Canada’s Breakup Guide
By Dorothy Reno
Published in XXV N. 2
DRIVE THROUGH VANCOUVER. Slide past the café where she swayed with you on weekends to the acoustic thrum of the guitar. Zoom by weekday construction sites where you dug trenches and backfilled holes. Continue to Abbotsford and ride the Trans-Canada, six hours to Revelstoke Park. On the trail you hiked together a month ago, riotous tree roots poked out and slowed your pace. Did she already know it was over? You arrived, exhausted, at the Lake Eva lookout. I love it here, she said, heaving the lush mountain air, her arms outstretched in triumph.
Why? you asked until you left. She looked away, her hair piled casually on her head, the faint coconut scent of her shampoo. Then you locked eyes, and she said, We’re headed in different directions. In the midst of this hell, she was still so fucking beautiful. After you pressed about the nature of these “different directions” she said, Feelings are tyrannical – they can’t be mapped. Ironic, since you were holding a map for the journey ahead, too proud for GPS.
Hit the Alberta border. The Rockies loom – a reminder your sadness is trivial in the face of nature. At Kicking Horse Pass, imagine you’ve left your troubles at sea level. Let the smell of pine rush through the open window. You’re angry now. Shout, I don’t care! into the chasm beyond the thin edge of highway. Chase it with, I hate you! Know that hate is a form of love, but pound the dash and stomp the floor anyway. Dare yourself to call her a rich bitch and when you can’t, admit you’re weak for staying in British Columbia, a Maritimer on the wrong coast.
Enter the cottonwood biome of southern Alberta where poplar trees, untouched by your anger, soar skyward. Let smoke from a natural bushfire comfort you – like any ecosystem, you’ll burn yourself back to equilibrium.
Pee in the woods. Pee in a ditch. Pee into an empty Tim Horton’s cup while you drive and learn a lesson you won’t forget.
Change your mind about being weak. Decide instead that you are loyal. Call her hard-hearted. Whisper, I never liked redheads. Stop for gas in Calgary where your old beater looks gritty and out of place next to a BMW. Shake your head at the man in the cowboy hat. Yell, Hey buddy, you’re not in America! Consider punching him when he mimics your accent, Hey buddy go back to your fishing village.
Conjure the fight all over again. Clench your jaw as you recall grabbing her slender wrists, the amethyst bracelet she’d worn for five years breaking and knocking madly on the floor boards. Strands of hair erratic at her face. Don’t tell me to go, you begged, and squeezed harder. Please. Recall her shocked struggle from your grasp. The look of pity, after you held her close, her shirt humid where you pressed your closed eyes. I’m taking this, you said, and pocketed the broken jewellery.
Stop in Swift Current. Stay awake in the motel bed and listen to the rain, a thud in your chest for each tap against the window. Reach for her as you fall asleep.
Crash into the morning with an embarrassing yelp and your arms outstretched in sleep-driving position. Get up, but decide you’re too tired to shower and tromp straight to the car. Western Canada collapses into the prairies as you charge eastward between ground and sky. There is nothing to see except the occasional deer, which looks as out of place as you. Notice how the afternoon tilts with the amber glow of autumn. Feel cold, like the early winters of Regina, or the Winnipeg wind that blasts Portage Avenue.
Daydream about her. Is there someone else? Fester with jealousy at the Ontario border. Maybe it’s that scarf-wearing douche in her PhD program, the one whose eyes jumped up and down her body. Recall how her father put you down at one of those airless family gatherings. Think of the future, he said, not knowing you could hear. How can this guy provide for you? Remember she wouldn’t hold your hand on the way home that night, and blush savagely all the way down the highway exit.
Go to a bar in Kenora and feel like a celebrity when everyone stares at you. Order a beer. Grope at her bracelet in your jacket pocket, the stones as smooth and cool as the bottle in your other hand. Ask the bartender about a cure for a breakup. Drink another beer, and then a few more, until your anger feels blurred and distant. Order two at a time. There is no cure for a breakup, the bartender tells you by way of cutting off your supply. When the other patrons ask what brings you to town, say, The skyscrapers. When they don’t look amused, mutter you’ve always wanted to see the famous forty-foot fish, Husky the Muskie. At last call, end up in a bathroom stall with a native woman. When she realizes you aren’t really up for it, apologize. Blame the beer and go your separate ways. Later, sleep alone in the backseat of your car and dream the whole breakup never happened; your hands fitful in her red hair, her breath at the waistband of your pants.
After a morning of dry heaves, take the highway through the marshlands and bogs of the Canadian Shield. Roar over four billion years of bedrock in twenty-three hours; ten junctions across Ontario. What is the distance between here and the ground floor apartment you shared in Vancouver? How long were you together before you noticed she never smiled anymore?
At Arnprior pick up the 417 from Ottawa to Montreal. Think of strippers. Navigate down Rue Ste. Catherine and pull over where it says Live Girls. Notice there is one Live Girl smoking in front of the club. See how her red hair feathers sideways over a heavy-lined eye; observe the corkscrew straps of her shoes, how they hug the curve of her calves. With her heart-shaped face, she looks like your girl, you mean, your ex-girl, only sadder and more French. Consume as much alcohol as you can before requesting a private dance. Feel your insides buzz alive at the sight of her plump nipples. See someone else when she arches her back, sweeps her hair into a full revolution and lets it spill dramatically down over her shoulders. Stand up, put her to the wall and shout, I only needed a few more years to be good enough! Smack the ground under the oppressive weight of the bouncer. Land outside smug in knowledge that the pain in your ribs doesn’t even approach the other pain. Find a cheap place and stare into the bedspread. Think, This blanket has never been washed.
Notice how the afternoon tilts with the amber glow of autumn. Feel cold, like the early winters of Regina, or the Winnipeg wind that blasts Portage Avenue.
Reach Atlantic Canada with a car full of fast food wrappers and mixed emotions; homecoming in one sense, failure in another. You are alone – no further ahead in life than when you set off for university. Follow the turbulent St. Lawrence past French-Canadian towns. Listen to Neil Young and think about working men who build lives, sans regret, at paper mills and factories. Listen to Leonard Cohen and think of the women who love these men, but turn him off when your mood worsens. Suicide music, she used to call it, back when she cared enough to tease you.
By Riviere du Loup, you want to let go, but you’re still in the vice-grip of loss. Outside of Edmundston, pitch her bracelet into Baker Lake, where it sinks as fast as your stomach. It’s perfect! she said, when you fastened it to her wrist in first-year geography. Then, the two of you were unified by Earth Science. You went for maps, while she adored rocks. Now, you’re a construction worker, and she’s getting a doctorate in diamond exploration. You’re a Canadian diamond, she once said, thrusting her hands into the pockets of your jeans. In the rough, you answered, too foolish to see this would be a problem.
New Brunswick is home. A place filled with childhood memories and where your parents still live, a province with affordable rent for a single person where you will never see her with another man. But it’s also a place where “hope” is unpronounceable in English, French and Mi’kmaq. With her, you felt more hope than you thought possible, and that makes her your real home. Think about the night you moved in together, how you ate pizza and set up the TV with greasy fingers. She worked hard to unpack but you kept kissing her neck until she relented and made love with you on the floor, between disassembled furniture and unhung pictures. The walls folded around you like a nest, and you thought this was just the beginning, that in time you would finish your degree and find a stable job. You thought there would be a house and, someday, children with red hair.
Say you’ll love another girl when she is muted by the past, or by your bad memory. Until then, disrupt yourself with mental reruns of her sleeping naked, or the piggy-back rides she provoked when you least expected it. At the start, she threw her arms around your neck every morning and said, It’s you.
Wish you could go back to the first time you kissed to see her pupils spring open like lilies, and afterward, when she playfully brushed the tip of your nose with hers. Want this more than a thousand happy futures, even if she ended it all over again and you had to face this long drive, or the days and nights and months of solitude up ahead.
The artwork featured in Canada’s Breakup Guide is “On the Other Shore” by Tiffany Adair.