FIRST, IN YOUR home-town bar in the shadow of Canada’s Northern Rockies, you watch a girl named Pitch bless her pool cue with two loud smooches. I call her ‘Romeo and Juliet’, she says, and touches the woodgrain to her lips. She wears terracotta Carhartts over an Edmonton Eskimos jersey, steel-toed boots and a bra with a strap that inches down her shoulder’s parabolic curve.
You’ve known her since childhood, when together you tomboyed around the neighbourhood and scaled the tallest evergreens, only to find the horizon blockaded by glaciers on all four sides. We’re trapped, Pitch told you, those many years ago. There’s nowhere to go. You held her hand like a child for reassurance. There has to be, you wanted to tell her, but the words just wouldn’t come. We can’t stay here.
You: you’re underage in the corner of this dim bar – a scrawny nerdy kid in a town of loggers and long-haul truckers – nursing a bottle of Strongbow with its label picked ragged. You love books and math and video games, and though you can throw a perfect spiral, the high school will never pick you for quarterback. Pitch has triceps tough as lasso and hair that whispers across her neck each time she eyes up the cue ball. Dark bangs frame her face in the way of racy French women, and when she speaks you glimpse the flicker of her tongue on her teeth. You think you could fit your arm around her waist like you did when you were kids. You think you could cup her elbow and say, I found a way out. But, as you summon the nerve to do so, some landscapers rock up with a line of Jägerbombs and Pitch cackles like a lover above the din.
Years ago, you and her spent an August evening on the roof of her uncle’s lakeside home. She brought an old Wrist-Rocket rusted at the brace; you brought a bucket of crabapples fleeced from neighbourhood trees. That slingshot could blast an apple through half-inch plywood – you’d seen it happen, splinters like thrown bones – and its leather pouch had the supple texture of skin. You aimed for a stop sign, a Greyhound bus and a mongrel deer that loped between two mobile homes. Pitch opened fire on a cyclist, broadsided a lumber truck and, though you didn’t see it happen, she swore to have knocked a goose clear from the evening sky. Scattershot, she told you, which made no sense. Hours passed and daylight reddened above the glaciers, and your fingers began to smell like cider. Come morning, the two of you had walloped each other so many times that welts darkened your bodies like tiny, moist mouths. Pitch laced her fingers in yours and smiled, and the sunrise honeyed her teeth. She dug a knuckle into one of your bruises. You didn’t stop her. You didn’t even mind if it meant she’d stay a little longer.
Now, in your home-town bar, Pitch balances on some redneck’s knee. Sweat dampens her neck, pools in the bowl of her collar. You follow the line of her jaw, the hairpin turn where it reaches towards her earring, this dark obsidian O – an eyelet, a word before it’s said, a thing playfully forbidden. She’s all angles, all sex and rebellion, and sex once more. You watch her bounce on his leg. Her hair rises and falls, its rhythm as pneumatic as a hammer. She rubs a hand up and down his stubble. Your fingers, as before, smell like cider.
HALF A DECADE sweeps by: valediction, a strange summer of expectation, two failed relationships with Marie-Eve, the same girl from Montreal who has crossed the country to test herself in the wilds of BC, who claims your virginity on some boulder miles north of a tree-planters’ camp. She’s the medic, dishes out tough love and makeshift splints, has nimble leather-worker hands that found first purchase on your arm to close a long corkscrew gash. You stroke her skin and your fingers come away bedrocked with dirt. She smells like pine needles and the earth and, when she sways atop you, you feel her like the gentle erosion of stone. As a parting gift, she bites your ear so hard she bruises the lobe. Touch it, she whispers, words wet with dew. Think of me.
You do. You shove conifers into soil until your body sweats char, until your triceps windlass with ache and you walk hunched like a pilgrim. At camp, you lie beneath evergreens whose ancestors your own ancestors hewed. You smoke what the camp-cook calls BC’s finest bud. Your peers chart the landscape of each other’s bodies – ribs like paddy fields, narrow inlet between hips – that slash of riverbed. Their breath warbles through their teeth and the tent walls, and night after night you listen to the loosening of hair ties, bra clasps, watchstraps, belt buckles. In your loneliest moments you squeeze your earlobe with all the force you can muster, and you jerk from sleep with your hand on your erection, sure of nothing.
At university on the West Coast you study geology and start an affair with your best friend’s fiancée, an American woman named Indiana. It’s in vogue, she tells you the first time. Infidelity.
Outside, electrical storms gob water at the windows, great thrushes of rain that shake the glass with song. It’s romantic enough, you figure. She hikes her dress over her head and from the living room floor you admire her breasts, lopsided and big as fists. She tells you she likes your hands; that your body isn’t all that bad; that you should work out. You make love on grooved slate while the TV re-runs footage from one riot or another: London, Cairo, Vancouver. There is a war coming. The screen tints Indiana’s skin a pearlescent blue, and you trace her collarbones, press your thumb to a mole that cusps her jugular. Later, you rub your hand on the foothills of her spine, but she shimmies away and you hear the soughing of her breath, this low unbroken release of air. You’ve ruined something good: a friendship, an engagement, your own self-worth. All for the glimpse of a girl’s mouth rutted to an O; the satisfaction like a rasp at the fulcrum of your jaw.
In the morning the clouds part, but water saturates the ground. You walk around campus, and the earth sloppily tongues your feet. Everyone you see has mud streaked up their shins, mud scattergunned on their thighs, mud in clumps in their hair. The storm has broken, but the air itself feels wet, as if you could run with your mouth wide open and quench this rising thirst.
After graduation, you move in with a redhead from Newfoundland because you’re broke and so is she. Radio, she calls herself, because she used to play with her dad’s ham radio. Like Jodie Foster in that movie about aliens, she tells you. Have you seen it? She’s got huge square glasses and freckles dark as mottled stone. She wears knitted sweaters with sleeves that reach her quads, khakis and corduroys and dirt-coloured jeans. On the windowsill she keeps jars of soil lifted from the places she feels anchored to: Bloomington, Swift Current, Toulouse. Where’s your home these days? she asks, and you pause and consider the places you’ve been and the places you yet wish to go. I’m not sure what home is, you tell her, and she nods, sagely, as if you’ve made a point.
She lives with her cat, Mercutio, in a bachelor suite that overlooks the Pacific, murphy bed and all, and many nights after too much local wine the two of you insomnia through to morning. No sex, this time. Never even a kiss. You sleep jackknifed on a settee that’s half-a-foot too short, but sometimes she lets you into bed, where you wrap her in your arms and breathe her strange smells – turpentine, almost, but also cloves, or leather, kelp, flintlock. Those nights, the two of you chinwag about the stupid past. She says she’d like to see your home town in the mountains. You say you’d like to show her, you say you find her accent irresistible, that goofy banjo twang. She rubs her knuckles along your stubble. Scumbag, she whispers, her cheek on your cheek, lips reckless with want. Yuppie scumbag.
You blow the summer on arguments over postmodernism and red wine. She has a word for you: philosophister – one who loves sophistry. Come autumn, you rake leaves and hurl her into piles – and in retaliation she spikes your shampoo with catnip oil – and for days Mercutio assails you like a creature bewitched. The two of you spend Halloween dressed as the lovers of the houses Montague and Capulet, meandering Vancouver’s tree-lined streets, where Radio steals a pumpkin some kid has carved an alien into and you hoist her to your shoulders so she can dunk it in a neighbour’s garage-door hoop. Her laughter is like the granting of a wish. For days, you relish the press of her thighs to your jaw, her warmth on the nape of your neck.
She introduces you to her friends as her paramour. Over dinner, she tells you that she doesn’t know what to make of you, that she doesn’t know what you mean to her. It’s because we aren’t fucking? she says, but you don’t know if it’s a question. Later, she tiptoes to the bathroom while you shower and, with a look at your erection, joins you beneath the water. I’m stiff, she says, and touches her own collar. Obediently you dig your thumb at the tumblers of muscle. She leans into you, shoulderblades to chest, and for the briefest of moments she allows you to soap her small breasts, to touch her in the places you’ve dreamed of touching her. Then she steps from the shower and wraps herself in a towel.
Your eyes meet, the stare overlong, and she opens her mouth as if to speak, but doesn’t. The smallest smile. Do you love me? you want to say, but you don’t, because you’re too afraid of the answer. She waits four, maybe five seconds, then exits, and, as cold air goosebumps your skin, you wonder if it is possible that you will not lose her.
SOMETIMES, AT PARTIES, you’ll catch Radio on another man’s knee. In coffee shops or bars or on walks along the breakwater she’ll gesture at girls she thinks you like, blonde bombshells and white-gloved beauty queens and wicker-thin brunettes on heels like steel risers. Foreigners, she says. You must have a thing for them? She’s read that the French make the best lovers, and that nobody wants to fuck a German. Canadians? she says, and she takes your hand as you stroll beneath autumn and all its red-bricked trees. Tenth worst, but also tenth best. Which I think is a very Canadian place to be.
With the onset of Vancouver’s grey winter, she spends a full day in bed. She tells you she might get contact lenses, that she’s sick of her big nerdy glasses. Her walls are hung with pleated tartans, like tablecloths, and one by one she asks you to take them down, because they’re so university girl, because they reek of immaturity. For days you ferry her cups of orange pekoe, croissants, some fried-egg sandwiches with a pool of ketchup the size of a toonie. At night you sleep on the settee with the quilt drawn to your chin against an unannounced cold. I’m sick of not being desired, she whispers, there in the dark of her little home, and you feel in your chest a pressure so intense you can’t even breathe. Your heart gongs in its little cage of bone. Say something. Say anything.
On New Year’s Eve at a bonfire on the beachfront Radio goes home with a stonemason named Brick. You manage a full hour without her. Everyone is in plaid and the men have manicured beards and leather steel-toed work boots and it’s like you’ve stumbled onto a film version of your home town, it’s like you’ve travelled back in time and space to a party in that glacial valley, and you are once again uncool and alone. When the countdown hits zero you kiss a random, anyone, and depart before the embers cool. Home, you sweep Mercutio off the bed and pound the pillows and inhale air perfumed by Radio’s smells. Gasoline, olive oil, citronella, beer. As you fall asleep you imagine her hip and her triceps taut as drawn slingshots and the knotted jib of her shoulder that you massaged for days, all those patterns of breath and movement, the very bedrock of a person. In your dreams you fuck for hours, subducted on that murphy bed with her breasts in your hands, her teeth at your earlobe, the whole compact quivering length of her perched–
Then you wake to a buckling in your groin. Your heartbeat: ragged. Your palm: slick and silvered in the pre-dawn. Gawp at it, bewildered: you are twenty-four, not thirteen. In the darkness you swallow a lump in your throat hard as crabapple and you listen in terror for the deadbolt as relief warms over you, its tingle like a cat’s tongue on your neck, like the longest and deepest exhale. How is it that no matter what you do or where you go, the loneliness remains? Maybe heartache is everlasting and whatever this is – this life, your life, your rollcall of unrequited love – is it. Your groin throbs. Your spit glands preen. You get up and lurch to the bathroom and there you watch ropes of cum circumnavigate the sink, the drain.
Radio doesn’t return that night. In the morning you spool gunk into Mercutio’s dish and use all the hot water in the shower, dumbly sniff her shampoo, her tea-tree body wash, the locally-churned soap made from basalt and sandalwood, trying to recapture something. You love her, you realise. You would do anything to keep her. But when you exit the bathroom you find her rain-soaked and shivering, and it is like coming upon a stranger in the dark.
I called, she says. You alright?
She plies the top button of her baggy sweater as if it were a worry stone. From each ear hangs an earring of strung beads – simple, handmade baubles the colour of nightclub teeth – and you imagine how they’d sway, back and forth, back and forth, while she gazed up at you.
There’s not much time left here. You know this, even as you open your mouth and close it. Her skin is pumice-rock pale, her eyes round and dark as the mouth of a bottle. She drags wet hair behind her ear. You’ve never seen her cry, though for a moment you wonder if you’d like to. Around you, the room wearies with morning light. Water pearls off her and falls to the herringbone floor, dreadful and rhythmic, like the ticking of a clock.
LIFE, AS THEY say, goes on. You wind up in Pilot Butte, Saskatchewan, marking geology exams while, next door, three young Native men named Caboose, Dusty and Ryefield – where he was conceived – use a poker to tend a bonfire. The army has called them to war. Reservists, band-members, kids who know their way around a clarinet, not a rifle. They’ve got six nondescript lagers on a plastic yoke and they drink them like men waiting for a long-delayed bus. You should invite them in from the cold. You should tell them to skip town before it’s all too late. Radio would have, or with her by your side you’d have found the courage.
Outside, vehicles idle nightlong on windswept drives, huffing exhaust at the northern sky. Your neighbours are landscapers and excavators and snow-removal men and some mogul who invested in a diamond mine near the Alaska Highway. On the radio, when they announce the temperature, they don’t bother to say minus. Five days a week, you brave weather so cold it splinters glass, en route to the diner on Railway Avenue where you indulge in weak coffee and profiteroles as solid as cobblestones, and where the waitress, winking, will gesture for you to sit at the bar.
The boys bare their arms to the bonfire’s lick. One of them douses it with a Folgers tin of gasoline that ignites a welcome plume of flame. For a while, you dated a local woman until one night after too much wine she said the neighbourhood could do with fewer prairie niggers. Two steel rivets pierced her lip – one above and one below her mouth – and she wore a bucket hat atop her curls. You said, They’re my students, and she loosed this great filthy laugh that tilted her chin in the air. That night, your lovemaking was like the methodical laying of brick and in the morning you said to her, This can’t go on.
In your neighbour’s yard those boys wear loose grins and looser clothes, six knees knocking. Week after week the radio has drawled on about beheadings and IEDs and some young medic from Quebec who died with shrapnel in her lung. That’s where the boys are going – boots on the sand in the Middle East. Another war to fatten some old men’s pockets, Radio would say, upright in bed while you brewed cowboy coffee and skimmed the silt, and on the news your handsome prime minister announced the commitment of the country’s ground forces. You watch those boys bawl and kick and twist off beer tabs and plant big, meaningless, heartfelt kisses on one another’s cheeks. It will all be alright, you want to tell them, even if you don’t believe it.
At the end of the school year you embark on a road trip through the Bible Belt where the rock stations pump R Dean Taylor’s one good song on repeat. Indiana, in fact, does not want you. And Lord, you can’t go back there. You cruise the Corn Belt mile after mile feeling like a fugitive from a life you never knew. You camp at rest stops off the I-94, splay-limbed on a mattress in the box of your tiny pickup while rain ghosts the canopy with a gentle, temperamental shushing, as if to assure you that yes, what you seek is out there around the next bend in the road, over the next hill, beyond the passing of another year. Every car that drums by you is a teenage couple dumb with maddening love. Some evenings you share your campground with vagabonds and runaways and old married folk who barely saved each other from a life of solitude. Kids a decade your junior toke up and strip down and you hear the release of their tension in the dark – more pressure than sound, as earthen as the rubbing of plates. You lie sleepless, aching with the memories of Radio’s body, her warm palm on your elbow, your knees in the culvert of her knees, the words you couldn’t bring yourself to whisper. Stay. If. Love. Please.
What remains? Except, of course, the rest of your life.
You don’t return to Pilot Butte, to teaching, to that small slice of Turtle Rock you for a time claimed as your own. Jobs you fall into and out of: a museum attendant in Manitoba where for six hours a day you sat in a chair while your vertebrae mortared to dust; apprentice to a stonemason in the Yukon whose temperament would better suit a welder; the mascot for a suspension bridge in Vancouver, Rocky the Raccoon, where you were fired for scavenging through the garbage cans, like a raccoon, to the delight of many a child.
You travel. Scotland, Sydney, Kyoto, Paris – la cité d’amour – where your nasally Canadian French makes the Parisian girls howl. They ask you to say fin de la semaine and un chien chaud and tabernac. They ask you to buy the wine. Sit with them on the banks of Saint Martin’s Canal and get so drunk the ground drifts beneath your feet. For five days, roam café to café, see the Eiffel Tower, eat no fewer than nine meals alone. Buy a copy of Carl Sagan’s Contact – a reprint with Jodie Foster’s face on the cover – and have it stamped at Shakespeare and Company.
In all our searching, an alien says in Radio’s movie version, the only thing that makes the emptiness bearable is each other. You feel your hand stray to your earlobe, that age-old wound, the memory like the flash of a girl’s teeth. Wonder: what do the French call French kissing?
You won’t find what you set out for – not here, and probably not anywhere. But you will never stop looking. And some nights on the cusp of sleep you will sense the turn of the Earth, knowing that all motion – every step and smile and fuck – must draw from its spin and that perhaps it is where things start that decides, faultlessly, where they end. Lie there. Inhale. Remember skin richer than lamp oil and eyelashes that tickled your neck in the dark. Remember warm arms, the tectonic grip of lovers. Around you, the world goes still. The Earth hesitates – first convergence of plates, anticipation. It, too, is holding its breath.
I wish to acknowledge the ancestral, traditional and unceded Indigenous territories of the Lkwungen-speaking peoples, and in particular, the Songhees, Esquimalt and WSÁNEĆ Peoples, on whose territory I live and play, and where this story was written.