By Carleigh Baker
The ocean is still this morning. I can’t even tell you what a relief that is. Those waves have been pounding away for days, maybe weeks, who the hell knows? Drowning out every thought, every sound. Those MP3 files you sent? Couldn’t hear them. Tried to sit outside and listen, sun on my face, smashed remnants of a crab shell gathering flies beside me, but I got only the faintest inkling of your voice, the slightest rhythm of your poems. New poems! You’re so prolific.
Who knows where my earbuds are. At the bottom of an unpacked box somewhere. I was holding the laptop up to my ear until thoughts of brain cancer washed away all other attempts at concentration. Your voice. That’s what I really wanted to hear. Finally, I gave up on the romantic image of listening to you read poems while I gazed at the ocean and went inside. But I can hear the waves inside, too, just enough to bug me. Finally I got in the closet, laptop pressed against my ear again (screw cancer!) and could just make out your dulcet tones. Something about a train. And bugs. And sex, I think, though it’s so hard to tell with you. Those fancy metaphors. At one point you mentioned trying to capture the (non-sexy) simplicity of an afternoon of midsummer rain. What I wouldn’t give for some rain right now. Amanda says the well could dry up at any time, and then what?
Amanda is a pain, even when she’s not here. She texts every day asking if it’s rained yet. Like she couldn’t just Google it. She wants me to take three-minute showers to conserve water, but it’s hard to wash everything in three minutes. Impossible, really. I do upper body on Monday and Friday and lower body on Wednesday and Saturday. That includes hair washing for upper body and leg shaving for lower body, and as you know I have very long hair and legs. Damn, that didn’t sound as sexy as I wanted it to. Anyway, yeah, two showers in a row on weekends. You never know when you might get lucky—not that I’m looking—but hopefully it’d be on a Saturday, when my hair is reasonably clean and my legs are baby smooth. You’d like me on Saturday. You’d take the 5:20 ferry over, and walk from the terminal to the bookstore, and I’d pretend to be a little surprised that it was already 6:30, even though I’d have been waiting the whole day. We’d go to the pizza place after work and have a couple glasses of wine and an appy outside on the patio.
I’d have my nerd glasses on and my day-old hair up in a bun, kind of like a sexy librarian, only like a sexy bookseller. That’s me. We’d leave the pizza place before it got too dark, since it’s a long walk to the pub. Maybe I’ll get a car someday. Somebody might pick us up, a good-hearted local, somebody I served at the bookstore that day. If not, we’d take the path that runs alongside the road. It’s fine during the day, but a little creepy at night. There are no predators on the island. Just deer and raccoons. A local told me that the deer might take a run at me during rutting season but he might have been joking. Most of the time they’re just running away. Or sometimes they hang out in the backyard and watch me, big watery Bambi eyes, tails twitching. Anyway, we might see some deer on the way to the pub. When we’d arrived, some islanders would be smoking a doobie outside, off in the trees a little. Neither of us would feel uncomfortable— it’s the island!
I’d know the bartender, and he’d bring my martini over and shake your hand and ask you what you’d like. You’d be a little suspicious of how well he and I seem to know each other, and I’d reassure you that although he’s quite handsome, and he does have a way with words, he’s not my type. You are. There’d be a reggae band playing, and you’d remark that reggae seems appropriate for the island. You’d be right.
At one point, you’d pull something you’d written on the ferry out of your pocket and read it to me: a new poem or piece of flash fiction, or an excerpt from a novel-in-progress. I’d listen rapturously, chin cradled between my fingers, running my foot up and down your leg under the table. You wouldn’t even stop to thank the bartender when he brought your beer, you’d be so into it. The bartender would nod approvingly and wink at me. Because we’re friends, and I’ve told him all about you. And you’re every bit as good in person as in my stories.
We’d have too many beers, and dance to the reggae band and whatever the deejay was playing afterwards, and we’d even end up outside smoking some weed with the locals before you’d wrap your arms around me and say “Let’s go home,” and I’d say, “It’s a thirty-minute walk,” and you’d say “I’ll piggyback you.”
And you would.
It’s probably not a great idea to do this to myself—imagine you here like this. It’s comforting for a while, but it doesn’t take long before I really start to feel sad. Making new friends isn’t easy. I spend most days here at Amanda’s house, reading, drinking wine. And looking across the Salish Sea at the ferry terminal in Tsawwassen. And wishing I could take a bath, which might seem like a strange thing to crave in this heat. Obviously, in a world of three-minute showers, baths are way, way out. Non-negotiable. And yet here I am, back from an hour-long walk home, hunched over my laptop, writing you, and looking across the hall at the tub. No friendly local stopped to offer me a ride. You weren’t here to piggyback me. You’re probably reading de Maupassant in a coffee shop on Commercial Drive, or something like that. It is the lives we encounter that make life worth living. De Maupassant said that. You’re across the Salish Sea. I am here. It’s harder to be here than you think. I know you said I looked relaxed last time we Skyped. I have to tell you a secret.
I was relaxed last time we Skyped. Because I’d had a bath. I know, I know! But it wasn’t just a whim. I’d had a terrible day: yelling customers, screaming kids, a nasty pain behind my right eye that flared with every blink. When I got home, I dropped my laptop on the ground and smashed the corner of the LCD screen, cracked it, and that was just the last straw. I fell down on my knees and cried. Partly about the laptop and partly about my knees. Amanda has stone floors. I know that sounds melodramatic, but you don’t know how stressful it’s been. I was desperate to move home, to be with you. Since you refuse to come here to be with me.
I cried until there were no more tears, and then I poured myself a glass of wine. I sat out in the backyard, facing those bloody waves that never seem to stop smashing at the cliff, and one glass of wine turned into three. Those goddamn waves! I wanted still water, warm water. I wanted comfort. So I stomped upstairs and I did it. I drew a bath.
The well water has a lot of sulphur in it, so the bathroom smelled pretty rank, but Amanda’s scented candles helped. I closed all the windows and put my poor, cracked laptop on the side of the tub and queued up all of the MP3s you’ve sent. The suite of poems, the novel excerpts, the seventy-five flash fiction stories based on À la recherche du temps perdu (which I’ve listened to dozens of times and really connect with, even though I’ve never read any Proust). You’re so much smarter than me, so much more well-read. The candles smelled like cinnamon and cranberry, the water was steaming, and your voice was so buttery. When I shrugged off my bathrobe, a shiver of gooseflesh washed over me. My nipples hardened to buds. I imagined you standing there behind me, extending a hand to help me into the water. Your eyes on my body as it disappeared into the bubbles. I sat back, piling my hair up and tying it with an elastic, though some tendrils escaped and brushed my shoulders. You could have sat on the toilet and rubbed my feet, and recited all seventy-five stories. That’s what I imagined, anyway. The cover of a romance novel, or an Amy Winehouse music video.
Wouldn’t that be nice?
I sat in the water until it was nearly cold, to make sure I got the most use out of it. Surely no one could begrudge me one bath. Amanda that jerk, off frolicking in Iceland with some guy for the summer, all those beautiful blue volcanic hotsprings, all the sulphury hot water in the world.
But I’ll tell you something else, and this I’m particularly proud of. I saved all the grey water—that’s what you call it after you’ve soaked in it, in case you didn’t know—and I used it to do things like water the dahlias in the garden, which Amanda has actually insisted I do, even though I’m supposed to be limiting myself to three-minute showers. Doesn’t that seem kind of weird to you? Don’t worry about yourself, but make sure a bunch of decorative plants in the front yard look their best. Make sure they get enough water. The dahlias are more important than you. That’s kind of what she’s saying, right? A bunch of goddamn flowers. I wasn’t sure where Amanda keeps her buckets, so I used a bowl, which meant taking many trips up and down the stairs, but what else is there to do with all this time to myself? I’ve used about half the water in the tub, so the rest is still sitting there. When it’s gone, I’ll reward myself with another bath.
Your letter hasn’t arrived yet. I know it takes you a while to write them, since you insist on using that complex pen and ink cursive. It’s beautiful. The letters are masterpieces: exercises in shape and form, gentle thoughts, flowing words. But it takes forever, and sometimes I wish you’d apply the same quantity over quality value to personal interaction that you have for flash fiction. No offence, the quality of the flash fiction is still very high. I read a Buzzfeed article that said introverts have no time for small talk. But small talk has a purpose sometimes. It fills in the cracks between people. Maybe I’ll get your letter tomorrow and feel bad for sniping at you. I’m sorry. It takes mail extra long to get to the island of course. Everything here is slower and more expensive. I thought the slower part would be nice. But damn, we’re talking really slow.
Amanda called to check on the dahlias, can you believe that? She didn’t ask how I was doing. The dahlias are fine, and the herbs are spectacular, they love a good drought. I was so annoyed at her when I got off the phone I decided to have another bath. But there was still some grey water left in the tub, not much, about two inches. I sponged out a little, into the stainless steel bowls, but then I gave up and just ran the damn water. Baths aren’t really the cleanest endeavour anyway. Sitting in your own filth, sloughed skin, bacteria. I noticed that the sides of the tub were a little crusty, so I decided I’d completely empty it and clean it out after the bath. But I was so relaxed when I got out, I lay down on the bed and fell asleep. Now it’s morning, and the water has been sitting in there all night, and I’m feeling really guilty. I’ll take a bunch downstairs to the garden. It’s Monday, upper body day. Which is good, because my hair is kind of gross after soaking in the tub. I should have tied it up. Not like there’s anyone here to notice.
You know, I’ve seen photos of the drought situation in California. Comparison between now and ten years ago: reservoirs, riverbeds, lakes. Have you seen the photos? The situation looks pretty grim. But last time we visited, I remember people watering their lawns, boulevards with lush green grass, the long, long shower we took together the morning before we left. All the swimming pools we passed over on our flight home, little blue tiles crammed into an uncomfortable crush of stucco and asphalt. Water is everything, and they don’t have much. Neither do we. The boulevards in Vancouver were green when I left. Are they still? Don’t you feel guilty every time you take a drink?
You’re not going to believe what happened. You won’t believe it, you’ll think I’m making it up, but I’m not, I swear. Yesterday when I got home from work, water was flowing from the ceiling. At first I didn’t realize that it was coming from above. I thought the bottled-water dispenser was leaking when I realized my feet were wet, but then I looked up. Drip drip drip. The walls were soaked, and get this, the light fixtures were full. Bulbs encased in little frosted-glass fish bowls. Can you imagine if I’d turned on the lights?
Well, you know what I thought, of course. The bathtub. I never did get around to cleaning it, so it’s still about three quarters full. I thought maybe the weight had caused some kind of catastrophe upstairs. I slipped and bashed my knee on the way up, but I was so scared I barely noticed. The bathroom was fine though, so I ran over to Amanda’s bathroom and the toilet was leaking. I’ve never even used that toilet. I had no idea what to do, so I went back downstairs and put pots under the worst spots, pulled towels out of the linen closet and wadded them up around the pots. I just kept thinking, “This could be used for the dahlias!” I went back up to the upstairs toilet and noticed that it was just running constantly, and I remembered something about jiggling the handle when that happens (I think it’s in a Tom Waits song, right? And the toilet’s running, aww Christ, shake the handle. Right? Am I losing it?). So that’s what I did. Then I turned off the valves behind the toilet and that stopped the flooding part, but I still had to spend all evening mopping up the house, emptying the pots, and wringing the towels out—outside in the garden, of course. I wish it would fucking rain.
If you were here tonight, I’d light a fire in the wood stove. I know it’s still too warm for fires. We’d open all the windows and doors. The sea would be still. Even with the night’s breeze, it’d be sweltering, ridiculous to have a fire, so we’d get naked and lie on the cool stone floor. Any skin contact would be so uncomfortable, but you’d leave your hand on my belly, slick sweat bonding us, sticky drips pooling below the arch of my back. Every so often, I’d mop it up.
I think the overflowing toilet was a sign. I know it was. I’ve been wasteful, terribly, terribly wasteful. Like you, in Vancouver. You have boulevards, I have baths. We are terrible. I came to the island to write, and I haven’t written a word, except to you. And you haven’t written back. We don’t actually care how things will turn out, do we? What’s going to happen when the earth runs dry?
“I vant to be alone. I just vaaaant to be alone.” Like Greta Garbo from that movie; what’s the one? Grand Hotel. I’ve got a two-minute YouTube clip here. Garbo’s keepers speaking desperately on the phone, looking for our heroine. Then, she suddenly appears in the foreground, tousled, a picture of malaise. The other characters—a concerned-looking matron and a grim, fatherly man—approach Garbo.
“Where’ve you been?” he demands.
And then Garbo says it. Breathes it. I vant to be aloooone.
That’s where the clip ends.
The island is long and skinny, and most houses are set away from the road, down long driveways. As a result, the roads seem empty. It’s like the world just petered out quietly, no bombs, no zombies. Dry ferns along the shoulder, droopy evergreens, dry creek beds harbouring empty cigarette packages and yogurt containers. There’s still the deer. I told you about them.
Sometimes, if I look at a deer for too long, I get weepy.
It still hasn’t rained, but it’s starting to cool off. Last week, on a misty road that was presenting me with a seriously pastoral farm landscape, I saw a snake. Just a garter snake, no big deal. I used to catch garters when I was a kid and freak the boys out with them. I loved the feel as they hugged my wrist, coiling themselves around it like they were claiming me.
I slowed down, but as I got closer, I saw it was half squashed. There was more carnage further along—a couple of flat lizards. The road was a reptile deathtrap. I looked away, at the horses in the fields, dehydrated green beans hanging from a lattice, sun diffusing onto Scotch broom. A foreign plant, and invasive, one of the locals told me. Still, it’s pretty. I tried to take a photo to send you, but I couldn’t do it justice. So I kept walking.
And then, yesterday, an eagle flew overhead and dropped a lizard on the ground right in front of me—yes, dropped it!—and it was still alive. Alive, but stunned. It was frozen in place on the road in front of me. Staring. I ran a finger across its mottled brown skin and it didn’t move. I pulled out my phone and took a picture, not often you get the opportunity for such a close-up. But then I got worried. If it stayed put, eventually somebody was going to run over it. So I picked it up by the tail, crouching low to the ground in case it wiggled out of my grasp and fell again, but it didn’t. I walked a long way into the woods, until I found a soft bed of moss—vibrant green and threaded with thin orange tendrils. There were a couple of clusters of unremarkable beige mushrooms growing nearby, and I could hear the gurgle of a stream, which was pretty amazing, since it still hasn’t rained. I couldn’t figure out how this place had avoided the drought; maybe an underground spring? But it seemed like a really nice place for a lizard to be. I took another photo, and when I looked at my phone, I realized that its skin wasn’t brown, but quite a dramatic shade of purple. How had I not seen that? Maybe it changed when I put it on the moss?
I looked back down at the little guy, still suspended in time, and wondered if he really was still alive. Maybe he was dead. Maybe he was a she. Maybe something both otherworldly and organic was reaching out to me, trying to give me a message, and I was slapping its hands away like an idiot. Something magic. There have been other moments: eagles startled from cliffs, unexplained rock pilings. A tree with a big white equal sign painted on it, which was clearly a message to veer off the road and into the bushes. Before long I had bushwhacked my way into a grassy field. When I arrived (I can’t explain how I knew that I’d arrived; at a certain point I just stopped walking), the first thing I felt was fear. Like I’d come to a sinister place, something out of a horror film. Like some guy in a hockey mask was waiting. But that instinct was wrong, not an instinct at all really. Maybe the opposite of an instinct. A powerful and lifelong misconception that I am not a part of nature. After I stood there for a while, I wanted to sing, I really wanted to sing, and even though I was worried someone might hear and think I was crazy, I suspected that that, too, was a powerful and lifelong misconception. Nobody is ever really paying attention to anyone but themselves. So I sang. I didn’t have any real words to sing, but I’d been listening to some pretty schmaltzy new age music that morning, so I sang that. The whole thing may have been schmaltzy, but when the tiny songbirds started to sing along with me, I admit, it felt like a prayer.
Make no mistake, this place is magic. But magic can overwhelm you, it can make you sick. Disoriented. Twice now I’ve walked up to the bluffs on crisp mornings (still no rain) and looked out on Active Pass. There are other islands out there, which makes me feel better. Twice I’ve been overcome by gratitude for what the island is trying to give me—this new and complex perspective—and I’ve thanked it. And twice, at that very moment, I’ve heard the watery exhale of a whale. Surely such a thing should convince me of my place here, of my connection to the land. But it doesn’t, and I think it’s because you’re not here. I leave the bluffs wondering if I’ve imagined the whole thing, if I’m losing it. Why can’t we believe in these serendipitous moments with nature, or maybe even that nature might want to communicate with us? That it is constantly in communication with us. Lord knows we believe all kinds of other crazy shit.
You’re going to think this is nuts. That is, IF you’re still reading anything I’m sending you. I don’t care. I’ve been thinking about those fucking dahlias, and you in the city with those big boulevards—big, useless boulevards—and I think, that’s not what water is for. Not for keeping something so grotesquely unnecessary alive. Something that is constantly dying. Well, I guess we can’t do anything about the dying part, we’re ALL constantly dying, but some things are certainly more worthy of life than others. Dahlias are not worthy; they are big and showy and unnatural. Their heads grow so big, they’ll fall right over if you don’t tie them up. That’s it, they actually grow themselves to death. But what about frogs? Eelgrass. Algae and moss and mould. Lichens!
Delicate things are suffering. I found three dead lizards around a dusty depression in the forest where there used to be a pond. They’re desperate. I went looking for the spring I found a few weeks ago. The well’s still not dry—I’m still the beneficiary of its gift, stagnant and sulphur-ish as it may be. And it’s pretty bad. Amanda actually told me to bring home more of the bottled water we get delivered to the bookstore so I could avoid using the taps completely. I did bring some back, but I decided they’d do more good in the bathtub, where I’ve started something wonderful.
If you were here, I’d show you everything. The bio filter: bacteria, protozoa, and phytoplankton. You wouldn’t be able to see those guys, of course, not without a microscope. Did you know that even though protozoa are single cells, some of them exhibit animal-like behaviour? Though they’re not considered primitive animals, not anymore. But some of them hunt like predators, totally badass, I read it on Wikipedia. Anyway, I’m sure they’re in there. Then there’s the zooplankton. They are definitely animals—tiny and delicate. I’m not sure if I have any zooplankton yet—as you can imagine, it’s hard to find lake water, and anything from the ocean would die in the tub. I’m thinking of ordering something online from an aquarium supply store. And then there are the snails (these were really hard to find, but worth it). The frogs were easy to find, but hard to catch. Now they’re hard to keep confined to the tub, every time I open the bathroom door one or two jump out and I have to chase them down the hall. Rough-skinned newts, that’s who I’m looking for next, same as the guy that eagle dropped. Clearly that was a sign. And the leaking toilet. I see the connections now. You’re probably shaking your head at this, but you haven’t been here. With every day so quiet and clear, things start to work themselves out.
I’d work on the moss garden. You’d tend to the worms and insects with such care and attention, and together we’d foster the nitrogen cycle: waste to ammonia, to nitrates, to nutrition, to waste. Beautiful life, safe from everything, inside. It’s small, of course. Just a bathtub. But once we got some fish in there, we’d have a humble food source. As soon as the rain started again, we’d never have to leave.
From Bad Endings by Carleigh Baker (Anvil Press, 2017). Used with permission of the publisher. Check out our review of Bad Endings in this issue.