Art by Annie Pootoogook, "Leaving For Work." Cape Dorset, 2004. Ink, pencil crayon, 20 x 26". Reproduced with the permission of Dorset Fine Arts.
"That's just like Jusipi," Alacie said. "He went out to the dep for a pack of smokes and he never came back." She was on the couch in the living room with her feet tucked up under the cushions, and speaking of smokes I think she really wanted to light one up right there. "You know, Jusipi looked like he was gonna leave, too."
"No, it's not like that," I said.
But it was, in a way.
In August he took me out for Greek, a real date, with makeup and ironed shirts and the waiter smiling patiently when we said we would sit on the same side of the table. The fish was fifty bucks and it tasted like nothing to me. The walls were blue and white. I took my sandals off and crossed my legs and he rubbed a finger along the sole of my foot. He didn't say much, but we usually didn't say much.
And after the fish, before the coffee and the dessert, he took out this black pen. He wrote "Igloolik" in really small syllabics on the tablecloth. That was the first sign.
Alacie put on her coat and boots and she got out her lighter and her Du Mauriers and we smoked on the back porch. "People get this look when they're going to leave." She said this with smoke coming out her nose.
"But he's not dead," I said.
"It doesn't matter, same thing." She liked to take a puff in between sentences for emphasis. "My mother used to say, 'When people are going to leave this world, they get really beautiful.' Like the time she was picking berries with her cousin Aputik, and she looked up and Aputik was so beautiful she couldn't look at her straight. Aputik died within a month, cancer or something, I dunno. They didn't have any doctors back then. Anyway, she looked like she was gonna leave.
"And Jusipi, he needed a shower that day and he was wearing this stupid cap and he had holes in his sweatpants. He said he would be right back. I never bothered to say 'I love you' or anything, but just when he went out the door he smiled, and I had this Oprah moment where I thought he was the most beautiful thing I ever saw. Next thing you know the MUC is at my door saying he's been hit by a bus."
I thought she was going to start crying.
"But he's not dead."
"It doesn't matter." We threw the butts at the coffee can.
"Living in the South is like holding your breath underwater for a long time. You get good at it if you want to survive. You grow gills; you put aside the limbs you once had and you swim." This is what Aloupa was good at, saying things in pictures.
The guy could take a woman's heart in his palm just by breathing, and it wasn't just his looks. It was the slow talk with the quick wit and the gentle touch and the hands like you could tell he was made for making things. He was short, but not angry about it. He was quiet, and he could make children and loud, crazy people ease up. I say all this like he's dead, but it's my idea that's dead, I suppose.
I tried everything. I called up north every week asking for caribou, char, mattaq, misiraq, miracles. I stewed seal meat in my biggest stainless-steel pot; I made him new mitts that curled around his palms. I promised that we would spend next summer at my uncle's camp at the mouth of the river. I dressed nice. I prayed.
But he sank all the same. He started slacking off at work—even skipping work. He got lippy with the bus drivers when they insisted on speaking French and he got paranoid about being too skinny. He was up in the middle of the night cooking bacon, and when I came into the kitchen, he said, "Nothing tastes good here," waving the spatula over the table and encompassing all of Montreal.
In September I had to take a two-day course in Winnipeg. My flight was at 7 am; I called the taxi at 5:30 and I stood by the window waiting for the lights to show.
"Inuit are good at waiting for taxis." Aloupa had slept in his clothes. I hadn't planned to wake him. I didn't want to admit that I thought he would be gone when I got back.
I looked at him really hard, trying to memorize the curve above his lip and the shape of his forehead. I sat down.
"You know," I said, not looking at him, "I could get a really good-paying job in Iqaluit. We could move there."
But Iqaluit was not Igloolik. And I didn't have any family there, and neither did he. And Igloolik was calling his name.
I got mad. I said, "If you really loved me, you would be running after a way to stay with me." He didn't say anything, and the taxi was here.
I felt like such a jerk on the plane ride, and my third night in Winnipeg I got shit-faced and cried until I puked, and the morning after, I accepted that he was probably already gone, back to Igloolik. Back to crowded houses and wide-open sky and good dry cold and seal hunting and all his sisters.
Instead, I got off the plane and he was waiting for me—no flowers, not dressed up. He smelled like he hadn't taken a shower for days.
He was shaking when he took my luggage and we walked out into the parking lot and I thought he was going to say, "This is it, I'm leaving."
Instead, he pressed me up against the car with his hands on my face and he looked me in the eyes and said, "I want this—how do we do this?" Goddammit, was he beautiful. I knew he was lying, even though he didn't.
After that, we had a month. A whole month. No crying, no fighting, no worrying about "How's it gonna be?" It was just good. The way it can be when you accept that things that have a beginning must have an ending.
His sister called. Something about his aunt—his sanaji, the one who cut his umbilical cord when he was born—she was really sick, she was asking for him.
He was going to be gone for one week. He got time off work. He had a return ticket. He left the mitts I made him because it wasn't that cold yet.
I drove him to the airport. I didn't get out of the car or think about anything except if I had enough change for a coffee.
He opened the door and then he leaned over and he gave me the hardest kunik ever and then he grabbed his bag and he was standing on the concrete and the airport security was blowing a whistle at me to move the car.
"See you," he said.
"See you," I said.
Inuit don't say goodbye.
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