Register Sunday | June 16 | 2019

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Fiction

These things Paula thinks she might remember from this trip:

1. The cool breeze that rushes over her bare arms when she opens the louvres on the window so she can watch the sun set over Ponta Delgada.

2. The smell of sulphur coming from the steaming vents beside the lake that fills the volcanic caldera in the middle of the island of São Miguel.

3. The warm yellow water, heated by the fires just below the surface of the earth, in the oval pool not far from the lake, in the garden of Terra Nostra at Furnas. 

4. The glance of the bartender in the hotel there; it suggested something that made her shiver.

But she has not decided yet, even though making decisions about what to remember is something she does well. At the moment nothing is certain, except that John is dead before his time, and were he here the trip would be something else entirely. She might shiver, but for what?

She is sure he would have liked the volcanoes, the lava flows, the idea that the nine islands of the Azores are something new, growing almost yearly out of the mid-Atlantic. But what would he think of the hotel room and its tile floors and soft mattress? Would he watch the Brazilian variety shows with long-legged, half-nude dancers or keep flipping through the satellite stations until he found the National Geographic channel?

But—first things first—would he have been able to make it up to the third floor? There is no elevator. She had not thought to ask when she made the reservation. It is not important anymore, and that makes her feel both sad and guilty, which is perhaps progress.


Their last trip together had been the summer before, a package tour to Las Vegas with a side trip into the desert. Heat is one of the things that Paula remembered afterwards. The casinos and the hotel were air-conditioned, but the tour bus had bad ventilation. The temperature would slowly creep up as they rolled through miles of parched landscape. John would feel it before anyone else; sweat would roll down his face, he’d tap her on the shoulder (he sat behind her, already at that point taking up two seats so she couldn’t sit next to him) and ask for more handkerchiefs.

The Las Vegas casinos underwrote airfare and room rates for the tour group. The group in turn was expected to splurge at the gaming tables and the slot machines. But John and his cronies didn’t, they prided themselves on being too wise. They filled their plates at the hotel buffets and drank the cheap drinks in the bars while they talked about the geology of the basin and range region, the settlement of the West and teacher pension funds. But Paula did not remember much of that.

What she remembers is heat and sweat and the big bed—bigger than the queen size they had at home, from which Paula had moved when John began to complain about his difficulty breathing at night. After they came back from Las Vegas, he ordered a hospital bed so he could sleep sitting up, and she made the guest room hers. But on the trip they slept together.

On the first night, there was a couple kissing in the elevator when they got on and, once they were inside their own room, John turned toward her, his arms outstretched. He had not done this for months, and she put her arms around his neck and pressed herself around him as closely as she could. The problem was, as it had been for some time, how to fit their bodies together. He would crush her if they did the sorts of things they had done when they were younger, and he knew it.

So this time he knelt on the floor as she leaned against the dresser, her legs wide apart. Her head arched back. She imagined her salty taste in his mouth. Then, when she had shuddered once, twice, three times, she pulled him over to the bed, and pushed him down so she could move over him with her hands and her mouth and her breasts and her hair. And then just before he could no longer stand the pressure of her lips and her tongue, she shifted so that she could lower herself onto him, leaning against the great mass of his belly, slowly, slowly. He moved and she tried to magnify the movement, to make up for the immobility that his great body forced on his desire. She felt the shudder once again approach. She pressed herself more tightly against him, and he cried out. Then it was over.


The sun has set now, and the fog has covered the breakwater that forms the port of Ponta Delgada. Paula can no longer see the ships anchored there. She turns away from the window as the phone begins to ring.

For just one moment she hopes that it might be John. Impossible, of course, but she has had such irrational ideas many times since his death. It must be a wrong number; she’ll let it ring, she’ll open the wine and have some.

The phone stops when she has the cork half out of the bottle. Good, she thinks, and pours herself some wine, using the plastic glass she found in the bathroom. But then it rings again. She takes her first sip, listening, and decides she should answer: no point in having somebody calling every fifteen minutes, thinking that the number belongs to somebody else.

“Hello,” she says, tentatively. She is not sure how to answer the phone in Portuguese.

“Senhora Grant,” a man’s voice says. “I hope your trip to the other side of the island was pleasant.”

The accent isn’t local, there is no struggling to find English words, but she detects something in it both strange and familiar.

“Yes, yes,” she says. “It is a beautiful place. But who is this?” As she speaks, she feels alarm mount in her throat. Maybe this person has been following her. How else would anyone know where she is? Who besides her daughter Molly knows that she bought the charter flight ticket, on the recommendation of a friend from work who sometimes travels to these islands. Her daughter, who is a graduate student at Dalhousie University now, did not approve, and said so every time they spoke.

The man laughs. “Oh, you probably don’t remember me, but we met when you rented your car, and then again day before yesterday at Nordeste.”

She tries to remember who she’d spoken to in English in the little town. She’d stopped to ask for directions and found herself briefly surrounded by a wedding party. The people had been helpful, the bride’s father had invited her to stay, and she had been charmed, as her friend from work had said she would be.

But now all she says is, “Oh.”

There is silence as if the man expects her to make a larger reply. Then he begins, “I was wondering if you were missing anything. The fellow cleaning the car returns this afternoon found a plastic bag with a few things in it. I thought it might belong to you.”

Had she forgotten anything? Not that she can remember. “I don’t think so,” she says. “And how did you know where I was?”

“You put the inn’s phone down as your local contact when you reserved the car. And I thought you might have come back here. It was just a chance I took.”

A chance he took. Somehow that pleases her. “It’s very nice of you to call,” she says.

Again there is silence. “Look,” he begins again. “I’m just outside. Perhaps you could come down and we could see if what was found is yours.”

Outside. She walks as close to the open window as the telephone cord will allow. She sees a tall heavyset man at the telephone booth across the road in front of the big building. She can’t see his face, he is turned the other direction, but he has a plastic bag sitting on the ground at his feet.

What colour is his hair? Dark brown? He has on a white shirt and khaki pants with what looks like a dark blue sweater or jacket in his free hand. Unexceptional. Nevertheless, there is something about him that she likes.

Once outside, she sees that what is in the plastic sack is unexceptional too: a tile painting of a lighthouse, a bottle of wine from the island of Pico, two small baskets like those she saw being made at Furnas.

“No,” she says, handing it back to him as they stand on the corner. “They’re not mine. But thank you for coming by.”

He smiles at her, and tells her that the couple getting married were cousins of his. “I looked for you at the reception,” he adds. “I thought we might talk.”


John would have liked the hotel in Furnas where she stayed for two nights after she left Nordeste. There was a time when he would have let his body float in the sulphurous waters of the oval pool and smiled at her while she sat on the edge. He would have told her about the forces driving liquid rock from the centre of the earth to the surface, forming these islands. She has a brilliant memory of him talking about geology and geysers and thermal energy as he floated in a hot spring in the Rockies, with snow-capped mountains behind him and the sky an electric blue above. That night his skin tasted vaguely sulphurous when they made love, she remembers, and she made him take another shower afterwards. That had been the summer they got married and he took her on an amateur geologist’s tour of North America. But before he died he had not swum in years; he had not been to a beach since the summer Molly was seven and they drove down to Old Orchard Beach in Maine.

The water was cold there. Molly played in the waves until her lips turned blue. Paula remembered that, but tried to forget the walk back to the car across the dunes. Even then his body was assuming heroic proportions and three teenaged girls had stepped aside on the boardwalk to let him pass, snickering to themselves about the whales you find at the beach.

But there was no John in the hotel at Furnas. No John to stand at that window and0look out over the hedges of blue hydrangeas at the stream and the curving paths in the botanical garden, set out by some old guy from Boston in the early nineteenth century. No John to go back again and again for the pineapple at the buffet breakfast, or to order the prix fixe dinner and look pleased at the fish course and the little plate of farmer’s cream cheese and Azorean salsa, the rich, slowly cooked meat dish and the flan-filled tartlets.

Too much to eat, Paula thought. How it would have pleased him.

John said he was pleased when she decided to go back to school and get an MBA. He said he was pleased when she got the job consulting about communication systems, he was proud that she was so good at it. He also said that he was going to take early retirement from teaching and go prospecting for gold, now that Paula could pay the bills.

Well, it almost came to that. When the diabetes diagnosis was made after the trip to Las Vegas, he took a medical leave for the fall semester and talked about going north to check out a few things. Nickel had been found in northern Quebec, there was a rumour of diamonds in the Abitibi-Témiscamingue region. He’d find things out, he’d take a trip before the snow came, he said. He’d do it just as soon as he got the diabetes under control.

“Don’t worry about me,” he said when he took her to the airport the day he died. “I know what I’m doing. I want to beat this thing. I can’t go north otherwise.”

“Promise me,” she said when he pulled up into the loading zone. She did care for him, she remembered thinking that. In spite of everything else, she cared for him a lot.

“Never fear,” he said. “You be good, though.”

She laughed. “Never fear yourself.” But when she took her carry-on out of the back seat, she frowned. What did being good entail?

She might have thought about it while she waited for her flight, but her associate, her good friend from work, had met her just inside the airport building with a cup of coffee in his hand.


The police found John. His four-wheel drive was parked near the top of the old road behind the convent school on the northern side of Mount Royal. It had been a real road years ago, when the cemetery last cut down trees and expanded into the woods, but when people started using it for all-terrain races and dirt-bike runs, the cemetery corporation moved big rocks and logs to block it. John knew a way around the barrier—you had to come in from the convent’s parking lot—and some nights when he couldn’t sleep he would drive up to look out at the city.

No one saw the SUV until the next morning. At about 7:30, the cemetery gardeners went to the top of the hill to start work on a fence that needed mending. They saw the SUV and called the patrol, but at the time they didn’t see John. He was lying up the slope a bit, where the woods are thick with young trees, and his big body in its brown jacket looked like a boulder through the leaves.

His insulin kit was at home, where there were two empty wine bottles on the kitchen table.

It wasn’t suicide, the police said. No note, so there was no suicide. Death as the result of complications from diabetes.

“He knew better,” she said on the phone when they reached her at her hotel. “How many times did I tell him to be careful?”


“Many, I imagine,” the officer said. “But none of us are perfect, and I’d hate to say how many times I’ve seen something like this.”


Paula’s colleague, her friend from work, stood in his undershorts and stocking feet as he listened to Paula talk to the police. Then he picked up his trousers and put them on. When he was completely dressed, he came and put his arm around her. She shivered: she was still in her bra and panties. Her pantyhose lay on the floor, her sweater and skirt were tossed over the back of the chair by the bed. Her eyes went from one article of clothing to another as she continued to listen to what the officer was saying. She did not acknowledge the man’s presence until after he leaned over, kissed the top of her head and straightened up to go. Then she waved her hand at him. She tried to smile.

Before she left, she gave the desk clerk her attaché case with the materials her friend would need for the presentation they were to give that day. She tried to think what to write but got no further than “good luck.” Then she took the plane back home, arriving forty-five minutes before Molly’s flight. As she waited, Paula went over what had happened. By the time she saw Molly walking toward her in the terminal, she had her story trimmed the way she wanted it.

She had loved John. But she couldn’t afford to remember everything.


The man from the car rental agency is smiling at her. He is the twenty-fifth man to smile at her in the nine months since John died. She has kept a tally in her head, the score is something that she can’t help remembering. There are moments when she hates herself for doing this, when she knows it is far too early, that she has not stopped feeling guilty. No, that is not right: that she has not stopped thinking that she ought to feel guilty.

Molly, of course, reminds Paula every time she comes home from Dalhousie. She says that she doesn’t understand how her father could have drunk all that wine. He knew what it would do to him, she keeps repeating. How could he? Didn’t he care?

Paula’s strategy is not to answer. She smiles at Molly and gives her a hug. She moves into the kitchen and begins to cook something. She rearranges the snapshots—John, Molly, Paula with various friends and relations—that Molly has stuck on the refrigerator. She remembers Las Vegas, the hot spring in the Rockies, the other times, less and less frequent as the years passed.

She does not allow herself to remember the hours in the hotel room before the police called with the news about John. She tells Molly platitudes in an attempt to comfort her: time heals, little by little we’ll come to live with our loss, John would want us to go on. A trip would do you good.


A trip would do you good.

But Molly will not take a trip. She does not think Paula is right to take one either. “What do you want to go to the Azores for?” she asks. “You’ve never been interested in travelling there.”

“Your father would have been interested in the geology,” Paula says, as if she had always arranged trips around John’s interests.

 


I heard you tell the people in Nordeste that you work in communication systems,” the car rental man is saying. “I am interested in communication systems. I took a computer course in Toronto. I lived there five years.”


Paula looks at him closely. He has the sloping shoulders of a big man. He will become pear-shaped in middle age, but right now he is merely soft in the middle. He is smiling at her, leaning forward so he can talk to her above the roar of the motorbikes. He puts his hand on her elbow.

“Would you like to talk about communication systems?” she asks.

He smiles at her. “I would like nothing better in the world.”

This she will remember. She will gamble on his body. She looks up at the open window of her room. An open window. Which leads where?