The highway worker flips his sign from Stop to Slow, and the line of vehicles starts creeping forward, shaking up the dust of pulverized ancient rock.
“I hope we make this run,” you say.
Maybe you are counting the hours before this trip ends and you can move out and be done with me. Or maybe you’re picturing us back in our nice little apartment, after a long cool shower together.
We are already sweating from having the windows closed, but the dust and heat get in anyway, through the vents, clogging our pores with the two-hundred-million-year-old leftovers of an inland sea.
The mountains on both sides of Kicking Horse Canyon have been blasted away, annihilated to make more lanes. Three giant concrete pillars cut across the canyon, holding up nothing, but soon they will carry a new highway and this road will be abandoned. The land will take it over again. Maybe one day it will all go back to the sea.
The sign operator looks like a guerrilla fighter at the checkpoint of an occupied territory, with his camouflage pants, giant goggle-like sunglasses, and bandana-covered mouth. His arms are sunburned a deep, alarming shade of pink. I inch closer to the rusty bumper of the overloaded Pinto we’ve been behind since Banff, hoping we can stick together, feeling as if separation will make the journey too perilous.
“Come on, you can do it,” I say to the sign operator, as if granting us passage now would be some kind of victory for him too.
The Pinto is halfway past when he turns the sign back to Stop. Damn him. Maybe there’s something about us he doesn’t like, or even hates. Or maybe he’s just counting cars.
I ask, “Why is it called ‘Kicking Horse’? ”
I know today you won’t offer up this kind of information on your own, but I need to hear you speak of things you know for sure.
You clear your throat and I picture fossils of tiny seahorses dislodged and swallowed.
“One of the explorers from the Palliser Expedition, a guy named James Hector, was kicked by a horse. He was unconscious for a while, so the other guys on the expedition thought he was dead, and they dug his grave and were about to bury him when he regained consciousness.”
“He survived? ”
“Yep. He was knighted later by Queen Victoria.”
“He went back to England? ”
“Uh-huh. But at some point, he brought his son back to show him the route. He got sick and died in a hospital in Revelstoke.”
“The explorer? ”
“No, the son.”
I think about my sister, Jody. Maybe you do too, and wish you hadn’t said that part, but I don’t want you to feel bad, so I ask, “What’s going on here? ”
“With the construction? ”
You’re not sure if I mean this situation here or the one playing out in our minds.
“This is one of the most dangerous stretches of road in Canada. Over seven hundred accidents in five years. Twenty-one people died.”
Twenty-one people divided by five, times how many years since this road opened? Thirty? Fifty? Attempting the math makes me feel dizzy and also hungry.
The Pinto has disappeared around the bend, so I stare at the vehicles driving past us in the opposite direction and imagine us starting this whole trip to Calgary over again. Maybe if I’d played it better, last night wouldn’t have happened and then ruined this whole return journey, the violence projecting itself onto the blue sky and slabs of glacier-carved mountains and icy green rivers.
The road sign operator turns his sign around to Slow and I wave at him: I acknowledge your presence and your work in this hostile place. Take care, wear sunscreen.
I want to catch up with the Pinto, but for your benefit I resist the urge to speed and get caught back up just outside the town of Golden. But at the first service exit, the Pinto turns right.
“Farewell, Pinto,” you say, your voice slightly regretful, which makes me want to laugh and then cry and crush myself against you.
I turn the music down a little and soon your head is nodding sideways. You jerk it back into place twice before succumbing to the pull of sleep. After a few minutes, your mouth is hanging open and I start upping my speed. I’m not proud to say that I’ve taken your life into my hands a few times.
Maybe one day I won’t even wait until you’re asleep. Maybe I’ll drive fast just to piss you off, like my father, and you’ll become like my mother, the chronic passenger white-knuckling the door handle and pressing down on an invisible brake, lips pursed tightly shut, storing up the indignation and fear for the next fight.
I’m not going to be like them. I’m better than them.
Oh, but they did what they could. They did better than their parents. They barely even laid a hand on Jody and me. And they were so nice to you and so good for four whole days. Maybe I brought on the fight with all my stupid anxiety and my worried, darting, judgmental looks when Mom poured herself a third glass of wine or when Dad yelled at the barbecue.
They’ll be waking up now. If she gets up first, maybe there will be a surge of contempt when she walks past the guest room and sees I’ve unmade the bed and bundled the sheets in the middle of the mattress. It will keep her tears on hold until she’s brewed the coffee, and perhaps she’s put a bag of frozen peas next to some bruised piece of flesh, and now she’s at the table seeing my note, lighting a cigarette, blowing the smoke into the low sunlight when the tears come. If my dad gets up first, he will feel a stab of sorrow seeing the empty guest room. Then he will put on the coffee and start cleaning up the mess, making silent promises that it will never happen again. If he wakes up after my mom, he’ll go to her, bend down and encircle his arms around her small shoulders and press his lips against her temple. They will be sad and humiliated, but also feel that sort of peaceful exhaustion that follows these fights, and also relief that they don’t have to look anyone else in the eyes.
I look at your vulnerable sleeping face and I can’t imagine us hurting each other like that. And if something ever happened to you and you slipped into a coma, I’d never leave your bedside. I’d spend my whole life waiting for you to wake up and even if you woke up too brain-damaged to talk and laugh and feed yourself, I wouldn’t give up on you.
I realize you are awake again as I’m gunning past an old powder blue Mustang on a two-lane passing section of the Trans-Canada. The road curves and there’s an R.V. hauling a small speed boat that has inched over into my lane. I have to brake going into the curve and you jerk to attention, pulling your body toward your door as if we’re on a boat and you can somehow take control of the car’s direction. I feel guilty and then resentful, like when we’re about to cross a street and you grab my hand, as if I’d run straight into traffic otherwise. I used to love that gesture. But why does your cautiousness increasingly feel like an assault?
I have no problem handling the bend and the R.V. long before the passing lane runs out, but I keep my speed down to about seven over the speed limit the rest of the way to Revelstoke.
There’s a piece of bacon in my veggie omelette. You discover it after I’ve eaten one-third of it and have given you a chunk to help me finish it off.
You hold it up with your fork.
“Gross.” I rake my fork through the rest of my omelette, but I don’t search very hard. I’m really only a vegetarian because you are. Anyway, I’m too hungry to care about cross-contamination, so I work on the hash browns and toast. But now you push your own plate away. You’ve lost your appetite and your expression is slightly disgusted, looking back and forth between my food and the fork of bacon on your side plate. My toast is cold and rough going down.
“We’ll leave it like this,” you say, putting the forked bacon back on my plate, prongs up.
When the waitress comes to clear our plates, I point to the bacon and say, “There was bacon in my omelette.”
She studies the fork and says, “Oh dear. How could something like that happen? ” I just shrug and she gives me a suspicious look, as if my silence somehow incriminates me, so I add, “I have no clue.”
She takes both of our plates to a nearby bus station and confers with two other waitresses. They huddle around, staring into the omelette like it’s some mysterious archeological find. One of the other waitresses picks delicately at its contents and the other eyes me periodically, as if she’s worried I’ll make a run for the door. They agree on something, nodding their heads in unison. Our waitress comes back with my plate.
“I’m sorry you didn’t enjoy your meal, but we couldn’t find any bacon. You probably just confused tomato for bacon. They look similar.”
She holds the plate out. The fork is now prongs-down in the guts of the omelette and the piece of bacon is no longer visible.
“Where did you put the bacon? ” I say, thinking this is probably the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever said—not in my life, just to a waitress.
“There was no bacon, sweetheart,” she says in her high, aggressively chirpy voice.
“There was a piece of bacon on that fork,” you say, in your neutral, matter-of-fact tone.
We look at each other, silently wondering, “Where did she put the bacon? ” Your expression is serious and I have to suppress an urge to grin.
“I can tell the difference between tomato and bacon and that was a piece of bacon,” I say.
“Then where is it? ” she asks, moving the plate closer to my face.
I have a stupid urge to swipe the plate away. The couple in the booth across from us are listening, but pretending not to.
“Look, this is ridiculous. Please, just take it away,” I say in a too-loud voice.
She goes away and we both force down our Cokes so we can get out as soon as she comes back with the bill. But she seems to go out of her way to be cheerful and overly attentive to the other diners, calling everyone “honey,” small-talking about the weather, and telling someone in the booth behind me how busy and tired she is, how “the kid” kept her up half the night.
Eventually, she comes back with the bill and says, “I’m sorry you didn’t enjoy your meal,” for the second time, and again I have the dumb urge to smash something.
“It has nothing to do with enjoying the meal. There was a piece of bacon in it and I specifically ordered one of the only two things on the menu without meat. But I got bacon.”
I’m thinking, “Why the fuck do you care, you didn’t make the thing. Just drop it.”
“Well, I don’t know how it could have got there,” she says, as if I must walk around with a Ziploc bag full of bacon pieces just to make trouble at crap restaurants in the middle of nowhere.
“Look, I don’t want to talk about this any more. There was a piece of fucking bacon in my omelette.”
My voice is low, but I know I’ve gone too far now, what with the expletive. I can’t look at you because your look might say, “This could have been funny, but now you’ve pushed it over the edge. Are you always going to blow up over the smallest things? ”
“I was just going to say that we comped your whole meal,” says the waitress, feigning hurt feelings, which fits her face and reminds me of my mom’s face after she pushes and pushes and pushes and then acts all shocked when she pushes too far.
I look at you and you shrug and smile. You don’t look wary of me.
Outside, you say, “Where did you put the bacon? ” in your Arnold Schwarzen-egger voice.
“Where did you put the bacon? ” I say, but, as usual, my version sounds like the Swedish Chef from the Muppets.
“Ha ha ha. Really fucking funny,” says a woman, coming up beside us. “Who the fuck do you think you are? ” She looks familiar. “Get your kicks out of harassing a poor tired waitress at Denny’s? ”
I look at you and you raise your eyebrows.
“You think you’re so special, people like you,” she says, getting right up in my face, her breath smelling like coffee and some kind of sweet, liqueurish booze. “You think it’s fun to just roll through town on your fucking fancy vacations and make people like my sister feel like shit.”
Of course—she looks like the waitress, but younger and thinner and tougher on the outside, like a younger sibling.
“A fucking piece of bacon and you get on your fucking high horse and, ‘Ooh, I can’t eat this, it has bacon in it.’ And then you have the fucking nerve to swear at her? ” She’s so close, and slurring a bit and her spit hits my cheek and my stomach turns with anger, disgust, fear, grease.
I want to insult her right back, but in the most passive-aggressively annoying way I can think of, so I say, “Just relax,” and start to turn back toward our parked car. I barely get my eyes on it before I feel a sharp kick to my back and I’m flying into the pavement, face first. Then she kicks me again, hooking her foot under my hip and turning me on my side.
You yell, “Stop it! Get away from her!”
I see her flip-flops and toenails painted in a French manicure style coming toward my face. But her foot hits my shoulder this time.
“Fuck you,” she screeches, then stomps downward, the foamy underside of her flip-flop ramming into my cheekbone.
“Get your fucking hands off me,” she yells.
I open my eyes and you are behind her with your arms circled around her, trying to pull her back. It’s a strangely intimate embrace and for a moment she seems to relax into your body. I feel like we are all very safe, as long as everything stays like this. Then she screams, “Don’t touch me, you fucking pig!” and kicks her leg backwards, hitting you in the shin and getting free.
Behind you, a minivan has pulled into the parking lot and two shocked faces stare out of the window as she rushes at me again, as if she’s about to kick a football. But there is fear in her eyes, and regret, which prevents me from moving. She gets me under the chin. Her big toenail digs into the flesh, and I wonder if I’ll need a tetanus shot for this, as my head is thrown back. The sky flashes above me, such an impossibly remote deep blue.
You try to grab her from behind again and she yells, “Stop touching me, you fuckin’ pig,” elbows you in the stomach, and starts flip-flopping away, the awkward slap-slap fading in the distance.
There’s an eagle way up there in the blue sky.
You drive even more cautiously than usual, as if even a slight bend in the road will hurt me. My body is throbbing, but I feel a numb peacefulness.
“You sure? ” you ask, for the fifth time, meaning you will turn back and take me to the hospital where that explorer’s son died, or at least to the Revelstoke police to report my attacker.
The people in the minivan had taken down her licence plate number as she screeched off in her truck while I lay there staring up at the eagle. And then your face, hovering about me, so pale and worried, calling my name with increasing urgency. I’d never felt so present and in my body than at that moment, with your hand cradling my head. Then you said, “Someone call an ambulance, please,” and tears started to stream down your face.
“No, I’m O.K. No ambulance,” I said and sat up and let you carry me to the car like a little girl, setting me down ever so gently and cautiously.
And then the crowd of concerned strangers, saying that I should go to the hospital just in case I was in shock and it was masking a serious injury, offering their phone numbers as police witnesses. I pictured my attacker’s face looking terrified and already remorseful for something that hadn’t even happened yet, and I thought it was ludicrous to bring the law into this. Making trouble for her seemed somehow like an unjustified betrayal of her trust.
Now you grip my knee and say, “I wanted to punch her in the face. I wanted to break her bones and really hurt her, but that just made me feel sick and useless and weak.”
“No. You did everything you could do. I’m O.K.”
“You could have a concussion. I can’t believe—what the hell is wrong with the world? She could have killed you.”
I picture myself unconscious at that hospital and you sitting beside my bed for days or weeks or months and having to finally make the decision to turn off the machines keeping me alive. My throat burns, because you are so beautiful and loving, even after you had to face the ugliness of where I come from.
I should never have brought you there. When I told you that story on the way, we should have turned around and gone to the waterslides in Salmon Arm and had a real summer vacation; called off the whole thing with the parents. But no, it had to be done. You had to see me for what I really am.
It seems like months since I told you about me and my sister at that waterslide in Toronto—the long lineup, and how it took ages to inch our way up those stairs, with the sun beating down ruthlessly. When we finally got to the top, I was dizzy and scared and wanted to chicken out. But with the pressure of hundreds of others behind us, I really didn’t think I had a choice; I had to go down the slide. It was Jody who said, “I can’t do it.”
“We have to do it,” I told her, but Jody looked petrified, and I knew I couldn’t do it without her, even though it was humiliating inching all the way back down those stairs, with all of those arms elbowing us, and some kids saying, “Scaredy cats,” and going “Bock-bock-bock” at us.
When our parents started fighting that night in the adjacent motel room, we thought that it was because we didn’t go down that waterslide.
You put your hand on my knee and said, “You were right to be scared. Waterslides are dangerous.” You talked about how even the most advanced physics and engineering and computer-generated prototypes can’t guarantee whether a waterslide’s design will be safe. Too many incalculables come into play that affect water-flow turbulence and defy the laws of gravity, like specks of dust in the air, wind, or even the bathing suit the rider is wearing. You called them “strange attractors” and said something about fractals and chaotic dynamics; said until a slide is built and tested in real life, nobody knows whether it will be safe. And every day brings different conditions, so, over a ten-year per-iod, eight Americans have died on waterslides—double the number of roller- coaster deaths. No amount of planning and calculating protects you from potential tragedy. You just have to ride it and take your chances.
Maybe in a way you were preparing us for the impending visit with my parents, but at that moment, sharing that story took away some of the weight and shame, and that was enough.
You stop at a gas station and get a bag of frozen corn for my face, two Slurpees, and big fat, red licorice whips. I appreciate your slow driving speed and your reluctance to pass vehicles unless there’s a passing lane. The sky is so blue and the mountains look so much friendlier now. The breeze is ripe with summer. Maybe it isn’t too late for us to make something good out of this.
“I don’t want to go home yet,” I say.
“Let’s go to those waterslides in Salmon Arm.”
I turn on the radio and find an oldies station and we sing songs we both still know by heart.
Then that song “We are family / I got all my sisters with me,” comes on and everything turns. My mind starts replaying loops from the distant past that have become so familiar they flicker in fast-forward up to the unsorted events of last night: us lying in my old bed, grinning at each other in the dark. Then their tense words becoming increasingly audible through the wall. My dad storming from their bedroom, stomping down the stairs. Her following behind, screeching, “How dare you walk away from me when I’m trying to talk to you,” and him bellowing back with the usual, “I will this time, I swear if you so much as utter another word, I will walk right out the door and never come back.” Then the walls shaking from doors being slammed closed then flung open again as they scream their ridiculous accusations and denials. The whites of your eyes getting bigger and me wanting to grab your hand under the sheets, but feeling too embarrassed. Then the sound of glass breaking followed by a loud thump, and now we are bolt upright in bed, trying to decode each and every sound. Then the eerie silence, which is maybe worse, followed by a scream that sounds so like murder that both of us instinctively jump out of bed.
Maybe you were relieved to see them cowering together in the corner of the living room like two wounded animals, but it infuriated me. “Everything’s under control now. Just go back to your room,” said my dad, as if they’d just fended off an attack from a predator who’d got into the house. As if I’d never told you what they were like, and was supposed to keep all of their secrets to myself; as if they were my secrets, too. I should have taken your hand and led you back upstairs, just like Jody used to do, but instead I screeched something about how they always ruined everything, how they destroyed Jody and turned me into an unlovable monster. I ran upstairs and shut myself in the bathroom, leaving you standing there in your underwear.
When I crawled back into bed, you didn’t turn around to face me, and it seemed like you were punishing me by denying me your face, your silence a kind of violence. And when your body started twitching from the sleep pulling you away, I wanted to punch you in the back, and then I felt the worst kind of fear that the brutality was inside me, too. I talked myself into believing that you must leave me and all that was left of us was this one last night, clinging to your sleeping breath. Now, I say, “I’m so sorry for everything.” The cracked, high pitch of my voice warns that there’s a reserve of tears inside me, in danger of spilling over.
“Don’t be sorry. Let’s just get to the waterslides and have some fun.”
You smile at my mangled face like it’s the prettiest thing in the world.
As we walk through the hotel lobby, some people stare at my face. One woman even gives you a stern look. Does she think you did this to me? It’s ridiculous and I want to laugh out loud, but you look pale and worried. I grab your hand and squeeze, but you don’t squeeze back.
The desk clerk is blank-faced and starts tapping efficiently on her keyboard. She’s probably seen all kinds of things in this vacation town in the middle of nowhere, but maybe she’ll be hesitant about giving a room to people like us. People like us! I grin at you, but now you look startled by my face, or maybe it’s my expression. Maybe you think there’s a part of me that enjoys playing the battered wife.
“You’re in luck,” she says. “We have a cancellation. It’s a junior suite though. We have nothing smaller.”
“How much? ” you say, sounding worried.
You glance at me and I’m afraid that whatever fucked-up proclivities are visible on my face will make you back out. But you say, “That’s fine,” and pull out your credit card.
In the elevator, I clench my fists and pump them up and down, saying, “I can’t wait. We’ll start with the tallest one.”
The suite is large, but I can barely register anything. I just want to get changed and get out there. I don’t care if I shoot off the lip and plummet to my death. “Maybe we should lie down for a while,” you say. Your lack of decisiveness is irritating.
“No! Let’s go.”
Under the fluorescent bathroom lights, I’m ludicrous in a yellow bikini, with a boxer’s mashed up head tacked on. The chlorine is going to burn those pavement scratches on my face and palms and knees, but at least it will be a kind of disinfectant.
You’re just standing there, still in your jeans and T-shirt and running shoes. You look so exhausted. Am I too much for you, finally?
“Please. Let’s not think any more.”
We do the tallest slide first. At the top of the chute, I sit down and you tuck in behind me, clamping your legs around mine and putting your arms tight around my waist. Sliding down the chute, at first you try to steer our course, but as our speed picks up, that becomes impossible. Projecting off the slide’s lip, we are two separate entities flying through the air.
We don’t think for hours, just climb, slide, fly, plunge. Even later, when we’re lying in bed with our hot, sunburned, chlorine-smelling bodies pressed together, saying, “Let’s never bury each other alive, but, let’s set a time limit,” the weight of it doesn’t seem too heavy.