stories and such

To Adventure!

Benny ran. His lungs burned and he was beyond exhausted, but he wouldn’t let them catch him. Not this time. He could see a clearing up ahead and knew he was close. Benny gripped his precious cargo in one sweaty hand, the other hand shielding his face as he raced through a thick patch of cedar trees toward safety. Almost there, he thought. A smile had just begun to creep across his face when he heard a familiar voice ring through the forest from close behind.

“I see him, boys!” the voice called out.

Benny didn’t look back. He knew who it was and he knew he was in trouble. He couldn’t outrun them and he certainly couldn’t defend himself once they caught up. Still, he ran, throwing one foot in front of the other until the footsteps behind him got so close he could feel their vibration. Benny managed to burst into the clearing at a full sprint before he felt a slap on his back and heard the eruption of cheers and laughter. It was over. He fell to his knees, panting and heaving into the tall grass.

“Nice try, Benny!” He looked up to see Fraser Owens standing in front of him, a hand outstretched and a grin spread from ear to ear. “We’ll take our flag back, please.”

Benny threw it as far as he could, which wasn’t very far, and rolled over on his back with his eyes closed, still gasping for breath. He heard one of the other boys – Jake, probably – walk over to where the flag had landed. “Ew!” he said. “It’s all covered in Benny’s sweat!”

“Make him carry it back,” said Fraser, giving Benny a nudge with his foot. “He has to come with us anyway. We’re taking him back to jail.”

A voice Benny recognized as Brandon’s piped up then. “Really, Fraser? Don’t you think we could let him go? There’s only, like, fifteen minutes left in the game. It’s almost time for lunch.”

Benny opened his eyes and squinted into the blinding sun. Fraser looked at Jake who just shrugged and threw the flag on the ground, wiping his hands on his shorts, which were filthy as well.

“Sure, whatever,” said Fraser. “Let him go. It’ll save us from dragging him all the way back.”

Benny looked at Brandon and mouthed the words thank you. Brandon nodded and looked back at Fraser, who was making a plan.

“Here’s what we’ll do, boys,” he was saying. “If we don’t take the flag back to our home base, nobody else can steal it and the other team can’t win, right? So Jake, you hold onto the flag and wander around in our territory until the game’s over. If anyone asks what you’re doing, tell ‘em we captured Benny and you’re taking the flag back. Don’t cross into the other team’s territory, whatever you do. Brandon, you and I will keep trying to sneak down to the beach to get the other team’s flag. Let’s stick together, but not too close. I say we take the old path behind the boys’ cabins.”

Jake was nodding, but Brandon didn’t look too sure. “I don’t know, I feel kinda bad hanging onto our flag like that. It’s cheating.”

Fraser screwed his face up and shook his head. “No, it’s not!” he insisted. “Jake is going to take the flag back, just very slowly. Right, Jake? Just walk back instead of running, and maybe get lost in the woods a little bit. Who cares, anyway? It’s just a game. It’s not like we’re cheating on a test or something.”

Brandon shrugged and started walking across the clearing toward the boys’ cabins and Fraser chased after him. Jake picked up the sweaty flag and shoved it through a belt loop on his jeans before wandering back into the woods. Benny was left lying on his back in the grass, alone.

He hated summer camp. His mother had signed him up for two whole weeks at Camp Kitchie after his neighbour, Joey, went last summer and raved about it non-stop until Thanksgiving.

“You’ll love it,” his mother had assured him.

“No,” he’d argued. “I won’t. Why can’t I go to science camp at the museum instead?”

“Benny,” said his mother, “that’s not camp. That’s just a bunch of activities. It’s basically summer school. Camp is about sleeping in bunkbeds and having bonfires and wearing the same dirty clothes for two weeks straight. Camp is an adventure!”

“But I don’t want an adventure,” Benny had replied. “I want to sleep in my own bed. Joey said the food is gross there. He said they eat fish. I hate fish.”

“I’m sure you won’t have to eat fish,” his mother had said. “Anyway, it’s done. I’ve paid the deposit. You’re going to Camp Kitchie for two weeks in August. End. Of. Discussion.”

Joey was supposed to go for the same two weeks in August, but then he broke his wrist at hockey camp and his mom decided to keep him home. Benny had actually considered breaking his wrist as well to get out of going, but all of the things he’d have to do in order to injure himself sounded worse than summer camp so here he was, lying in a field all by himself, dirty and hungry, while a bunch of lucky kids with reasonable mothers were sitting in the air-conditioned museum back home, wearing clean clothes and building rockets.

He didn’t move until he heard the lunch bell ring, letting everyone know the game was over. They were serving mac and cheese for lunch today and he didn’t want to miss it, so he went straight to the dining hall and stood in line with the rest of the boys from his cabin as they waited for their counselor to come and let them in.

They were still waiting when Fraser arrived, at which point his cabin started cheering and giving him high fives. He had Benny’s team’s flag and was waving it high in the air. Apparently, their plan had worked. Fraser caught Benny’s eye and raised the flag even higher in the air, sticking his tongue out for dramatic effect. Benny turned toward the front of the line, which was starting to move, and made his way inside.

It was Benny’s duty of the day to set the table for his cabin, so he headed over to the counter by the kitchen and began counting out dishes and cutlery in groups of twelve. Beside him, he noticed a girl from his swimming group named Kelsey. She noticed him right back and smiled. Benny focused on the plates in his hand and began recounting them, his entire face turning the same colour as the ketchup bottles the cook was setting out on the counter. Kelsey didn’t seem to care if he was paying attention or not, and chatted away while she collected her own pile of dishes.

“Don’t you hate setting the table?” she asked. “It’s my least favourite duty. Like, if I wanted to be a waitress I’d stay home and get a summer job, right?”

Benny had no idea what to say to this. He didn’t hate setting the table and he was too young to get a summer job. In fact, he was pretty sure everyone at camp was too young to get a summer job, including Kelsey, who he knew for a fact was only thirteen.

“Yeah,” Benny lied. “Lame.” He was overheating. Benny never talked to girls. Girls never talked to Benny. It was fine. This was awful. Benny would rather have been back in the woods getting chased by Fraser Owens than standing in the dining hall talking to a girl.

“You’re Benny, right?” Kelsey said. “I’m Kelsey. I think we’re in the same swimming group. You’re in Level 5?”

Benny nodded and began to head back to his table. He suddenly felt nauseous and was scared he might be sick. Kelsey walked beside him and kept babbling on about swimming or something – Benny could barely hear her because he had a pounding in his ears and thought he might be having a heart attack. He was almost back to his cabin’s table when he felt her hand on his arm, at which point his mouth went dry and he was sure he would faint.

“You should come,” she said.

Benny didn’t know what she was talking about and certainly had no intention of going wherever she was inviting him to go, but he needed to sit down and so he nodded his head and placed a large pile of dishes in the center of his cabin’s table as he took a seat.

“Sweet!” Kelsey replied, waving as she walked away. “Bye, Benny!”

Benny filled a glass with red juice and drank the entire thing in three gulps.

“Dude,” said Matt, his bunkmate. “How’d you DO that?”

“How’d I do what?” Benny asked. He was starting to feel better already.

“How did you get Kelsey to invite you to the beach party this afternoon?” Everyone at their table, including their counselors, was leaning in, looking at Benny.

“Beach party?” Benny replied. “Um, I don’t know. I just… we were just talking by the dishes.”

“You’re a legend, Benny!” said Matt, slapping him on the back.

“Ow,” Benny said. “I’m not going to a stupid beach party with a bunch of girls. Besides, it’s not like the beach is private property. Who needs an invite? Why don’t you guys just go?”

The rest of the table laughed at a joke Benny didn’t realize he had made.

“That’s creepy,” Matt explained. “You can’t just walk over to a bunch of girls sitting around reading magazines and listening to music at the beach. You gotta have an in with them, you know? A connection. You, my friend, just made a connection.”

“Well, I don’t want a connection,” Benny said. “I’m not going.”

Matt took Benny’s face in his hands the way mothers do when they want you to listen carefully.

“Benny,” he said, calmly, “you are going. You’re going and you’re bringing me with you. I’ll do whatever you want. You name it. You want the top bunk? Done. It’s yours.”

Benny groaned. He did want the top bunk and he didn’t know how to say no to Matt. This was shaping up to be the worst afternoon of his life.

“Fine,” he said. “I guess it won’t be so bad if you’re there too.”

Matt laughed. “Not so bad? Benny, my man, you need to change your attitude. Think of it as an adventure! Boldly going where no Benny has gone before!”

Benny couldn’t help but laugh. Maybe Matt was right. Besides, he was probably going to have to talk to girls sooner or later. He refilled his glass with juice and did the same for Matt and the rest of the boys at the table.

“To adventure,” he said, toasting the group.

“TO ADVENTURE!” they cheered.

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Tell Me Something I Don’t Know

This short story was a finalist in the 2014 CANSCAIP/Writer’s Union of Canada Writing for Children Competition: 

Tell Me Something I Don’t Know

The look on her face as we stand in front of a white door at the top of the stairs is exactly what you’d expect: eyes open wide, forehead creased like an accordion, lips stretched into a clown-sized smile revealing two perfect rows of impossibly white teeth. Her hands are clasped at her chest like there’s every reason to believe this is going to be the single greatest moment of all our lives.

“OK, Shirley,” she says in her overly excited, irritatingly chipper teacher voice. “Close your eyes!”

I roll my eyes before closing them and stuff my hands into the pocket of my hoodie with a sigh. I know exactly what’s going to happen next. It’s classic. They are going to show me my room with matching curtains and pillow covers and lampshades. There will be clothes hanging up in the closet and drawers filled with new socks and underwear. Something large and/or expensive will be wrapped up and tied with a bow – maybe an iPod or a guitar because they know I like music, since it was written on my intake form. She’ll do the grand tour, pointing out the obvious and highlighting key features like it’s the Showcase Showdown. He will wait by the door because none of this was his idea and he probably wishes I wasn’t here and, given what happened at my last foster home, that’s fine with me; he can ignore me all he wants.  She won’t even notice because she’ll be too busy talking and staring at my face, trying to pull approval out of me like a snake charmer. Like I said: classic.

“Annnnnnnnnnnnnd, open!” she cries.

I take my time because I don’t want to give them the impression that I actually care and also because, as I do start to open my eyes, I’m hit with a bright light from inside the room. When I finally do see it, I’m confused. Shocked, actually. I take a step inside and slowly turn around in a big circle.

The room is completely empty.

The walls are white, the windows are bare and there is not a single piece of furniture to speak of. I open the closet door: nothing. I look around once more. No present. No bow. Just space.

“Shirley,” she begins, “we know you’ve been bounced around a lot this last while and it must be impossible for you to imagine making yet another house your home. To be honest, we started trying to decorate this bedroom before you arrived and realized that we don’t even really know you. It occurred to us that maybe you should be the one to do it. We want you to create a room you will enjoy spending time in; a place where you can feel safe and happy and… home.”

She puts a hand on my shoulder and I’m still too stunned to stop her.

“Think of this bare, white room as a clean slate,” she says. “A fresh start. A new beginning. It can be whatever you make of it.”

The entire situation has caught me totally off guard. I look at her and, all of a sudden, I see more than teeth and eyes and hands. I see her, Laura: a person, a woman, a mother – not my mother, but a mother just the same. I feel a glimmer of something. It starts in the pit of my stomach and quickly works its way up into my throat. I think I’m going to be sick.

Joe – that’s her husband’s name – is clearly as uncomfortable as I am with the level of emotion that has just filled the big, white room. He clears his throat and announces that he’s going to go light the barbecue for dinner. He asks if I like cheese on my burger, to which I nod, and then he’s gone. Laura gives me a gentle smile then turns to follow her husband. She pauses in the doorway, her hand on the knob.

“Would you like the door closed or shall I leave it open?” she asks.

I think about this for a minute and then nod once more.

“You can leave it open.”

I listen to her footsteps as she goes downstairs to the kitchen then move to the middle of the room and sit cross-legged on the hardwood floor. What just happened?! In twelve years and seven foster homes I have seen a lot of things – for better and for worse – but never anything like this. It makes me nervous. I don’t know what to do when people don’t behave the way I expect them to. I hate surprises.

I lie down on the floor and close my eyes, trying to remember what Hilary, my counsellor said to me in her office this morning. It was something typical about trying to open up and let people in.

“What have you got to lose?” she asked me.

I kind of snorted.

“Oh, I don’t know. How about everything?” I replied.

“What do you mean by that?” she asked. “What are you afraid of, Shirley?”

I rolled my eyes and threw my head back. “NOTHING.”

“So you have everything to lose but you’re afraid of nothing,” Hilary recapped. “That’s pretty hard to believe. I mean, if I felt I had everything to lose I think I would be terrified. Shirley, can you help me understand what you’re saying? I want to understand so we can talk about it.”

I could feel Hilary looking at me in the calm, manipulative way all counsellors seem to have completely mastered. They must teach it to you in therapy school. It’s probably the only thing on the final exam.

“I have to pee,” I said. I went into the bathroom, locked the door and sat on the faded red plastic chair in the corner until my session was almost over. When I went back to Hilary’s office, she wasn’t even there. I waited until a kid and his mother showed up for their appointment and then biked back to school.

I realize I’ve fallen asleep on the floor. There’s a line of drool across my cheek and my right hand, which was under my head like a pillow, is numb. I wipe my face with the sleeve of my hoodie and sit up. The sun has begun to set and the walls along one whole side of the bedroom are golden orange, flickering with shadows from the leaves outside. It reminds me of a campfire. I love campfires. Maybe I’ll paint my room orange.

When I walk into the kitchen, Laura is standing at the fridge holding three different bottles of salad dressing.

“Oh, good,” she says. “You can help me set the table.”

I nod and wait for instructions.

“Here you go,” she says, handing me the bottles of dressing. “And the cutlery is over here.” She opens a drawer by the sink just as Joe comes into the kitchen holding a plate stacked high with cheeseburgers.

“Ta-daaaa!” he says, and they both look at me, grinning. I know they’re waiting for me to clap my hands and say something ridiculous like OOOOOOH YUMMY!

Instead, I say, “I’m a vegetarian.”

I’m not a vegetarian. I don’t know why I say it. The burgers look so good and I’m afraid I might start drooling again but it’s too late. I’ve said it and that’s that. I can’t take it back.

“Oh,” Laura says. She looks confused. Or hurt. I can’t tell which. “Um, huh. Well, they didn’t tell us that. I mean, it wasn’t on your intake form. I, uh… huh.”

“It’s fine,” I say. “There’s salad. And maybe I’ll just have a bun with peanut butter on it. Have you got any peanut butter?” I’m not sure how I’m going to watch them eat those burgers while I eat a stupid peanut butter sandwich.

“Of course,” she answers. “Yes. Definitely. We definitely have peanut butter.” She gets a jar out of the cupboard and sets it in the middle of the table beside all the burger condiments.

Joe says, “I hope it’s alright that the buns were grilled alongside the burgers.”

“Would you rather have some bread?” Laura asks me. “We have multigrain bread.”

“It’s fine,” I say again. “The buns are fine.”

We eat in silence, for the most part. They ask a few questions about school and music and I answer them, but that’s about it. It’s awkward. When Laura asks me if I’ve had enough to eat I nod, but I can’t make eye contact.

“Well I hope you saved room for desert,” she says, getting up to clear the plates. “We thought we might bundle up and roast some marshmallows tonight. We’ve got a campfire pit out back by the shed.”

I smile. I can’t help it. I smile and she sees me and I can’t help it.

I love campfires.

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lights, camera…

Tonight’s Yukon forecast for northern lights is calling for Extreme Aurora. My roommate, Allen, a First Nations elder who knows everything about anything important up here, thinks they’ll be coming out around 1am, so I ready my camera and set an alarm for 12:45. As it turns out, the alarm is unnecessary because I can’t sleep; too many questions. Will there be different colours or just green? (As if it’s not enough to see the northern lights, I’m preemptively disappointed in the case that they aren’t absolutely spectacular.)  Do I even know how to shoot something like this with my obsolescent camera? Should I get a new camera? (I should). Can I afford it? (HAHAHAHAH, no.) Is it dark enough yet? Are they already out? Am I missing it? Did I forget to floss?

By 12:15 I can’t stand it any longer. Like a kid on Christmas morning defying the impossible rule of sleeping in until AT LEAST 6am, I layer up in every sweater I own and creep into the night. As soon as I step outside a shooting star zips right down the middle of my field of view and I blink. I also make a quick wish for good, not ordinary, northern lights.

I look northward because Allen had said this is where they always start. “That’s why they’re called northern lights,” he’d told me, like I was simple.

“I thought it was just because you had to be up north to see them,” I’d said in my own defense.

“Yeah.” Our conversations are usually pretty short.

I can’t see much but treetop silhouettes and a regular starry sky, so I move closer to the wide-open space of a field about 100m from my cabin. The view is better, but I can hear things rustling in the long grasses and it freaks me out, so I retreat to the cabin and resign myself to watching the show from my cheap seats at the back of the theatre.

Allen is outside having a smoke when I get back.

“See anything?” he asks.

“Not yet.”

“What time is it?”

“12:35”

“Should be soon. 1:00.” He always repeats himself. Sometimes he’ll tell me the same story three or four times in the run of a day, using exactly the same words each time. I don’t mind. I love his stories. He speaks with the accent of his people, soft and deliberate, and he has this fantastic, childish giggle. I should really record it sometime, just to have. Regardless, he has yet to be wrong about anything no matter how many times he repeats it, so I hunker down to wait for 1am.

I’ve no sooner taken a seat on the steps of the back porch than Allen looks up and points.

“They’re starting.”

I follow the glow of his cigarette and squint into the night. “Really? I can’t see anything.”

“Just over there, it’s getting light. See?”

I can’t see. I suppose I can sort of imagine I see something, maybe, but truthfully the sky looks pretty normal.

“Another couple minutes, it will be bright,” says Allen. He puts his cigarette out against the trunk of a tree and shoves it in his pocket: A few seconds later I hear the door to the cabin open and shut quietly behind him.

I wait and I yawn and soon it occurs to me that if I’m going to fall asleep, I might as well do it in my warm bed as opposed to shivering out here on the back stoop. But just then, as if the cosmos were begging my patience while they make final preparations for tonight’s main event, I see another shooting star. This time I feel myself wish for a whole bunch of things simultaneously, the way you have a million random thoughts in the 2.7 seconds it takes to flip your car into a ditch. I wish for Ross and I to see each other soon and for a great winter. I wish for my grandmother to go peacefully and for my dog to live forever. I wish for good, not ordinary, northern lights. I don’t wish for world peace or anything noble. By the time I process all these things and argue with myself over whether or not I should pick just one wish, and then debate which one it would be, a very distinct, yet hazy green wave has started to spread across the treetops. It isn’t moving, isn’t dancing as they say, but it is shimmering and getting brighter by the second. It’s easier to see if you don’t look at it directly, kind of like those optical illusion prints that were so popular at strip mall poster stores in the ‘80s.

I stare and squint in the lessening darkness. The green fades and becomes bright again, widening and thinning out repeatedly. It’s beautiful… but not spectacular. I’ve seen way more impressive sunsets and photos of George Clooney, quite frankly. I stand around for another 10 minutes and it pretty much stays the same. When it doesn’t appear my wish for good, not ordinary, northern lights will be granted, I begin to indulge in self-pity but stop when I realize/remember something important: I’m an idiot.

If natural wonders were predictable they would be neither natural nor wonderful. Shooting stars, perfect sunsets, northern lights – they’re extraordinary because they catch us by surprise and remind us that we’re teeny, tiny beings with virtually no control over the stuff that actually matters. I’m glad seeing spectacular northern lights isn’t as simple as going to the Yukon, googling “aurora borealis forecast?” and setting the alarm on my iPhone. I get it. I’ll wait. And if this is it, that’s cool. I’ll just put good, not ordinary, northern lights back on the list with all the other amazing things I’ve never seen and continue fumbling around, making big plans only to be taught/reminded that I’ve got quite a nerve making big plans.

You win, Universe. Again. Thanks, and goodnight.

 

 

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Valentine’s Day

In my creative writing class, we were asked to compose the message for a Valentine’s Day card.

Front:

If we were in elementary school and my mom had made cupcakes for me to take to class for our Valentine’s Day party, I would carefully examine each one to see which was the prettiest and had the most icing. I would set it aside to make sure nobody else took it and, when you got up to sharpen your pencil or go get a drink, I would place it on your desk with trembling hands and breath held tight against my ribs. From the safety of my seat, I would pretend not to notice while you ate the cupcake I had saved just for you and when the bell rang at the end of the day I would skip all the way home, euphoric and dizzy from the fall into love.

Inside:

Instead, we are adults and you had to work late tonight so I will leave this card on the kitchen counter and remind you to take the garbage out before you come to bed.

cupcake

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Ode to the Polka Dot Shoes

My friend, whom we shall call LC (because that’s what we call her), suffered a loss recently. Her favourite shoes, a pair of black and white polka dot flats, had become fatally worn and she was forced to send them into retirement. It was a tough decision, one that came only after several sleepless nights and visits to the local cobbler. (Yes, cobblers still exist and are still called cobblers). In honour of her shoes and the legacy they left behind like a trail of classy little footprints, I wrote a poem. It is my first and, therefore, my very best effort at poetry. You’re welcome, universe.

Ahem.

OH! Polka Dot Shoes.

How you be so

Expired?

Your days so many

Your path so varied

Your tread so very

Weary

Like a ferry boat made of leather

And other stuff

You transported two feet and a heartbeat

To and fro

Hither and yon

Never complaining

A martyr, really

A polka dot martyr

Until you took your last steps

The life squeeeeeeeeeeeeeeaking out of you

On the streets of somewhere glamorous

Probably

Like New York

Or Honolulu

Or

Moncton

You drew attention

Completed outfits

Inspired a trend

Hashtag

Polka Dots

Where do we go from here?

Plaid?

Stripes?

Snake skin?

(Please say snake skin)

We struggle to move forward

Barefoot

On tippy-toe

Trying not to step on the pile of broken glass and hypodermic needles that is your memory

Our loss

And yet

Feet need shoes like neon needs spandex

So LC will soldier on

Her toes will wiggle and wriggle anew

In another pair of something-or-others

Until

Eventually

Polka Dot Shoes become a faded photograph

A foot-ograph?

Yes, a faded footograph

Gone, but not forgotten

Never forgotten

Except by people with terrible memories

Who can’t help it

So go forth

Polka Dot Shoes

And grace the soles of those who have passed before you

(I’m talking about ghosts)

Like Marilyn Munroe

Or Farrah Fawcett

Or

The Wicked Witch of the West

She had a thing for great shoes

As we lay you down to rest

Polka Dot Shoes

Know that you have left a trace on our hearts

And our muddy spots

It is shaped like a shoe that is size 8.5

And kind of square around the toes

I think

Your trace is not the bad kind

Like when someone litters

Or doesn’t put out their fire properly at a campsite

It’s a good kind of trace

Like a really cool fossil

And who doesn’t love fossils?

Only assholes

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¡Salud!

His head, glistening with sweat under a wide-brimmed black cowboy hat, appears in the space between wooden slats at the door a few meters from my hammock.

“Mezcal?” he asks.

“Uh, si?” I reply/ask. “Lo siento. No trabajo aqui,” I say, trying to explain my bumbling presence. Sorry, I don’t work here.

He nods, pulls open the door and takes a step inside, followed by an equally glistening woman with grey hair and a shy smile. Both are, I’m guessing, in their early 60s and it’s clear they’ve been walking around Puerto Escondido all morning in the face-melting sun peddling their wares, in this case mezcal, which is basically like an artisinal, micro-brew Tequila. Both of them have faded bandanas flung over one shoulder, which they use in unison to wipe their brows upon entering. I offer them a seat using hand signals and basic charades and call for Achilles, the manager, to come bail me out of whatever I’ve just invited into the hostel.

As the three of them sit around a table discussing the product in question, I assess the situation. The man (his name is, quite perfectly, Alberto) has taken off his cowboy hat and it rests on his lap. He smiles easily beneath a stereotypical bushy black mustache, which matches the pair of furry eyebrows that rise and fall emphatically as he speaks. The rest of his outfit consists of an oversized t-shirt with the symbol of the Duke University Blue Devils, but it says Demons Football, so I can’t be sure if a Mexican university has just ripped off the logo or if it’s an actual shirt from the US that’s been translated for Mexican markets. Below the waist, he’s wearing grey dress pants and black leather sandals. His feet are cracked and dry and bloated, which makes sense given his life’s work and mode of transportation and, to my total glee, he takes the front hem of his t-shirt and loops it up through the collar so it becomes something of a sexy look, a là Debbie Gibson, circa 1988. His big shiny belly protrudes without shame beneath the t-shirt situation he’s created and he rubs it from time to time, especially when I offer he and his wife a few cookies from my personal stash in the kitchen.

His wife, whose name I never do catch, is wearing a similar outfit, only her t-shirt is pink, her pants beige, and she sports a ball cap instead of a cowboy hat. So I guess not really that similar, actually. (At no point does she follow suit and tuck her t-shirt through the collar like her husband.) She doesn’t do or say much, and I find it endearing that she’ll accompany her husband on his sales missions when, clearly, she is not an equal partner in the whole affair. It seems she’s just tagging along in the dusty heat to keep him company and offer moral support. She laughs at his jokes and smiles at him, even when he’s not talking, and leans in at one point to brush cookie crumbs out of his moustache.

I enjoy watching the three of them sit and do business. If I hadn’t seen the preliminary introductions take place with my own eyes, I’d think they were just old friends getting together over cookies and mezcal. They laugh, they chat, they drink, they snack: It’s charming and so universally small-town.

At one point, Achilles finally gives him the nod and Alberto proceeds to syphon the liquor from a big container that once held vegetable oil through a yellowing plastic tube into a smaller container that once held PowerAde. This is how he measures a litre. He then pours each litre from the PowerAde bottle through a funnel that his wife retrieves from her old leather purse. It flows into a glass jug that will sit on a shelf behind the bar for customers and guests in the busy season to come. Once the transfer is complete, it all looks very tidy and sanitary. So much so that it’s kind of hard to believe that the entire process happened right here in front of me using funnels and tubes and bottles that look like they got pulled out of a pile in the back of someone’s dad’s garage.

But I know the truth. I saw the hands go from sweaty bandana to shiny belly to dirty t-shirt to cookies to mouth to plastic tube to funnel to glass bottle. I know how much of Mexico really went into that jug. And, honestly, I love it. Later, when I sit around the table with my new friends at the hostel and toast to our health with a shot of truly authentic Mexican mezcal, I’ll chuckle to myself thinking of Alberto and his wife and cross my fingers that I don’t wake up tomorrow with a telltale rumble in my tummy.

Salud!

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On courage.

(We spent the weekend celebrating the wedding of two very dear friends. This was my toast to the bride and groom.)

Like Ginny – and totally unlike Tristan – I am a teacher. I taught Grade 6 for a number of years  and, one year, had a boy in my class named Kieren. He was a small little dude with red hair, freckles, dimples, braces… the works. An adorable cartoon character of a little boy. One day, Kieren declared to the entire class that I was the most courageous person he had ever met. His rationale was that I was almost 30 years old, and not even married. He went on to say that I was incredibly brave because I got up every day and went to work with a smile on my face. He marvelled that I was, he guessed, just happy to be alive.

(10 years old. What a kid.)

At the time, I was understandably speechless. If I could find Kieren today, however, I would love to tell him that, in fact, he’s got it all wrong. I’d like to inform him that being single is actually pretty easy. There’s very little required in the way of communication or compromise. And more importantly, I think, there’s very little risk. Being single is safe.

To find and fall in love with someone who has the potential to make you happy, happier than you can even make yourself, well now, that’s terrifying. To surrender the monopoly of control that you have over your heart (your heart!) I’d say is a very risky manoeuvre. But we do it. We do it all the time because we know that there is one way to curb or quell that fear, to mitigate those risks, and that’s through trust. Commitment.

Ginny and Tristan have been together for 8 years now and, in that time, have had many adventures and created memories that span the globe. We’ve all been there with them at one point or another to share in those good times and see them at their best, at their most happy. But they aren’t entering into this thing blissfully ignorant. They know the fear. They’ve tasted it a few times. And yet, instead of quitting, instead of running for cover behind a shield of independence like so many of us do, they chose to face it, to lean into it. Together. Forever.

And I think that is fucking ballsy.

So, please, join me in toasting two of the most courageous people that I have ever met. To Mr and Mrs Steeves-Blair-Hicks!

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departures/arrivals

I’ve just begun taking a course in creative writing and one of our first assignments was to take a simple, common word or phrase we stumbled upon that day and to incorporate it into a piece of fiction. The day we were assigned this project, I happened to be traveling to Quebec with some students and decided to write a story using the concept of arrivals and departures based on the screens posted all over the airport.

departures/arrivals

Everyone was finally together in one room. It was the moment he had been waiting for and he smiled, partly to reassure them and partly because he knew it was almost over. For the first and only time since his stroke, he was grateful for the loss of speech as it meant he wouldn’t have to find the words to say goodbye.

He closed his eyes and listened to them talk amongst themselves, soft laughter as they passed time trading memories and debating the details of their mutual history. Eventually, he began to feel the way you feel when you’ve stayed at a party too long and your desire to go home trumps your fear of missing all the fun.

He opened his eyes and took one last look at the world he had called home for 83 years. When he closed them again he was not met with the usual darkroom imagery but, instead, saw his wife. She hadn’t seen him yet and was sitting at a kitchen table sipping tea, doing her puzzle. He could smell bread cooking in the oven and, through the window, saw a glassy lake with a boat tied up to shore. He let out a long sigh and felt a lifetime’s worth of tension and fatigue dissipate and disappear.

The sound must have startled his wife because she turned just then and smiled at him, patting her hand on the seat of the empty chair beside her.

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