Canada |

When You're Gone

by Rhonda Waterfall

Patty boards the train in Calgary on her way back home to Vancouver and takes a seat near the window. Other passengers heft their bags into the overhead storage compartments and free themselves from their winter coats, scarves, and gloves. She rests her head on the window and reminds herself of what she has been telling herself all weekend, that when she gets home she is going to tell Steve that she wants a divorce. Across the aisle, a man wearing a brown suit takes a seat and folds his jacket with two precise creases. He places the bundle on the empty seat beside him and gives it two pats, as if the jacket were a beloved dog. He opens an attaché case on his lap and pulls out a stack of papers. The train has pulled away from the terminal and snow-covered farmland moves by. “Beautiful isn’t it,” the man says. Patty nods her head, “Yes, it is.” He tells her he is going to Vancouver for his son’s wedding. Patty asks if he is a teacher and he says, of high school science. She pictures his chalk-dust mottled fingers on the breast of a young female student. She wonders if this is the type of man she will have affairs with when she has left Steve and considers suggesting they get a roomette on the train. In the same breath she knows she doesn’t have the guts or even the desire for a quick tryst. When she was a teenager she slept with any boy that touched her hair. She wished meeting people could still be that easy. When she was fifteen she met a man on the bus who said he worked for the Ministry of Health. He took her out for dinner to a place that served her margaritas even though she was underage. She let him kiss her and put his hand under her skirt but stopped him there and told him that she had to be home by eleven. Now she couldn’t remember why she stopped him. Now she wished she had let him have his way with her. The science teacher clears his throat and adjusts his glasses on the bridge of his nose. What if she asked him to get a roomette? The thought of his flesh entering her, dispersing her insides makes her tired. *** The train pulls into the terminal in Vancouver and Patty grabs her suitcase from the overhead compartment and finds Steve in the terminal. He pulls his hands out of the pockets of his bomber jacket and asks how her sister is. “Dying,” Patty says and hands him the suitcase. “That’s not what I meant,” Steve says. In the car Steve turns the radio on to the hockey game. Squeegee kids attack the car at Terminal and Main. At home Patty walks past the pizza boxes on the coffee table and goes into the bedroom. She puts the suitcase on the unmade bed and picks Steve’s pants off the floor. She runs a finger through dust on the windowsill and then tosses the pants into a corner and collapses on the bed. “I can’t do this,” she says. Steve appears at the doorway and asks what she’s up to. Patty catches her reflection in the mirror above the dresser and is appalled by her hair and pilled sweater. When she is single she imagines she will only wear clothes made of natural fibres, no more synthetic blends. She will use only vanilla scented soaps. “I want a divorce,” she says. Steve sits beside her on the bed, “I think you’re upset about your sister. I think we should just give things some time.” “There’s been plenty of time, and don’t blame things on my sister.” Steve opens her suitcase and starts to unpack her clothes. “How was Calgary?” he asks. “Cold.” “You’re not leaving me,” he says. *** Patty walks to the waterfront; the cold air chills the tears on her cheeks. She tries to remember things her mother said or the sound of her voice but can’t come up with anything. Steve’s mother was what she imagined her own mother would have been like. They often went to plays or browsed through the market on Granville Island. Recipes had been exchanged. Patty follows the path along the beach. People walk their dogs and joggers in spandex pants run by. Clouds obscure the mountains. She would move to Calgary, but all that flat land and open space made her panic; where was there to hide? Would she ever smell the ocean again? When her fingers and toes are numb with cold, she heads home. Steve is on the couch, The World’s Worst Race Car Crashes on the TV. Patty puts a kettle on the stove and goes to the bedroom. She finds that Steve has unpacked her suitcase and placed it under the bed. She is about to go back to the kitchen but Steve comes into the room and pulls her to the bed. She pushes him away. He kisses her neck and says that he misses her. She tells him to stop. “Let’s have a kid,” he says. “We can’t just have a kid.” Steve shrugs his shoulders and says, “Why can’t we?” “I want a dog,” Patty says. “What kind of dog do you want?” “Are you just going to get me anything I want, so I’ll stay?” Patty says. “Yes,” he says. The kettle whistles and Patty pulls away and goes to the kitchen. *** People at work are constantly asking her how her sister is doing. She wishes she had never mentioned her sister was sick; it isn’t any of their business what stage of death she’s in. Patty’s chest tightens. She drinks a glass of water and tries to read emails but the letters swim together. She heads outside. The sidewalks are busy with people taking early lunches. At the cocktail bar in the Georgia Hotel she orders a brandy and flips through tourism magazines. There are pictures of the Capilano Suspension Bridge, Stanley Park, and the gothic and rusted Britannia Mine. This isn’t what she wants to see. Where are the beach bungalows in the Cayman Islands? Where are the pictures of escaped Canadian wives gardening their tulip patches in Holland? There are ads for Botox. Go home looking ten years younger. Is Botox a tourist destination? She finishes her drink and books a room in the hotel. Patty mixes a whiskey and Coke from the stocked wet bar and turns on the TV. Martha Stewart cuts triangular-shaped wedges out of dough. “This is such a good thing,” Martha says. After the fourth drink Patty calls room service and orders fettuccini with clams. She drops the empty miniature whiskey bottles into the garbage bin and mixes a gin and tonic. On TV a young couple on a red velvet couch declare their love for each other. They plan to get married at Disney World. The man wears a NASCAR T-shirt and says he knew he met the person he was going to marry when on their second date she surprised him with tickets to a Judas Priest reunion concert. The girl wipes tears from her eyes and plays with the ends of her hair. There is a knock at the door and Patty lets the porter in with the tray of food. On the news there is an announcement of a snowstorm in Calgary. She calls her sister but there is no answer. She mixes another drink and tries her sister again but still there is no answer. On the Food Channel, Nigella Lawson is frying a large piece of meat in a black cast-iron pan. “This is so easy,” Nigella says. Patty finishes her dinner and then flips through the menu and calls down for a banana split and chicken fingers. She mixes a vodka and orange juice. She opens the curtains and is surprised at how dark it is outside. The building she works in sits black and empty, a block away. Rain has started to fall. She tries her sister again and when she answers Patty asks her where she was. “I was at the clinic,” her sister says. Patty mentions the news report and the snowstorm and then asks her if she remembers the song they used to sing when they were kids, with the bunny rabbit and the good fairy. Her sister says she remembers the song. Patty asks her to record herself singing it. Her sister says she will and then asks Patty again if she is all right but Patty says she has to go because dinner is on the stove and hangs up. A knock at the door startles Patty, and she spills alcohol on her top. She puts the glass on the side table and wipes her chest with a towel. She lets in the porter with a new tray of food. The chicken fingers are hot and greasy, and she pours Kahlua over the banana split. The phone starts to ring. On TV a woman who has had plastic surgery on her face is being introduced to her four-year-old son for the first time since being released from the hospital. Her son cries and tries to break away from her embrace. Patty answers the phone. “I *69’d you, what are you doing at a hotel?” her sister says. “I’m taking a break.” “Does Steve know where you are?” “I left him,” Patty says. “Call Steve and let him know where you are.” “Okay.” “I can’t die knowing you’re by yourself. Steve is there to take care of you.” “Don’t die,” Patty says. The line crackles and her sister tells her to call home. *** On TV a couple has repainted the walls of their neighbour’s house a hot pink. Chocolate bars and wine are the only items left in the wet bar. Patty takes a bottle of red. She stumbles to the side and falls to her knees. Her vision shifts sideways and loops, and she releases the contents of her stomach onto the carpet. When the room stops spinning she gets a towel and covers the vomit. She has a shower and is wrapping a towel around her chest when there is another knock at the door. From the hallway, Steve calls out to her. “Your sister called,” he says. Patty opens the door and lets Steve in. A murky stain has seeped through the towel on the floor. “Are you drunk?” he says. He takes Patty’s hand and says it’s time to go home. Patty pulls her hand back, “I’m not going.” “Are you going to stay here?” Patty pushes the food trolley against the wall and opens the window. Cool, moist air rushes in. “I’m going to Calgary,” she says. “No, you’re not. You’re going to come home with me.” Steve pulls her to the bed. “Look at the ring on your finger,” he says. He holds her left hand out. “Why do you think I gave you that?” “So I would do your laundry?” Patty says. “No. Because I wanted to be with you for the rest of my life.” Patty pulls her hand away and puts her hair in a ponytail. “Now tell me. Why are you here?” Steve says and rubs his eyes. “I was at work and I had a panic attack. I hate our place. I hate the dust. I hate how the sun shines through the windows. I hate everything.” “We can move.” “I want to start over. I’m tired.” “Okay, you’re tired. Take it easy then. We’ll paint the living room. Have tinted glass installed. We’ll do whatever you want.” “My sister is going to leave me.” Steve rests his cheek on her shoulder, squeezes her hand. “Let’s kill ourselves. Come on, double suicide. How romantic is that?” Patty shakes her head and cups her hand over her mouth; she cannot hide her smile. “I guess not,” Steve says. “Let’s have sex then.” He pulls her to him and kisses her neck. Patty lets him push her back on the bed. His smell is a mixture of shaving cream and sweat. He touches her neck and kisses her shoulders. Patty closes her eyes. *** Steve calls Patty’s office in the morning and tells them she will be taking a few days off. They eat breakfast in the hotel restaurant. Patty picks at her fruit salad and chews on Steve’s toast. Steve suggests they go for a drive into the Interior and find a spa to stay at for a few days. When they are out of the city and in the mountains, Patty calls her sister. Her sister is out of breath and says she has just come back from a walk in the snow. She tells Patty that she is going on a date. Patty asks with whom and her sister says with the guy who lives next door. She asks Patty if she should go sans wig. “Wear the platinum-blonde one.” Patty says. Her sister laughs and says she will. Patty hangs up and stuffs the phone into the glove compartment. Outside snow falls and sticks to the power lines. She tells Steve to pull over. She gets out of the car and walks along the side of the road and into a field. The air feels crisp on her face and in her lungs. She collapses onto her back and sweeps her arms and legs across the snow. The indented outline of an angel forms in around her. Steve falls down next to her. Snowflakes melt against their faces. They hold hands until the cold burns their fingers.