The smoke billowed in the distance from the forest fires. I sipped my coffee as I watched from the large window that encompassed the wall of our log home, still wrapped in my fuzzy pink housecoat. Earl’s newspaper crinkled behind me.
And how is the housing crisis today? (I murmured, in-between sips).
The same as yesterday, (he didn’t look up from the paper).
The black smoke almost looked fake as it rested in stark contrast against the bright green forest beneath it. Our house sat raised, overlooking the valley with no neighbours in sight. It was our own private oasis. The helicopters echoed in the distance. A sound I was getting used to as they tried to keep the flames at bay.
We had moved to British Columbia together, Earl and I. We picked it off a map and went, ending up in Comox Valley near a small fishing community. I met him while teaching English in Thailand. That was when we both realized we didn’t want to be teachers. But it was worth it to travel. I had already spent a couple years living in Europe at the time. Thailand was my chance to see Asia before settling down and starting my career, though I didn’t know what it would be at that point. Earl never had the same wandering feet I did, but he still followed me on any adventure I took, keeping a watchful eye over my antics and making sure I ended every night with some sort of pillow under my head. I was quite wild in my twenties.
Reality began to set in as the end of our trip approached. We sat on a beach feeling underwhelmed by the dusky sunset.
It’s strange how a sunset, no matter how beautiful, loses its charm after a while, (I pulled my knees into my chest).
When you look at any beautiful thing for too long, the value dissipates, (his eyes looked long into the distance).
I like the consistency of the water. The sound of it lapping against the shore is comforting.
And I like that even when I can’t see the water I know it will still be there.
I think this could work for me if you think it could work for you.
He didn’t respond, but his hand crept over mine and gave a light squeeze. And just like that, sitting in silence on a beach together bored by our surroundings, we decided to just be together. Our friends were still frantically shuffling through partners, trying to find the right one to settle down with. I knew that it was futile to wait for the right one to come along. Eventually you just had to choose an individual and decide to make it work. Someone whose life interlocks with yours as eloquently as possible and whose shortcomings you could call quirks instead of faults.
I never thought to ask Earl specifically what he saw in me. He never liked those sorts of ambiguous questions. It was possible that he simply did not know. I’d like to think he was intrigued by my restlessness, always encouraging me to be adventurous so he wouldn’t have to. I imagined he felt safer living through me. We found balance through me living my stories and him simply listening to them. On evenings when I was feeling trapped in our domestic life and my feet were starting to twitch we would sit around our fireplace, crack open a bottle of wine and I’d tell him a story of one of my past escourgeons. It didn’t matter how many times he had heard the stories. Each time he would treat it as though it was the first, hanging onto each word and asking the same questions eliciting the same responses. It was something he did for me because he knew I needed it. I needed to find a way to still be interesting even as the monotony of time elapsed around us.
One morning, still in Thailand, we lay naked in bed overtop piles of papers we had been trying to grade. We thought about our next step. I didn’t have a single place I called home and Earl hated living in Saskatchewan. Said he abhorred the plains, didn’t want to live anywhere flat. We decided to move someplace new and make a home together. We looked at a map and discussed our idea of what a home might be.
I want someplace green.
By water. With mountains.
I don’t want to be land locked.
I crave privacy, a small town.
But still close to a big town.
These daydreams of life to come were our way of revealing our true desires. Our way of letting each other into our secret vaults even we ourselves rarely peeked into. This was how we really got to know each other.
Our fingers scaled the map as we murmured, how about that one? What about there? I don’t know who landed on British Columbia first. In the end it felt like the only possible choice. Neither of us had traveled to the West Coast, but had heard wonderful things. Stories about lush vegetation spliced with mountains, and we could be close to the ocean. I grew up in the Bay of Fundy of Nova Scotia and wondered if the Pacific would smell different than the Atlantic. And it seemed as though there was a booming economy in B.C. A place ripe with opportunity for us. I could work as a writer and Earl had a Real Estate license.
With the decision made we picked the town of Comox. We didn’t even look it up on the Internet first. Rather, we flew into Toronto to pack my few assets into a rental truck before making our way out of Ontario. Then we made a pit stop in Saskatchewan to pick up Earl’s belongings. I don’t remember the name of the town he had been living in. I only remember wondering how he had lived there as long as he did. It was remote, barren, and dry of personality. It was a place I was happy to leave behind.
Comox Valley was more beautiful than we had imagined. The landscape had a permanent morning dew, making the leaves glisten on the trees in the sun’s reflection. I could even tell by the slight change in Earl’s face, the way the creases in his forehead relaxed, that he was in awe. We rolled into the valley town and stopped at the first Relator’s office we saw. We planned on staying in a hotel for the first couple of nights, and then renting an apartment for a bit until we had our bearings and knew where we wanted to buy a house.
From the moment we reached our destination things began to fall cleanly into place. We rented a small studio apartment for a year and were welcomed warmly into the community. I think people found us amusing, an odd couple, one loud and one quiet, who dropped everything and moved across the country on a whim. People were so curious about us and our spontaneous love story.
After we settled into our apartment Earl got a job at the same Relator’s office we first stopped in and made more money than we expected. Because it was a small beautiful area there were quite a few expensive houses on the far outskirts of town. It provided a quiet escape for overtly rich people who wanted to get away from their high-powered jobs in the cities and a way to make up to their families for all the missed baseball games and ballet recitals. A lot of Americans, actually. And they usually only stayed for about one month a year.
I ended up becoming a pretty successful writer. There were a lot of publishing opportunities out in B.C. I wrote adventure fiction for people to lose themselves in. My writing provided brief escapes for bored housewives on rainy afternoons. I became a bit of a local celebrity. Writers were more revered than I would have thought going into the career. Every couple of years, when I felt like it, I would teach a class out at the University of British Columbia. I’d rent an apartment in the city for a semester. It would give Earl and I a chance to recharge and miss each other.
The morning on which I sipped my coffee and watched the fires from my window we had lived in that house for twelve years. The fire fighters had been battling the flames for about a week. Earl didn’t seem perturbed, which had kept me at ease for a time. I joined him at the table.
Are you worried?
The fires. They’re getting bigger, I think. Closer.
(He still hadn’t looked up from his paper). Because we’re at the top of the Valley?
Yes, because we’re at the top of the Valley.
Earl went to work and I stayed home. I poured myself a generous glass of husky red wine and retired to my study to try and work on some writing. I couldn’t focus though, so I sat sipping my wine gazing out the window at the black cloud and waited for inspiration to strike.
The evacuations started later that day. Earl called, told me to stay put, pack some essentials, and that he was on his way to pick me up. I left my now empty glass in the study and rushed to the bedroom. I propped two bags on the bed in front of my open closet. I’d always been a bad packer. I wasn’t sure what the best evacuation outfits would be, or how long to pack for. I didn’t even know what the temperature was like as I had yet to leave the house that day. And I’d be seeing a lot of people I hadn’t seen in a while, so I wanted to look good. I had ceased to be a prominent member in the community as the years passed. I isolated myself in our home to engross myself in my writing. The thought of seeing everyone displaced from their homes seemed a bit overwhelming. Would I remember people’s names? How overwhelming would it be with people smothering me and asking about what I’m working on now? I ended up placing an array of rich coloured and textured clothing into the bag. I did the same for Earl, he was easier, never really cared about what he wore. Most of his articles of clothing looked the same to me.
I did a final sweep of the house, grabbed my laptop with my newest novel and my favourite Hemingway collection of short stories with the worn out binding and soft frayed pages. I looked around at some of the things I valued such as the glass slipper my mother gave me before she died and some marble frog figurines I had purchased on a last minute trip to Honduras. I picked up our wedding photo where Earl was kissing my forehead as I buried my face into his chest, and then put it back down. I scanned over all we had collected during our life together and decided I didn’t mind leaving all of it behind.
I heard the truck ramble up our gravel driveway and waited until I heard Earl enter the house. The tension in my chest lessened. He strolled in casually, no haste in his step.
Ready to go?
I’ve done some packing, you might need some other things though.
No, I’m sure it’s fine, let’s just go.
That’s when I thought it might be serious after all, but it was hard to tell with Earl. I was the type to get stressed very easily, so either Earl was remaining calm in order to keep me calm or there really was nothing to worry about. Before I could ask if he had heard anything alarming while in town Earl took our two bags out to the truck. I followed behind and locked the front door. I started towards the truck, but paused to look behind and momentarily appreciate the enormity of our home. When I was younger I never knew if I would settle down long enough to have a home. It took me this moment of possibly saying goodbye to see its beauty as I had when we first moved in. This house had represented me settling down and attempting a domestic life, a feat I had been proud of at the time. Now I wondered if it had always been against my wild sensibilities. Earl honked twice. I turned and walked towards the truck.
The roads were jammed with vehicles. We drove in silence and I peeked in the car windows that we passed at a dry, slow pace. Each vehicle seemed to have a family. Some seemed somber, husbands and wives holding hands or balancing sleeping children on their laps. Others drove with forced light hearts, smiling and laughing with kids who bounced energetically in the back seats.
And still Earl did not speak. I listened to the announcer on the radio broadcast the evacuation plan. We were to drive to Cumberland. They had Community Centre’s set up for evacuees that would provide shelter and food. At this Earl finally spoke up.
Don’t worry. I’ll get us a nice hotel until the evacuation is over.
I nodded and looked back out the window. It seemed as though every vehicle had children and some kind of readable emotion. I wished I could hear what they were all saying. Whether they discussed the evacuation or anything but. I wanted to know what Earl and I should be talking about in this situation.
Well this could be interesting, at least.
Earl looked at me incredulously and I wished I hadn’t said anything at all.
The hour long drive that it would usually take to get to Cumberland took two and a half hours in the heavy traffic. I forgot how many people actually lived in Comox because everyone was usually so dispersed. We all lived hidden in houses tucked away in the unending folds of forest. We drove around Cumberland, Earl leaving me in the idling truck as he checked for rooms at various hotels. All of them were full. We hadn’t realized how late we were to evacuate. He parked in a gas station and looked at me fully.
(I shrugged), Community Centre?
He nodded sharply and pulled back onto the road, getting swept back into the current of traffic. There were different signs directing cars to the various shelters and how many kilometers it would take to get to them. Earl took us to the farthest one, hoping there would be fewer people.
Our truck melted into the sea of parked cars which overflowed the capacity of the lot. Earl grabbed our bags and we added our bodies to the stream of people heading into the Centre. Inside, two elderly ladies sat behind a front desk wearing blue evacuation volunteer shirts. They added our names to the register, handed us two thin grey blankets and welcomed us to find space where we could. Earl and I found home by a wall in between two families. A small girl stared at me over her mother’s shoulder with wide eyes. I smiled and waved. She burrowed her face into her mother’s chest as the mother stroked her hair. Kids never have liked me, it’s like a gut reaction they all have.
I helped around the Community Centre that day while Earl sat quietly, reading my book and going over some of his Real Estate papers. Surprisingly, there were no faces I recognized. I handed out food, helped larger families find space where they could stay together, and introduced myself to different people. I partook in any small talk I could. No one was talking about the fires. Rather, the conversations stuck to the basics.
What part of Comox are you from?
How old are your children?
Oh you’re a writer? How exciting.
I noticed, off in the distance, Earl had started chatting to a group of people. I wandered over and pushed my way to his side. Everyone stopped talking and looked at me.
Everyone, this is my wife, Lydia.
Earl placed his hand on the small of my back, pushing me slightly forward and presenting me to the group as though I were a hunk of meat being offered up. What followed was an overwhelming series of pleased acclamations layered on top of one another:
Nice to finally meet you!
The famous writer in the flesh!
Loved your last book!
Where has Earl been hiding you all these years?
I smiled and nodded, accepting the hands offered to me as a flurry of people introduced themselves. Even as this happened more people began to join our cluster, saying hello to Earl and then to me. Apparently everyone knew Earl through his work at the Realtors office. I had never realized how well known he was around town. I was also surprised at how few people I knew. I guess I was a local celebrity by name and not by face. Or maybe not a local celebrity at all. I was unnerved by how much that bothered me. I forgot how communities grow and change as the years pass. I had been too consumed with my work to notice. I stepped back and watched Earl surrounded by members of the community, feeling out of place. Then I felt a tentative tap on my shoulder. I whirled around and saw a small blonde woman smiling, her hand stuck out expectantly towards me.
I just wanted to officially introduce myself, (she said, pumping my hand twice). I’m Carol. I work with your husband.
Nice to meet you, Carol.
Here, Earl’s busy so let me steal you away and introduce you to my family.
Carol grabbed my hand and pulled me through the crowd, occasionally looking behind to see that I was still there as though our physical contact wasn’t enough proof. She led me to her family who were standing around each other, scooping spoons of hot porridge into their mouths.
Everyone! (They turned, mid chew. A glob of porridge fell off the young girls spoon and landed back in her bowl) This is Earl’s wife, Lydia. (They smiled and nodded in my direction) Lydia, this is my husband Derek, my son Evan and my daughter Adeline.
The kids, who looked to be somewhere between fifteen and eighteen, went back to eating. Carol’s husband leaned close to her ear and reminded her to get something to eat as well. She rubbed her stomach animatedly.
Want to join me, Lydia?
I nodded and once again she grasped my hand, this time pulling me towards the table set up with food. We got in line.
So what grade are the kids in?
Adeline is in grade ten and Evan is grade twelve. He’s getting ready to leave the nest soon, I suppose.
Are you looking forward to that?
Not as much as I would have thought! You get so used to having them around, it’s hard to imagine him out in the world and not needing me anymore, (Carol’s laugh was like a chime, sudden and singular, as she scooped up some porridge before offering me the ladle).
I can imagine that it will be a strange transition for everyone.
Did you and Earl ever think about having kids?
I’m not really sure, (I paused, trying to find the right words as we left with our food) by the time we were ready to talk about it, it already felt too late. Maybe we didn’t want kids, maybe we waited too long on purpose, (I mixed the porridge around the bowl with no real desire to put it in my mouth). Gosh though, your daughter is the spitting image of you.
I know right! She’s so precious, (She smiled warmly at her daughter. Adeline met Carol’s eyes and then she quickly looked away).
We made our way back to Earl. Carol drifted away, conversing with other people her and Earl knew. My hand found its way around Earl’s arm and I passed him my untouched meal. He thanked me and kissed my forehead.
Later that night Earl wrapped his arm around my waist and led me outside. He grabbed some spare blankets from our truck and a bottle of wine with two glasses he had taken from the house. I appreciated that he always thought of everything. We walked a ways from the Centre and sat on the blanket. I crossed my legs on a grassy hill facing away from the Community Centre’s lights. The murmur of life simmered behind us, punctuated by the occasional hoot or whimper from the young kids playing by the entrance. I relaxed my head on Earl’s shoulder, finally able to look up at the stars through a smokeless sky. The night was crisp, but warm. Earl wrapped his jacket around me before I could start to feel any chill. Then he filled our long stemmed glasses and we clinked them together.
We sat in silence for a bit, but the silence wore at me like an itch.
You know a lot of people, eh?
Yah, I do
I thought I was supposed to be the social one of the two of us, (I nudged him playfully). Carol’s nice.
Yes, she is.
There’s a lot of families here.
Not as quiet as our home.
Do you ever wonder what it would be like?
Do you ever regret anything we didn’t do?
Ever want more?
We have everything.
We don’t even have a dog.
Do you want a dog?
But the cracks began to form in me as the week went on. An apparent lack started to resonate. Earl continued to read and I continued to mingle with people from my very own home whom I had never met. It was shocking seeing me and Earl in direct contrast to all of the families around us. We were able to just relax, but anybody with kids moved differently throughout the space. They had a sense of purpose during the ordeal that was the evacuation. They had kids to care for, a priority bigger than themselves. It made Earl and I seem so insignificant.
It wasn’t that seeing all those families made me regret not having children. I’m too selfish to be a mother. It just made me see our relationship in a new light. At some point our partnership should have changed and entered into its next chapter. But instead, we have remained just as comfortable and complacent as we were when we met in Thailand. I wanted a man who could balance out my eccentric nature, but had not realized that in the process I lost my need to explore. Lost the spark that made me unique. I couldn’t see it when we were isolated in our mountain home. I couldn’t see how empty our marriage was. The truth was that we didn’t need each other for anything. We made our own individual success and we had no children together. We didn’t rely on each other the way that husbands and wives usually do.
This feeling of discontent started to gnaw at me. When I was surrounded by people I could finally see how alone I was. It was an emptiness that Earl was incapable of filling. The next seven days were spent watching Earl and thinking and analyzing the last twelve years before finally approaching him the day before the evacuation was expected to end.
I don’t think it’s enough anymore.
All of it.
Will you come with me? Travel again. Wander around with me?
I’m comfortable here.
Comfortable (I tasted the word as though I had never heard it before), yes, I realize.
The next morning we received word that it was safe for everyone to return to Comox. People flooded out of the Community Centre, munching on breakfast rolls and shouting their goodbyes. A light energy rippled through the crowd. I think it was relief. Earl pulled me towards the truck.
Maybe we can beat traffic if we just get out quick enough, (he muttered, as though saying it would make it possible).
I started to get into the truck and saw Carol across the lot waving vivaciously at me. I smiled, twiddled my fingers in response and closed the car door. We sat heavy in our seats, let out a simultaneous sigh and looked at each other alleviated.
Finally time to go home, (he said, squeezing my hand).
Yes, it is.
It was another long drive in thick traffic, mostly in silence. I closed my eyes and tried to nap. I think I dozed for a bit because I jumped to alertness as our truck transferred sharply onto our gravel driveway. I opened my eyes just in time to see our house crest over the top of the hill.
Home sweet home! (Earl hopped out of the truck, stretching his arms over his head like a cat).
We entered the front door and were greeted by our familiar entryway. I ran my fingers across my framed Edgar Degas print hanging on the wall and inhaled the warm vanilla musk that had sunken into the wood of our home from burning too many incents.
Not hungry Earl. Thanks though. I think I’m going to call it an early night.
I understand. That was quite the week.
I crawled into bed, burying myself beneath the mountain of comforters. I lay awake for hours, waiting patiently for sleep. I couldn’t turn my thoughts off long enough to rest. Eventually Earl slid in bed beside me. I felt his arm reach around me, feeling up along my form. I turned into his embrace, allowing him to kiss me. We made love in our usual way, but he held on tighter than he usually would do. Earl’s fingertips gripped my soft skin as he buried his face into my neck.
The next morning I stood at the window facing our expansive view in my pink housecoat and sipped my coffee. The forest looked empty and colourless without the dark smoke I had grown accustomed to. The green leaves looked less vibrant. Earl put down his newspaper and set his coffee cup in the sink. He walked behind me and pulled me into his arms. He gave me a quick kiss on the neck and turned to leave for work.
Love you too.
The door shut hard behind him, leaving me alone at the window. I closed the curtains and walked towards the sink. His cup was sitting there. He had left it dirty in the bottom. That was something he never did. The cup sitting there in the bottom looked to me like an act of a bad roommate. This house had become too strange to me.
I grabbed my suitcase and headed over to our world map hanging on the wall. Spain would be good at this time of the year. And I hadn’t been to Spain since I was twenty-one. I was forty-three now. I packed my bag and called a taxi. I might come back. I was sure I would. I just wasn’t sure when. And if he couldn’t forgive me I’d understand. My leaving didn’t mean I loved him less. Twelve years was just a long time. Anything would become arduous after twelve years. That’s no one’s fault. And what’s the point of having no children if I’m not going to take advantage of my freedom. The taxi honked in the driveway and I took my leave from the home we had made together. Perhaps Earl and I did not have a next chapter in our relationship, but I thought I could have one on my own. And Earl wouldn’t be surprised when he got home. I thought he’d be more surprised that I stayed as long as I did. And I hoped he’d appreciate that I did.