My partner travels to various places for work by plane, while I stay at home snack-fetching, peacemaking, coffee-drinking, wine-sipping, and sending texts to people who have more pressing things to do than to answer them. During the daylight hours, while taking care of the kids, I fantasize about the night, yet when it arrives I do nothing valuable with the time. Sometimes I press my face to the cool single-pane window in my living room, look outside at the street lights and steady traffic. Sometimes I lick the glass, try to taste life through it. But I can’t go out there, of course—it’s illegal to leave your children in a house alone—so I turn to the Internet instead.
I spend most of my time reading about Sonia. I look at her Twitter, her Facebook, and then I Google her too. I read her posts and every article she shares. I analyze what her friends are saying in their replies. I click hearts. I type, “What? You’re amazing!!” Of course I’m proud of her, but mostly I comment to ensure that Sonia and the Internet don’t forget who I am, that they don’t forget about my potential in case one day I stumble across it again. But reading about smart, accomplished people always feels terrible, and eventually I manage to pull myself away by opening an Airbnb tab instead, and I browse vacation rentals on the nearby gulf islands as a way to escape.
I scroll past photos of tiny cabins with ladders, lofts, macramé wall hangings, and outdoor showers. I scroll past beachfront top-floor suites, bouquets of lavender in antique Mason jars, and the steaming waters of a cedar hot tub rising into a canopy of evergreens. I scroll past firepits, mini-fridges, two-burner stovetops, modern fold-out sofas, and sun-pooled decks with cherry-red Adirondack chairs arranged to face the view. I scroll past converted garages with aloes on the countertop, rock gardens, and local art on the walls. I memorize maps and measure walking distances. I take guest reviews seriously. I save my favourite cabins, revisit their listings, and watch their calendars fill over time. This isn’t healthy, I know, but I’m convinced a solo vacation is all I need to find myself again.
Over the years fantasizing about this trip, I’d envisioned closing the front the door, turning the key, locking my family inside: click. As I rolled my luggage toward the bus, my vacation would officially start. Instead, after I take the plunge and finally book two nights away, my partner offers to drive me to the ferry. I have a hard time saying no to pretty much anything, especially acts of kindness, so I accept. He picks the playlist while I buckle the kids in. Right away, my youngest starts crying because we forgot her ladybug water bottle, and I spend most the drive turned around in my seat, passing them snacks and picking up items they drop on the floor. At the terminal, after we kiss, my partner says, “I hope you have a wonderful time.” And I thank him, though, after, while buying my ticket at the kiosk, I can’t stop thinking about how he’d said it, with such gentleness, like I might break, and suddenly this whole idea of escaping them and sleeping alone in a little cabin seems tokenistic, and childish, and privileged, and pathetic, and even—mostly—scary. I begin to worry that when I return home, nothing will be different. That I won’t be like Sonia, I won’t come back with something to show for it. That my life will only resume. I push these thoughts aside and board the ferry.
After years perusing images of woodsy cabins, with their ocean-view decks, their cozy comforters and gardens in spring bloom, I’m disappointed by the small, ordinary road that leads from the ferry, and the blinking neon sign above the general store. But I need wine and food, so I roll my luggage past the gas pumps, where a muddy minivan with darkened windows has just parked. A woman my age climbs from the driver’s seat, and I hear children screaming inside. She slams the van door, muffling the noise, and smiles at me as I pass.
In the store, I find everything on the shelves is also ordinary. The same salami and Earthbound organic produce you find in the city. The same low-priced wines. I’d envisioned foraged things: hand-picked mushrooms and artisanal sausage. This is an island! Disappointed, I choose two cans of soup, some crackers, and a loaf of bread.
I stand in line behind the mother with the minivan, but she ushers me ahead. “I’m not in a rush,” she explains. And I get it. Her kids are screaming out there in the van while she steals a moment of peace in the brightly lit store, hugging a sweating jug of milk. She is refilling her tank too.
Sonia was my roommate for nine years—most of our twenties. When drunk we sometimes told people we were sisters. Once, the last year we lived together, we slept with the same man at the same time. I don’t try to, but I can still conjure the taste of Sonia’s nipples: tea-tree soap and shea butter. Sonia and that man are happily married now. I gave a short, nervous speech at their wedding. If her husband catches me alone in a room, he tries to touch my back or grab my hand. I guess he thinks Sonia and I are a package deal. I could tell Sonia all of this, but her life is perfect, and I don’t want to ruin it with the truth.
Last month, Sonia won a national award for her essay about art and water. About being creative, about making room, about ignoring your children and really going for it. I saw the YouTube video of her acceptance speech. In it she thanked this very island for its inspiration. This is the reason I’ve come. Why, after years searching for the perfect retreat, I booked this cabin in particular.
After walking for thirty minutes, finding the key under a rock, I enter the Airbnb confused. I’d studied all of Sonia’s Instagram photos carefully, and I’d been pretty sure I found the one she’d stayed in, but this cabin seems smaller, poorly lit, and dingy. It’s damp and smells of microwaved lasagna and earthworms. I sit on the stained loveseat, pull out my laptop, enter the Wi-Fi password, and check Airbnb again. I spend the first two hours of my vacation clicking through listings. I look at the neighbouring island, the next, and the next. Then I return to the cabin I’ve rented. The one I’m sitting in right now. And realize no, this is definitely it. This is Sonia’s. It just looks so much better online. The photos must be from a while ago. The cabin is worn now. Tired from hosting all these dreams.
I unpack. I try to read but I can’t read. I try to nap but I can’t nap. I watch some shows. I make tea. I’ve forgotten to buy milk, so the tea is hot and bitter, and eventually I pour it down the drain. I watch more shows, forgiving myself: I’ve only just arrived. It will take time to unwind, to feel ready to work. I eat soup for dinner. After, I FaceTime the kids, listen to them fight over who gets to hold the iPad. Then, bored with their mother, they lay me down on the kitchen table, leave me looking up at the light fixture framed off-centre, the fan turning slowly around. I hear my girls laughing while they jump on the couch. I hear my partner. “Calm down!” he shouts. I hang up. Go outside. Stand on the deck. Listen to the ocean’s swish. Gulls. I see Vancouver glowing in the distance. I feel the darkness of the island pressing against me. Inside, I lock every door and window. Check them twice before going to bed.
The next morning, after a bruised banana and dry toast, I walk to the beach. I leave my laptop behind on the mosaic coffee table. I bring a pen and my little red book instead. It’s late fall but the sun is out. I sit on the damp sand, lean against a water-swollen log, a scarf wrapped across my cheeks, a cold hand hovering above a new white page.
I write: “Disappointment.”
I write: “I love you still, wherever you’ve gone.”
I write: “Fish are probably jumping out there. But I can’t see a thing.”
I put my book back in my bag. I pull my jacket tight around me, curl on my side, and fall asleep in the sand.
It’s already afternoon. I leave tomorrow. I should be at the table writing. Instead, I wander about the cabin, taking photos with my phone. I take some of the succulents hanging above the tub. I line up some brown-and-white sea glass on the blue tile floor and take a few of that. I take a photo of my slippered feet in front of the fireplace, even though everyone knows only teenagers take photos of their feet. I take a photo of my pen lying across my book on the table. I take a photo of my hand holding a ceramic mug, send it to my partner. I wish this cabin had a hot tub so I could take a picture of that too. Lid off, steam flying high.
I could send Sonia a message, something like, “You’ll never guess what! I think I might be staying in the same Airbnb you stayed in last year!! Crazy coincidence. I’m on a little work trip. First time away from the kids.” But I worry it might be weird to message her while I’m here and should be working. Might look better to wait until I’m home.
In the evening I walk to the pub. As I open the door, four middle-aged men at the bar turn and look at me. Each says hello. I sit and order a pint and chicken strips from a dreamy bartender. His plaid shirt is rolled to his elbows, showing off thick, woodcutter forearms. His hair is half grey and shoulder length. He’s the kind of man who smokes, but only at night, has a loyal dog at home, and children he’s never met scattered across the continent. Sometimes, not very often, I miss sleeping with other people. I wonder if my partner thinks this way when he’s working, and I forgive him before I finish the thought.
I leave my jacket on the bar stool, my phone beside my beer, and hurry to the women’s bathroom, which smells of sulphur water and stale piss. I close the stall door, lower my jeans, and lean against the yellowed wall. It’s been years since I’ve bothered, but being somewhere new, the bartender’s arms, his quiet nod, and my heart is racing. It doesn’t take much. I push two fingers in, twirl them about, and rub myself off with my thumb.
I order a second beer because I love this pub. It’s warm, a fire raging in the corner. I hear a group of women laughing behind some plants. While I wait for my food I struggle to catch what they’re saying, but I can’t. I look at my phone, scroll through Sonia’s photos, and find the ones of her trip here. There are forty-two. She’d come in the summer. She wrote on the beach. She drank wine on the deck at sunset. Each picture is perfect, shrouded in creativity. I want to be just like her and I worry about her, it’s both.
“Oh, hi, you!” The woman from the store is beside me. She’s dressed up. Black boots, tight jeans, a thick sweater. She introduces herself as Phae, and then asks, “Are you alone? Come sit with us if you want company.”
There are ten women of various ethnicities and weights, and their ages range twenty years. Immediately I can tell which ones are fun and which ones the fun ones only put up with. The handsome stranger behind the bar. These women. It’s not what I pictured for my holiday, but it’s doing the trick.
The women are just ending their book-club meeting. I listen to them select next month’s reading, and then there’s a tense discussion about the upcoming school concert before they pick up their purses and leave.
I climb into the passenger seat of Phae’s minivan and kick through the used cups on the floor. She cracks a cider and hands it to me. “We drink while we drive here,” she explains with a smile. I imagine her comfortable home. That she knows how to use a slow cooker and how to smoke weed without coughing. As she drives, I ask what it’s like to live on the island full time.
“You people always want to know the same thing,” she says, dismissing my question. “You idealize everything.”
But I know she’s wrong. I know it’s easier on this island. Simple. I try again.
“Everyone just seems so nice.”
“Do you think I’d fit in?”
“Not likely,” she says with a laugh. “No one does.”
Inside my cabin, I open the vent on the wood stove, add a log, and then search the kitchen for a bottle opener.
“In the drawer, left of the fridge,” Phae says from the couch.
She has her feet kicked across the cushions.
“How do you know that?”
“This is one of the cabins I clean.”
“You’re a housekeeper?” I ask, embarrassed.
“Amongst other things, yeah,” Phae says. “This is my easiest cabin. It’s a bit of a dump, but it’s fast.”
I open the wine, pour two glasses, and bring them over.
“How long does it take you?” I ask.
“Depends on how disgusting the guests are, but usually not more than an hour.”
I explain to Phae that I’ve never done this before. That my family never travels. That my partner is away so much that the last thing he wants is to take another plane or even a long drive when he has time off.
“It’s O.K.,” Phae says. “Don’t feel weird. Everybody has to get away sometimes.”
“What’s the worst thing you’ve seen cleaning?”
“Once a guy smeared shit all over the bathroom with his hands. At first I thought he’d fingerpainted the walls, then I smelt it.”
“Yeah. I got my ex-friend to come help me. We drank all the leftover wine before we started cleaning.”
“What do you mean ‘ex-friend’?”
“She’s just an asshole. I don’t bother with her anymore. She was at book club tonight though. We’re civil.”
“You all seemed so nice,” I say, a bit heartbroken by this information, because I had started thinking this island might be the answer. I’d begun to imagine it at the pub: joining a book club and having friends of all ages. Maybe living somewhere smaller could make me feel less alone? Be O.K. with whom I’ve turned into.
“Every place is the sa—”
Phae stops as something hits the sliding glass door.
“What was that?” I ask.
Phae doesn’t hesitate. She gets up, cups her hands against the glass and peers out.
“There’s nothing there. Maybe a bat hit the glass.”
“This place makes me a nervous,” I admit. “It’s fucking dark outside.”
“The city’s worse. I’m scared of everyone I pass on the sidewalk.”
“Really? You seem unflappable.”
Phae gives me a funny look, then goes to the kitchen and grabs the bottle. She returns to the couch and gives me a wicked smile.
“I don’t want to freak you out, but once I had to deal with a writer lady who had a bit of a meltdown in this cabin.”
“What do you mean?”
“I met her while I was picking up pizza for my kids at the pub. She came stumbling out of the kitchen.”
“The pub kitchen?”
“Yes. And Philip was right behind her, of course.”
“The bartender. Women love him, but he’s such a sleaze. Anyway, they’d obviously been fucking around back there. It was only seven, but the woman was wasted. Philip had to hold her up by her arm. She was too drunk to walk, so he asked me to take her home.”
“Of course. What do you think I am?”
“When was this?”
“No way,” I say.
I feel my face get hot.
“As soon as we got here, the woman started to cry. She didn’t want me to go, she hated this place. She kept saying she thought Philip was outside, which was impossible because he was still at the bar. She claimed he’d been watching her through the windows the night before, which didn’t make any sense either, since she’d just met him that afternoon. She kept begging me to get her home to the mainland, but all the ferries had left for the night. I didn’t know what to do. I had the pizza in my van and my kids were waiting for dinner, but I couldn’t leave her. So I ended up taking her with me. She slept in my daughter’s bed.”
There’s another bang on the glass. Louder. When I look up, I see our reflections wobble.
“Maybe that’s what she kept hearing,” Phae says, looking from the window back at me. The sound is terrifying, but it feels very important not to show it, not to say anything. For me. For Sonia. For womankind.
“Can you look at this for me?” I ask, passing my phone over.
Phae scrolls through Sonia’s photos of the island. Breakfast on the little patio table. Her tan legs in the sand. A selfie with a book on her knees.
“Wow,” Phae says. “You know, I found her on Facebook after she left. I only wanted to check in on her. Whatever she was going through that weekend was intense. She never accepted my friend request, though. Is she doing all right?”
“Well, she seems fine. But you’re sure that’s her?” I ask.
Phae frowns. I know how I must sound, but it’s not that I’m happy to hear about my friend being scared, cheating on her husband, or that she’d hated this crappy cabin. It’s that I’m struggling too. For some reason, over the years, I’d begun to think I was the only one. I wish Sonia had called me that night while she was crying. That we had talked on the phone. That I knew real things about her life, not just how it looks. That she knew about mine. When did that stop being important to us?
“Are you friends?” Phae asks. “Like, not just on social media?”
She passes me the phone.
“I’ve known her almost twenty years,” I say.
“I don’t get it. Did you know she stayed in this cabin? Does she know you’re here now?” Phae asks.
She is arranging her thick hair behind her back. She’s about to stand. She is unsure about me now. There’s another bang on the sliding glass door, but we both refuse to look toward it.
“No, she doesn’t,” I admit.
“That’s a little weird. And I’ve got to get going,” Phae says.
“Of course,” I say.
“You’re O.K.?” Phae asks. “I can leave you?”
But she isn’t making fun of me; now she is worried about me too.
“I’m one hundred per cent fine,” I laugh, though nothing is funny. I’m only laughing to keep from crying.
After listening to Phae’s van pull away, I pour another glass of wine and pick up my phone.
“You’ll never guess what! I think I’m staying in the same Airbnb you stayed in last summer!” I type.
I send a photo of the setting sun. I send a photo of the bathtub. I send the photo of my feet in front of the fire. Immediately, Sonia writes back.
“No way!! I love that place.”
“It’s gorgeous. I see why you were so inspired here. Let’s hang out when I get home.
Right now I’m working like crazy.”
“Good for you. And yes, I’d love to catch up. Xo”
Whatever is outside hits the door again. Bang! Bang! I put down my wine and tiptoe over. I grab the handle of the sliding door and pull it open. Six startled white eyes stare back at me. We don’t move. The mother otter wriggles her nose, her whiskers twitch. I reach out to touch her. I want to feel her coat, touch her wildness, but she bares her little sharp teeth and screeches. So I hiss back and I show her my claws. As she spins away, ushering her children from the open door, her thick, rubbery tail hits the glass with another bang. The otters slip and slide on the damp deck as they scurry down the stairs to the shore. I follow them outside, lean on the railing, and watch them dive off the rocks into the silky black water. The moon shines off the ripples. Vancouver is glimmering just there, just over the Salish Sea, full of people and life, and all I want is to be there again.