I drove up on Sunday, my Mustang stuffed to the ceiling with every piece of crap I owned. The drive was turning out to be just as Julian had said, “Turn your brain to the ‘dull’ setting and toodle your ass up Highway 63. When the road stops, you’re there.” What he hadn’t told me, however, was that the hours of solitude would suck me into the spectacle of my past so completely. Fort McMurray lay almost five hours to the north and you’d think I’d be tingling with the anticipation of my brand-new life yet my mind remained wedged inside my yesterdays like a wad of Dagmar’s gum.
“Slap number one is exactly that, slap number one,” she had said as we settled our bums into the oversized vinyl booths at the Inglewood Cafe. “Are you ready for Charlie to give you slap number two and three?” She’d tilted her head to the side, chewed her Thrills and looked at me for a moment before she continued, “You’re not as stupid as you used to be so—”
“Actually it felt like a kiss.”
Her eyes went wide. “What? Are you out of your mind?”
“Well, maybe it didn’t feel like that right away. I mean, when he first hit me I was shocked all right. But I’m telling the truth. After he left and then I left and I was driving around and then it started to feel like a sweet kiss.”
“You’re as stupid as ever.”
“Don’t you get it? It was a good bye kiss.” I leaned back and crossed my arms over my chest.
Her mouth slowly spread into a grin. “Well, Hallelujah for you. What are you going to do now? Divorce him?”
“I guess that comes next, doesn’t it.”
She ran her fingers through her short black hair and pushed her glasses back up her nose. Reaching for her coat she fumbled in the pockets until she found her package of smokes. After she lit one she leaned toward me, “I know a girl who knows a girl whose father is a lawyer. You want me to give you her number?”
I patted my purse which was sitting on the table beside my coffee cup. “Camilla already got me a name of a guy in Fort McMurray. Someone she went to school with.”
“Who the hell is Camilla?”
“You know, the girl I worked with at Edmonton Telephones. Christ. She was at my wedding.”
“Why wait ‘til you get to Fort McMurray?”
“Believe me, I’d like nothing better than to get things in gear here but I need to get my head straightened out first. Besides, Camilla told me if I start too soon the judge will order us into counseling, you know, to save us from ourselves. Why should a counselor figure he knows more about what I want than I do?”
“Yeah. No shit,” said Dagmar. “Just another man telling you what you gotta do like he’s some wiser-than-God Kahuna.”
As I gained on a neon-green Beetle driving precariously close to the ditch, I booted the gas and passed him like he was standing still, simultaneously stifling the screaming Elton John with the eject button. I tossed him into the passenger seat and for the next while allowed my brain to wallow in the raw silence. In every direction, the forest, in the distress of its own reinvention, was a rippling sheet of red, orange and gold. The strong breeze was making the tips of the giant firs sashay back and forth like a gaggle of tarted-up old ladies still singing “Auld Lang Syne” long after the midnight balloons had popped.
By the time I got to Grassland, the gas gauge was trembling near the E. I pulled up to the pump, killed the ignition and bolted for the ladies room.
“Leaded, please,” I shouted as the attendant headed toward my car. When I came out of the bathroom and the plaid-shirt aristocracy leaning at the pay-counter all stopped talking at the same time, I told myself it was because my extra-wide-leg Levis were the cat’s meow and my kind of fashion chutzpah had never before been seen by the upper-crust of Bumpkinville, Alberta.
My next stop would be Wandering River; about a hundred and fifty miles to the north. Traffic wasn’t too heavy yet; Julian had warned me to leave early to avoid the Sunday migration that seemed to begin at three o’clock sharp. He’d also warned me to stay alert for wildlife on the road. Other than the first family patriarchs of Grassland, a convoy of camouflaged jeeps crawling with equally camouflaged testosterone, a dozen nose-picking rig pigs in mud-caked trucks and three fat ravens, I hadn’t seen one living thing.
I shoved Elton John back into the machine and once again crawled into the prickly crevices of my mind.
When Dagmar started work at the A&W, she had seemed different from the rest of us girls who were, for the most part, looking for romance and the occasional fifty-cent tip. For one thing she was older—just shy of eighteen and in her last year at O’Leary High. I latched on to her like a baby to a nipple and although she never hesitated to hurl insults at me whenever my thinking needed a readjustment, she had nurtured me with good grass and an armload of Ayn Rand bestsellers since I was fifteen years old.
When I’d told her Charlie and I were engaged she’d said it would never work. “You guys aren’t in love. Hell, by the sounds of it, you’re not even in lust. Instead of marrying him you should be kicking his dumb ass into the gutter,” she’d lectured. ”Why do you always need some man anyway? You guys both need a tune-up!” But that day, so long ago now, my quest hadn’t been for sage advice and cold-water truth. It was shopping for a wedding dress. Even Camilla, with a divorce in her pocket and a couple of months on the cold leather couch of Dr. Samuel Stabber, told me I was poking at devils who, sure as shit, would start poking back. Every so often, when she noticed me nodding off at my desk or else so jumpy I’d fall off my chair at the sound of someone sneezing, she’d take me for lunch at the Kresge’s dinette, just me and her, and try to bring me back to my senses by alternately rubbing my shoulder in sympathy or informing me, as if I didn’t already know, that a wedding was a party and a marriage was a life-long sentence. I didn’t listen to Camilla either. I was going to marry Charlie and no one would talk me out of it.
I convinced myself it was the never-ending wedding details that had me so skittish I couldn’t even mascara my lashes without poking out an eye. But I was wrong. It was denial. Denial, like a knotweed, threatening to choke the life out of the little self-respect I still possessed. The fact was I no longer loved Charlie and didn’t give a rat’s ass that he no longer loved me.
Every day I prayed he’d break it off.
But he didn’t and neither did I.
“Probably the shortest marriage on the planet,” Dagmar had said a mere seven months later after I’d confessed I was pregnant, that it was Julian’s and I was leaving Charlie. “Even Elizabeth Taylor, hysterical ignoramus that she is, managed to stick it out longer than you.”
I rolled down the window and dumped my cold coffee, tossing the empty Styrofoam cup onto the floor by the passenger seat. Thoroughly irritated with Elton John’s relentless piano-banging, I tossed him into the shoebox next to me and fumbled for Steelers Wheel. Alternately staring at the pronged backside of farmer Plowman’s tractor and the two-storey eighteen-wheeler in my rear-view mirror, I nervously sang along to “Stuck in the Middle” and let the irony of it push me to the thin edge of crazy.
I had been phoning in sick a lot because of the morning puking. On those days I’d lie on the couch like a half-comatose amoeba and watch the afternoon soap operas. How did they manage to make melodrama seem so elegant? Twirling my unwashed hair, my toe working a hole into the afghan Charlie’s mother had made especially for us, I’d sip my wine and ponder the enormous divide between myself and the perfectly coiffed adulteress on the screen. Sometimes it left me without enough inspiration to even light a smoke. It was guilt masquerading as unwavering fatigue; that much I knew. I also knew the time was approaching when I’d have to confront the irreparable mess I’d made.