fond of you, you know.” His breath smelled like diesel (not in a bad way) and I was pulled in.
Be careful of coffee. The older it gets, the more likely it is to give you indigestion.
* * *
At my place I sat and waited for breakfast. Across the room, toast popped up; to my left Special Son chewed his egg (yolk broken). Beergut placed a soft-boiled egg on toast before me. My favorite. The best was cracking into the eggshell with a butter knife, farm-fresh yolk soaked into toast, plate scraped with the last bit of bread. The warm yellows and whites slid down my gullet like morning light itself. But not today. The egg, consumed without enjoyment, slopped sticky on my palate. A gulp of lukewarm coffee followed, bitter.
The fire crackled in the corner heater. I looked out the picture window, past the couch where the dog sprawled, to the dullness outside. In front of Beergut’s sawmill, the puddles were scanned for pings of rain. No movement.
I knew exactly what every living creature on the Property would be doing that day. The spiders, those most prolific residents, would spin webs throughout the junk of everything. Sister Sally would wander up from her books and computers to feed the horses and, if it wasn’t raining, let them into the back field. The dog would stare at the driveway hoping for bug shadows. The cat was already stalking mice or birds; later she’d disappear into the woodshed to nap. Lately, Beergut had tired of the gun club and making wood. This meant a new/old hobby was around the bend—model airplanes again? In the lag time he’d read nautical fiction and transformed into the most boring old man in the world.
Special Son would pretend to watch a DVD upstairs, stomp down every half an hour to see if we’d decided on something entertaining. One question hung in the crux of his differently wired brain: What happen now?
I glared at him. “For Godssake, don’t you have anything to do?”
“Linda, Linda, check firewood…” He rambled out the door and out of sight, knowing that when I was in this mood he’d better stay the hell away. Even if our neighbour wasn’t home, he’d hang out on the road for a while, mutter about all his work.
Bugdog looked up with hangdog eyes. “What do you want?” I asked.
The dog ran away from me, thrust his schnoz in his master’s lap. Bugdog was sensitive to emotions, especially negative ones. Whenever Beergut and I fought he would run between us, asking for reassurance, a Nervous Nellie negotiator.
Beergut patted the dog twice then returned to stirring his coffee. Despite Dr. Riley’s telling him to cut down sugar, Beergut was back to his usual four teaspoons. The spoon clanged against the pottery mug for what seemed like five minutes.
“Dear Lord,” I said. “Isn’t that coffee mixed yet?”
Beergut’s chair creaked as he swung around. He peered over his spectacles. “What’s with you, Babe?”
A thirty-two-year-old child, I pouted. It was my least favorite month, gloomy to gloomier, the only holiday commemorating dead soldiers. The shit at the farm deepened, the routine dragged, the tarp system irritated. To make matters worse, as was often the case, that morning Beergut had neglected to service me.
“You’re unhappy,” he said.
“I am NOT.” I was practically spitting venom now.
“Sugarplum,” he said. His voice buttered my prickly cockles. “Listen to yourself. You are.”
It was true. I was becoming more miserable each day so I knew myself better unhappy than happy. And it was getting worse. I blinked back tears.
“You’ve got to ask yourself why you feel this way,” he said, “and what you can do about it.” He set the mug down. “You need to go hiking.”
* * *
Atop the ravine, I made double sure the emergency brake was on. Heaving the door open, I tumbled from the red truck. Bugdog whined from the back. I folded down the club seat, he plopped onto the gravel, and I looped the chain over his shaggy neck. Raindrops spit from the sky, which blended the grays and browns of a tightly woven Cowichan sweater.
I put the hood up on my raincoat as we crossed the road with care. It could be surprising, big trucks roaring around this bend. Finally, we stood at the sign that marked the trailhead. The air smelled of wet asphalt, dirt, and pine needles.
I was glad Special Son’s face hadn’t been at the upstairs window when we pulled out. Pale, drooling, square-jawed. Black empty eyes. For me, that face marked what Beergut didn’t see: longing, dependency, raging boredom—Special Son’s prison. When he was nervous or thinking he’d crook his finger and suck on it, and he did that at the window, whenever the dog and I went without him. I swallowed. Guilt is better than resentment, I’d decided, but it doesn’t sting less.
I let Bugdog off the leash. Up the rocky path we spiraled up steep switchbacks, the twinge of hamstrings pushing hard. Bugdog trotted ahead, sticking within eye distance as trained. His furtive sniffing told me he was on a dog mission I had no business knowing about.
Just me and the dog. Mostly everything I did off the Property didn’t include Beergut, which suited me fine, I liked my space. Besides, I’d never known different.
A retirement-aged couple was headed down. “Good morning,” I said.
“Hi.” Unison. They looked the same—wiry hair tucked under Tilley hats, horn-rimmed glasses, matching strides. No doubt they’d been together since the beginning of time.
As they passed, I felt a familiar twinge: loneliness. One pair of human eyes seeing this path, this dog-rump, this couple, this Garry-oak path explored with nimble feet. Despite my independence, all we didn’t share bothered me. Beergut didn’t exercise. Considering his bad habits, the deck was stacked.
* * *
Lonely was a far cry from how I felt that first summer. Waking up beside Beergut, I was home.
Daylight stretched onto the queen-sized. I reached up, cracked knuckles.
Beergut scooched closer, wrapped arms around me in a tight, antique spoon.
Nestled in, I felt giddy about today, miserable about tomorrow, how a criminal might feel on a spree. She knows the gig’ll be up, all possible endings spelling trouble. Perhaps she’ll get away with it, but doubtful, for she’s the reckless sort, not a sneak. So things catch up. Best-case scenario: capture without injury, jail. Another possibility: shot in the crossfire. If she’s crazy or depressed or just plain sensible, she might choose to go out by her own hand, avoiding all consequences but one. The criminal mind knows and sees the cage of the limited future pass in a blink of imagination. And yet, the abandonment of doing is beyond compare, crossing impossible barriers most humans shy away from. That’s what it’s like for a woman falling in love with a man twice her age.
Beergut rubbed one bony knee against the small of my back. “What’re you thinking about, Beautiful?”
“How happy I am.” I shrugged off his grip.
He played with my hair. “Then why are you crying?”
I couldn’t answer right away. Emotions often bled onto my pillow in waterworks; overcome with criminal intuition, I sometimes fell asleep bawling. “I just … worry. About … the future,” I said.
Beergut wiped my cheek-apples with his palms. “Worry about the present.” I rolled towards him and he kissed me with gummy-worm lips. “Better yet, enjoy it.”
I wrote love letters. Beergut kept them in the safe near his side of the bed, tucked away with important papers and bullet casings. One line I wrote stuck with us both forever: I can see this ending before it’s begun.
* * *
Hiking always made me think of God. I used to pray, but living with an atheist had changed things. God—vague, interior—no longer existed as the picture from the Lutheran church wall, a backlit Jesus cradling sheep. I put more faith in Beergut than God. How faulty was that?
We reached the muddiest part, waist-deep in ferns. Bugdog slowed to check the puddles. His tail accelerated. Roughly at the two-thirds point, I rounded a fallen tree and arrived at the first fairy door. These were planted all over the mountain, sometimes in hard-to-find places. This one, a wooden door no bigger than my hand, was placed on a large boulder. It looked as though a sprite lived there; in front it had laid shards of broken pottery, pretty stones, coins.
Gramma M, who’d died two years earlier, came to mind. The ultimate morning person, she rose before dawn, puttered to the radio, readied devotions, prepared breakfast for whatever family was visiting. Breakfast had been homemade yogurt with fruit, nice breads, havarti sliced thin with a special cutter. Gramma had more faith than Mother Teresa, wore out Bibles like a marathon runner wears out shoes. I needed a spiritual guide like her, but churchy stuff didn’t fit into my life now. It called for something flakier, like a fairy. Did fairies exist?
Maybe only on this island. I fished in my pockets for a token. I’d never left one before, but today felt different. All I had was a gum wrapper, a piece of baling string, and a dull penny. I placed the coin queen side up near the whimsical door.
Have faith. My faith rested in nature, the trail. I experienced flash-like certainties that a higher power pushed and pulled things. Beergut would demand proof, but I could offer none. Faith stood like a fairy door on rock. You had to believe it would open into a magical cavern, that logical matter didn’t support it.
Snippets remained from my religious past, such as Psalm 121: I lift my eyes up to the hills. From where will my help come? This mountain comforted me, but I simmered with questions. My biggest one: how do I fix things/ get happy?
Ahead, Bugdog rounded a corner and threw a squirrel into panic. The creature flashed brown as it hightailed it up the nearest Douglas fir.
The reasons were always with me, a wound gathering pus. If you don’t leave soon it’ll get harder. Gramma? No, it was me.
* * *
Hiking wasn’t the only thing that Bugdog and I did for fun. My molars rattled as gravel spun out from my tires. Wind whipped my face, blackberry brambles from the ditch whizzed by; all but the moment was obliterated.
Going on a “roar” meant taking off down the road by bicycle while Bugdog tore beside me, black lightning. He overtook me then waited at the mailbox, panting.
We turned around and strolled back up the hill.
A few minutes later, Beergut met me in the kitchen with a peck and squeeze. “How was your roar?”
“Want your breakfast now, Babe?”
“Think I’ll take it outside.”
He handed me a plate with a perfectly toasted sandwich: English muffin, egg, cheese, bacon. Beergut set his mug amid desk-clutter and he scrolled through today’s Old White Man Blog about the Evil Federal Reserve. Special Son was already upstairs.
I didn’t care what the others were up to when it was sunny. The picnic table ten feet away from the front door called to my parched skin. On a day like this, I’d savour my coffee, think only what happens now, and not give a shit about the future.
* * *
I pulled myself up the final rock face, keeping a healthy distance from the edge. Here, the clearing stretched forward, bluff sprawled then plunged to the ocean. The summit was marked by a bench—in front of which a concrete slab with a groove stood; this permanent bowl commemorated “Rosie.” I pulled the water bottle from my backpack and topped up the cusp for Bugdog. He sniffed cautiously, then lapped it up.
I plunked my slightly chilled ass onto the bench. The view never failed to impress, even sullied by clouds. To the East, I could see across the channel to the next small island; to the West and North stood the big one. In clear weather I might see all the way up the coast, but that day only the white wisp from the pulp mill was visible. By the position of the outbound ferry I calculated the time as somewhere around 11:30.
Reasons to stay. Home. The Property, just as much mine as his, pulled me up the road. Dorothy was right, there’s no place like it. Romance. Beergut and I never celebrated Valentine’s, anniversaries, or the like. Instead, we drank kit shiraz, danced in the kitchen to our favorites—Cowboy Junkies, Ian Tyson, Bob Dylan. Beergut, saturated with charm, made a rural James Bond, and I was putty. Joy moments. Jumping into the lake on a hot day. Looking down at the gulf from the mountaintop. Getting a furry headbutt from my favorite calf. Falling asleep in the tent on the back acres. Roaring. Every now and then, I remembered I was alive.
Two crows sat on a boulder, cah-cawed. Bugdog, never interested in birds, studied puddles again.
Reasons to leave: I’m done. Being ignored, taken for granted. Telling Beergut I needed respite. Him laughing. The life I could have. Without him, details unknown. I can see this ending before it’s begun.
I knew with a bolt: get out, and soon. I knew where to escape, the idea embedded in the soil of my brain for years: go East, teach English. I didn’t need a fairy after all, just my own head.
God started spitting on my face. Rain. I shivered as Bugdog questioned me; it was time to go. I made my way down the steepest bit, grabbed onto trunks for stability. The rough bark bit my palms, drew me from numbness. I started crying. Passersby wouldn’t notice because water flowed everywhere now, heading downhill.
* * *
Some men say, I love you. Beergut said, I want to make you pancakes. Six little words–forever in time nothing rings as pure. Whenever he felt especially affectionate, out came the old Joy cookbook. The main room smelled dense of grinds from the big green can. The sizzle of the grill under his skillful machinist hands sang eternal devotion. True hearts, Cinderella’s Prince twittering lovebirds draping ribbons over everything and all that bullshit.
I ate it up, his love, in pancakes, smothered in no-name syrup. Because that was my way of saying, I love you back.
* * *
“Plane doesn’t wait, doesn’t wait!” says Special Son. He’s right. If I don’t say goodbye soon, I’ll be cutting it close to boarding time.
I can’t look at Special Son in the eyes, even though I’d carefully lied that The Leaving had nothing to do with him.
Always cheerful, he doesn’t change tone. “Bye, Old Girl!” We hug. Special Son and I never embrace, not since the talk about inappropriate touching, so it feels like a necessary gravity between strangers.
“Well.” I turn to Beergut, lean into his musty embrace. Already, I choke tears through nostrils. When I cry, my nose runs, but I never have a tissue so I just snuffle.
“Marry me,” he says, for the umpteenth time. His breath slaps moist against my earlobe. His tension of every limb presses against me.
His desperate tone makes me think, at long last he knows I’m leaving. For weeks, he’s been laughing it off. And here it comes down to putting me on the plane, the switch in his brain saying, maybe she’s serious. No shit, Sherlock.
I shake my head as our lips touch briefly. Stepping away feels like letting go of an old dream. I shrug off the familiar electricity of his skin, his being.
* * *
I squeeze my eyes shut, angry at the rupture I’m tearing into my life. But the fairy doorstep pops into my head. A crack in the rock, new greenery springing up through the crevice. A voice (likely my own) tells me to get on the plane. And I listen.
I spin on my heels and dash past the smoked partition, no glance behind. Look back and turn to a pillar of salt, like that wife in the Bible. I can’t see squat through snotty tears, but, from the food court, I can smell breakfast.