It’s the summer the Okanagan’s on fire, and everything’s obscured by smoke, including the doomed nature of fucking your stoner Canadian girlfriend from grad school. Even though it’s an entire province away, the smoke creates a hazy gray cloud cover most days, fogging up the intensely honeyed summer sunlight. It lends an air of solemnity, you feel, to the national parks and interpretive centres you visit with Jorunn—your friend from grad school who now teaches piano in Lethbridge. You go to see Head Smashed In Buffalo Jump—where the Pigan routed migrating herds of buffalo through a series of cairns until they stampeded over a sharp rocky cliff. And you drive to Frank Slide in the Crowsnest Pass—where the entire coal-mining town of Frank was suddenly buried in rubble during the night Turtle Mountain (a mountain that, according to indigenous oral history, was rumored to move) unexpectedly avalanched.
Perhaps you should have more carefully heeded the Okanagan on fire, the ghosts and seared afterimages of buffalo and mountains tumbling down through the smoky haze, as portents of sorts?
In fact, Jorunn’s weed dealer, Geoffrey, doesn’t seem to have any difficulty stating the obvious. “You live over 1,000 miles apart in different countries,” he cheerfully says to you one night while Jorunn’s using the washroom. “You know it’s never going to actually work, right?”
But then again, Geoffrey’s always had a bit of a soft spot for you. An agoraphobe, Geoffrey (in addition to selling pot) runs an eBay listing business out of his parents’ basement. Basically, people pick up stuff at garage sales, estate sales, and thrifts, then bring it to Geoffrey to sell on eBay. He knows you love insects, so he always sets aside insect mounts and other insect-related finds for you.
Geoffrey has a disturbingly huge bull mastiff named Mycroft. When you first meet Mycroft, Geoffrey tells you it’s important to maintain direct eye contact with the enormous dog. Which you do, and you and Mycroft soon become very good friends, although you notice that whenever you wear your hair down, Mycroft always stares at you a bit too intently and gets a hard-on, which you find disconcerting.
* * *
Nonetheless, you’re hopelessly captivated. Maybe it’s the stunning thrust of the Canadian Rockies. They remind you of the American Rockies, where you grew up, but seem even more chest-clenchingly beautiful, if that’s at all possible. (Is it because these Rockies come without the ugly dramas of your childhood home?) Maybe it’s the humanely progressive health care system, the funny comedy shows on the CBC (The Red Green Show! This Hour Has 22 Minutes!), or the environmentally responsible recycling policies! Or maybe it’s Jorunn’s hilarious sense of humor, her matter-of-fact, strapping Norwegian-ness. You’re very charmed by the way she uses “eh?” as a verbal pause, and pronounces words like “about” aboot and “progress” proh-gress.
In this mania-inducing summer light, which lasts (even with the haze of smoke from the Okanagan being on fire) until well past 10:00 p.m., the ghosts of tumbling buffalo and avalanching mountain slides seem—from a certain, hopeful angle—like metaphors for lovers leaping, or the inevitability of waterfalls. Jorunn invites you to stay the whole summer—after all, you can write anywhere, right?—and soon, you’ve met all her friends and most of her family. You and Jorunn start joking around a lot about getting married in Canada, where it’s recently become legal, and then you’d have dual citizenship, eh?
* * *
Which isn’t to say there aren’t any red flags. You notice, for example that Jorunn can’t even go to the grocery store without packing a one-hitter in the car. And one morning she leaves her journal open in the exact spot where you always sit to have your morning coffee, making it all but impossible to notice that she’s written, about you, in shoutycaps: DO I REALLY WANT TO TAKE ON SOMEONE WHO HAS TO TAKE MEDS FOR OCD?!?!
But still, it’s as if you’ve been hypnotized by the beautiful white cycling of giant windmills turning and turning on their windmill farms at the base of the Rockies across vast, riffling yellow fields of canola flowers. And so you keep on existing in this hazy Canadian dream, and it isn’t until you drive back down to the States at the end of the summer that things come unraveled.
At first, it’s a growing tension in the car. Jorunn’s on her period, her cramps are bad, and she asks you to drive. “I wouldn’t have cramps if I could get high,” she mutters pointedly before going to sleep for most of the 24-hour drive, as if her cramps are all your fault.
It’s true, you refused to cross the border with marijuana in the car. Jorunn hasn’t been down to the States since 9/11. She seems to think you’re exaggerating when you describe what happened when you tried to re-enter with just a birth certificate after a literature conference in Toronto—how you were forced to recite the Pledge of Allegiance and the words to the Star Spangled Banner at the airport, and it was a 5:45 a.m. flight and you were horridly uncaffeinated and hard-pressed to recite even your own name. How you couldn’t remember all the lines and for a moment things looked sketchy, as if they might not let you back in. As it is, when you end up crossing, the U.S. Border Patrol searches Jorunn’s car and confiscates the fruit packed in her cooler, which just pisses her off even more. When she wakes up, she nags and backseat drives: too slow, too fast, why’d you stop for gas in a place so far off the interstate?
Then when you finally arrive, she’s rude to your friends, who’ve been eager to meet her. She keeps telling everyone, including your colleagues, that you’ve always been “spinny”—which is apparently Canadian-ese for ditzy. When you tactfully express polite interest in a project suggested by your acting chair, she sing-songs “You’re ly-ing,” while he’s still within earshot. On a day trip to Sioux Falls, a skinny teenager rolls down his window and calls you “faggots” as you’re pulling out of the parking lot of the Sertoma Butterfly House. He’s a truck-driving cliché in a corn seed cap with a bulging lump of chew in his lower lip.
“Excuse me?” you say, rolling down your window.
“Faggots,” he says. “Fucking faggots. With a fucking faggot sticker on your car!”
Before you have a chance to reply, Jorunn leans across you and yells, “I’m going to kick your fucking ass!” then starts charging out of the passenger side of your car. You have to restrain her by the collar of her shirt. The boy gives you the finger and pulls out of the parking lot, tires squealing.
“What, you’re going to beat up a teenager?” you ask Jorunn.
“I tell you what,” she says, “it’s a really good thing I love you.”
And you have to wonder to yourself: Is it? Is it really a good thing?
* * *
Why haven’t you noticed this flattening behind the eyes before, the slight darkening of the pupils? It reminds you of your mother, in that eye-of-the-tornado instant before she’d whirlwind into one of her inexplicable borderline rages. Have you not been paying enough attention? Hypervigilance is your middle name, though, so this doesn’t seem likely. Is it because Jorunn’s on edge and out of her comfort zone? Or is it because you don’t have any idea who Jorunn really is anymore when she’s not high?
On your fifth or sixth night back in the States, you’re sick with stomach flu, or maybe it’s food poisoning, you’re not sure, and Jorunn wants to have sex, but you don’t. She doesn’t want to take no for an answer, and you have to physically shove her away from you. She pulls down her pants and begins masturbating—loudly, grotesquely, in your bed. You go into your bathroom, where you slam and lock the door. You end up cutting yourself. The next morning, when she sees the bandaged evidence of the cuts, she says, “Why don’t you just put a fucking gun to your head?” And that’s when you tell her to leave.
* * *
How many years do we have to serve time in relationships with trickster versions of our raging borderline mothers, our hair-trigger-temper fathers, our narcissistic and passive aggressive palimpsestic loves?
How many days/weeks/months does it take to realize that we’re still, despite our best efforts, serving time in relationships with trickster versions of our raging borderline mothers, our hair-trigger-temper fathers, our narcissistic and passive aggressive palimpsestic loves?
How many lifetimes do we have to live before we stop secretly believing we somehow deserve to serve time in relationships with trickster versions of our raging borderline mothers, our hair-trigger-temper fathers, our narcissistic and passive aggressive palimpsestic loves?
* * *
You go No Contact, and after several months of flowers, unanswered phone calls and e-mails, Jorunn sends you a handwritten letter, in which she accuses you of discarding her like yesterday’s newspaper. She implies she’s been feeling suicidal. She threatens to drive down and make you deal with her, face-to-face. You think of Elizabeth Bishop’s lover, Lota, who unexpectedly arrived in the United States following their breakup in Brazil, and how Lota then killed herself that first night in Elizabeth Bishop’s New York City bathroom.
But then you also think of how orphaned, peripatetic Bishop—torn away as a child from her Canadian motherland in Nova Scotia—was always searching for family, for home. You think of how Lota offered Bishop a place to stay, and write, and how—before it became really, really bad—it was good.
You think of the smell of sweetgrass and sage, the glacier-carved swells of coulees, and the ghost towns, the abandoned collieries, winding up switchback after switchback all the way up into the Crowsnest Pass, and how, at least for one impossibly bright summer, this felt like home to you. Crowned by a family of mountains—the Seven Sisters, jutting into cloud-dolloped sky with their dizzying and otherworldly beauty.
And then the bison spilling off the rock cliff. And then the entire face of a mountain sliding off, destroying a whole town, and O, Canada, O, Canada!