In the Gatineaus, where they’d rented a cottage, the days were an early summer medley of leaf green and lake green. It was the season’s first heat wave and Martha and Gray swam naked in the green lake. She floated on her back watching the bright sky. He dove off the dock and swam over, then dipped underneath her and bobbed up in bubbly swirls. They made sandwiches for each other, scooped big bowls of ice cream, cracked open beers from the fridge. They lounged on the deck with a view of the glinting lake through the trees.
While Gray read, Martha walked the gravel road around the lake, exploring. Iridescent dragon flies flitted overhead, snapping up the last few blackflies. Early in the week she met a golden retriever who bounded down a driveway and, from then on, accompanied her on her walks. Sometimes a young family in a minivan drove by, or this guy in a red Fiat from the end of the road. The drivers waved, in that friendly way people do in the country. After that, when she saw the mom unloading groceries in the driveway, or the guy in the Fiat picking up his mail at the bank of mailboxes, they exchanged sunny hellos.
Martha collected wildflowers. They shriveled immediately and, when she looked them up in her Peterson Field Guide, they turned out to have names like cow vetch, bladderwort or Dutchman's britches. She noticed a huge thick-stalked plant called cow parsnip that grew over six feet high all along the road. They were like Triffids poised to take over the world, Martha thought, imagining menace in the gentle summer air.
At dusk when the mosquitoes came out, she and Gray retreated into the cottage and flipped through stacks of National Geographic.
“Was that a hoot or a wail?” Gray asked at the first loon call.
“A yodel or a tremolo,” Martha suggested, as a different lonely warble echoed the lake.
The loon book divided the calls much more precisely than they could.
Martha picked out a VHS from a stack on a shelf. “Look, Dirty Dancing!”
“You don’t want to pollute the lake with that.”
“Oh, but I do.” Dirty Dancing was her favourite. Nobody puts Baby in a corner. What could be more satisfying? Martha put the VHS in the deck and pressed play.
“Why is her name Baby,” Gray wanted to know.
Patrick Swayze used a mossy log over a stream in the woods to coach Baby on a dancer’s sense of balance. Then they both got drenched when he used the cushion of lake water to teach her to jump fearlessly into his arms.
“Right,” Gray murmured, but he didn’t leave the room.
“She learns to dance like a pro in a week,” Martha said, sighing at the romance of this absurdity.
When it was over, Gray pulled her up from the couch. “Wanna dance?”
They swayed together. Of course, it was not like in the movie - although, they did end up undressing in the living room and moving naked into the bedroom as a pale green moth the size of a sparrow fluttered by the window screen. Crickets chirped, and as they slipped into bed, bullfrogs groaned. Everything felt pure and uncomplicated, as smooth as ice cream; as a canoe sliding across the glassy lake.
On the longest day of the year, Martha shut the fridge and stepped out onto the deck. “We should drink that champagne tonight. Where is it?”
Gray stopped reading and put his book over his face, blocking her out along with the sun.
“Whereswhat.” His voice was muffled by the pages of Godel, Escher, Bach.
“The famous champagne. I reminded you to pack it.”
“Oh. There’s a little problem,” he muttered.
“Actually, I didn’t pack it.”
"What? Why not?”
“Huh?” she lifted the book off his face and uncovered a guilty smirk.
“It’s gone. I drank it.”
She stared at him, amazed.
“When you were away.”
“What are you talking about? We were saving it for a special occasion!” She waved his book in her hand.
“It’s just champagne. It doesn’t matter.”
“But we were saving it,” she repeated. “I can’t believe you drank it without me.” She dropped his book onto his chest, a heavy thud. “It was that person, wasn’t it? I went home to visit my family over the holidays and you cracked open the fancy champagne with a stranger.”
“It was spontaneous, I told you. I met her Christmas Day –we were the only people at the Laundromat. It was so depressing.”
“But you chose to be depressed at Christmas. You like that.”
“It was nothing.” Gray repeated, hardening.
“It was not nothing. You could have had nothing, but instead you served champagne! The whole point of champagne is that it’s special which is why you pulled it out. After years of claiming Christmas means nothing to you. It was a gift to both of us and you drank it with some coked-up gymnast!”
"Oh, don’t get all psycho.”
“I’m not psycho!”
The spur-of-the-moment dinner with the Cirque de Soleil trapeze person had come up back in January. He mentioned it like he had nothing to hide. It was purely platonic, "a coincidence." Martha was annoyed at the time, if he’d wanted to celebrate the season, he could have come home with her, the whole point of him staying behind had been to work and avoid having to watch It's A Wonderful Life.
“I bet you didn't drink it warm. How spontaneous is chilling a bottle of champagne?” she asked.
“I can’t believe you’re making a big deal out of this.”
She threw a magazine at him and missed.
The blue bottle was a gift from friends who’d brought it back from France. Actual Champagne-champagne - from Champagne. They’d had it for over a year, and she thought they’d been saving it up for just the right moment. Martha felt retroactively betrayed and freshly irritated by Gray and this acrobat. Instead of the festive summer solstice she'd imagined, the longest day of the year just felt long.
The next morning, Martha slept in and then went for a swim. As she came up from the lake, Gray held out a cup of steaming coffee. She accepted it, but went inside to drink it. He didn't follow her.
Late in the afternoon, she went for a walk. It was hot and the gold dog only came along with her for a few minutes before lying down in the shady ditch at the road’s edge. When she got to the end of the lake road, she noticed the Fiat parked next to the small cabin and felt like she’d spotted an old friend. After all, their paths had crossed a bunch of times. She was standing there, hesitating next to a patch of cow parsnip Triffids, when the guy from the Fiat
stepped out onto the porch. He was wearing green work pants and a Hamilton Mustangs T-shirt. His hair was shoulder-length and he had a mustache.
He seemed unsurprised at her appearance. “You look thirsty,” he said.
“Got any bubbly?” she heard herself ask.
He laughed. “No, but I’m sure I can come up with some kind of beverage. Want to come in?”
“No, it’s perfect here,” she said, slipping into an Adirondack chair on the porch.
After a minute, he came back out with two dimpled glasses and handed her a tea-coloured drink. Sprigs of mint floated against ice cubes.
“Cheers,” he said.
She took a long swallow and tasted bourbon.
“Mint julep,” he said. “I have mint in the garden, every year there’s more of it.”
“This is just what I needed.” She drank and looked at the lake. “Are you here for the whole summer?”
“I’m here year round.” He told her he was a glass blower.
“You must wonder what I’m doing here,” she said.
He didn't say anything to this, just watched her shake the ice in the glass she was emptying. Then he got up and took it from her.
I don’t have to drink it, she thought when he placed another drink on the wide arm of her chair. “You made these glasses?” she asked, taking a sip. “They’re nice. Shapely.” As he looked at her she felt a flash of something interesting.
“These are from Mexico. I have some of my stuff in the barn, if you want to see.” He gestured at a ramshackle wooden structure behind the cabin. He nodded but made no move to get up. He took another swallow of his drink and she did the same.
When he stood up and walked toward the barn, Martha followed, feeling dizzy as she stepped off the porch and the sun hit her face. She hesitated for only a second before she went into his workshop. She felt alcohol and curiosity buzzing inside her along with something darker. That's what had sharpened her awareness of the glass blower's gaze. Who was this guy with the tiny car and the large mustache. She didn’t even know his name. No one knows where you are, she reminded herself.
Then she was in blackness as the barn door swung shut behind her. Nothing was visible inside the dim shed after the blinding outside light. The air was earthy, dank and dusty. "You work in the dark?” she asked, joking but nervous.
“Here’s one,” his voice was close as his arm brushed hers. He placed something cool and smooth and glassy in her hands.
“Oh!” she yelped, scrambling not to drop it onto the concrete floor. His hands closed over hers for an instant before he moved away. Her heart pounded. He’s locking me in, she thought. She wondered how long it would take Gray to think to look for her. She'd left the cottage without saying anything. Her hands were sweaty and the glass was slippery. A shaft of light came in as the man slid a side door open, and a table full of glassy objects lit up in the sun.
“Just what the world needs,” he said coming back over to where she stood. “More vases.”
“They’re beautiful,” she said as he took back the one he'd handed her and put it down. The lumpy vases were dark smoky colours, purplish green, brownish blue and they seemed to pick up the light from outside and hold it. They stood facing the glowing vessels and Martha let herself melt toward him a little, just enough to feel the edge of her shorts brush his pants. “It must be hot work. How do you sell them? You ship them out?”
The guy from the Fiat didn’t answer. He put his hands on her shoulders, reached his fingers under the straps of her shirt and turned her toward him.
She felt the strange brush of his mustache on her mouth then, the cushion of lip underneath it.
She bumped the table beside her and glass clinked and clunked, rolling off, crashing against the floor. “They’re breaking,” she said. The sound of breaking glass frightened her. He didn’t answer, he had one hand around her waist and slipped the other under her top but she pulled away, fabric ripping as she moved, blundering into the yard.
She scrambled down the driveway and twisted her ankle in a dip in the gravel. Her knees folded under her and she looked back to see him stepping out of the barn. She bounced back up before he reached her, holding out his hand.
“Don’t suppose you want a lift,” he said, smoothing his hair, shaking his head.
“No, no. No.”
She walked fast in the dusty heat, her head pounding from the bourbon, her stomach uncertain.
Halfway back, when he hadn’t followed her with molten glass tongs in his hands or the Fiat in high gear, she slowed down.
Back at the cottage she fell onto the lumpy bed and slept until dark. When she got up, she downed three aspirin and a few glasses of water. Gray didn’t ask where she’d gone. He put a movie on.
“I can’t believe you want to watch this,” she said.
“I like high seas adventure.”
On the saggy plaid couch, they let The Titanic wash over them. Martha was relieved to escape from her blurry thoughts. The story was clear-cut. Lovers against villains. Kate Winslet’s rich fiancé was evil. Of course you couldn’t blame her for jumping into the arms of the poor artist. Of course once the Titanic struck the iceberg Leonardo diCaprio would save her and sacrifice himself to the freezing waters while she floated on the wreckage. Their love never got beyond the first few days of knowing each other. “Near, far, wherever you are. My love for you goes on,” the soundtrack warbled.
"Near, far, but dead!" Martha thought. It was easy to go on and on about it, the dead beloved wasn’t going to do anything that might spur hotheaded, drunken retaliation. Kate and Leonardo never had to figure out how to be with each other year after year, through winter and summer holidays and all the days and days in between.
In the very dark country dark, Martha turned out the lights and they got into bed. Outside, a loon wailed or hooted. Except for her throbbing headache she felt like she could have dreamed the strange, murky afternoon.
“Where's your hand?” Gray asked, extending his arm under the sheet. For a second she held still and kept her hand clamped against her side. Then, after a minute, she reached out for his.