In the summer, to escape the thick, muted heat of the evening, Sagey cycles around his neighbourhood on a broken bicycle, the front brake unattached like an umbilical cord snapped in two. He has no money to fix it, so he takes it slower around curves, or downhill from Laurier Park. Sometimes he rides on her street, just to see if her curtain is open, hoping she is visible in the backyard, tending to plants, or drinking cold tea in her kitchen. It feels good to be mobile, his shirt unbuttoned and his fingers chafing against the handlebars. At Parc Lafontaine, the sun dances across the lake. Families filter along the bridge for one final glimpse of sunlight. Couples lie head-to-stomach, reading, laughing. Mothers and daughters view photographs on a laptop. Badminton, soccer, softball—games with no start or finish. The smells of grass and dirt and chlorine from the outdoor pool sifting from children’s heads. The call of summer is intoxicating. Sagey zips past, thinking this must be the best time of day to be a father, walking your children home post-sunset, the season like a towel wrapped tightly around your waist, holding you close.
Sagey stands outside The Dancer’s door. He wears a ragged white V-neck t-shirt and frayed, thin jeans. Five-day stubble lurks on his face. It’s been 18 months since Claire died.
“You don’t look well,” The Dancer says, opening the door.
“I’m sorry. For just showing up like this.”
“You’re cooking,” he says, poking his head in the door.
He remembers this apartment—the picture frames on the wall, the narrow hallway, the faint smell of brown sugar. He shuffles back a step, suddenly feeling intrusive.
“I like what you did with the place.”
“It hasn’t changed much.”
“That was supposed to be a joke.”
“I’m leaving tomorrow.”
“I have to see it, where it happened.”
She stares at his haggard face, the low-slung eyelids.
“You’ll only make it worse.”
“Will you come? ”
He turns away, and as she closes the door, he’s certain he sees someone inside.
You lived on an island, Sagey. All your life. Things changed, okay? The world got bigger. We saw a life outside the tiny one we’d created. But you hoarded your isolation, empowered by it, shrouded in your long, black coat. You thought we were the lucky ones, that disappearing felt right. God, I wanted to believe you. I wanted to know that I could feel what you feel. But that wasn’t possible. That wasn’t love. That was the illusion of love. That was the illusion that an island is better than the city, and I never wanted to believe that.
This tiny scrap of paper he carries for one year, ripped from Claire’s journal, dated one week before her death. Words he can recite from memory.
Sagey begins walking down the street, but stops when he suddenly hears footsteps behind him. The Dancer is bounding barefoot down the sidewalk gracefully, fully aware of how far her nimble feet can take her, and how her long strides appear less like someone running and more like she is floating and preparing to jump into Sagey’s extended arms and see him lift her up into the air. But she stops several feet in front of him, out of breath.
“I’m worried about you,” she says. “I don’t even know you, but I’m worried.”
“I don’t know what else to do.”
She reaches up and touches him on the shoulder.
“I’ll come with you, she says.”
The temperature dropped quickly off the lake. The highway inundated with heavy, sudden snowfall. Visibility limited. But only an hour away, it seemed senseless for Claire to pull over. Why had she left so suddenly? Sagey wondered, The Dancer beside him, looking out the window. Why had she left without him? The city was suffocating Claire and him, slowly strangling their lives. They had become guarded with each other, even when naked and still, in the night as autumn retreated past the long horizon. When winter approached, a time when they should have needed each other for warmth, they slept on opposite sides of the bed.
She hated driving alone. But she loved that place—the bay windows, the still lap of lake water on the wooden dock, the maple paneling on the walls. Snowflakes falling on an icy lake, the stars so bright at night they would sting your eyes. Maybe that was why, because she loved that place so much.
Driving toward Muskoka Lake, Claire’s childhood friend sitting with her hands in her lap in the passenger seat beside him, silence between them.
“What was she like,” he finally asks.
They pass through Arnprior, Renfrew, Eganville. The Bonnecherre Valley.
“Sagey. It was a long time ago.”
“You must remember something.”
She shifts in her seat, trying to avoid the answer. Clouds sift through the sky like cod swimming in a shallow shoal. Shapes begin to emerge—caterpillars and ravens and tall ships sailing against a backdrop of blue and grey. Fields of corn and one-church towns and cemeteries line the highway. Horses graze.
“She was never happy,” The Dancer says.
“I never loved her because of that.”
“Why, then? ”
“Because she was the only one who never asked anything of me.”
“What did you ask of her? ” The Dancer says.
He doesn’t reply. Tall grass weaves back and forth, slave to the slight breeze as the car shuttles down the road. Tractors rest on the edge of a farmer’s lawn. Day’s end approaches, the sun bleeding its way toward the horizon. Algonquin Park emerges in the distance, like a large swath of land that houses the dead, a post-colonial graveyard. Until now, he has avoided imagining why she did what she did.
“Who was in the house with you? ” He asks.
“The other day. Someone was in the kitchen.”
“It shouldn’t matter.”
“You think I’m broken.”
“Aren’t you? ”
A dry wind sends dust flying off the highway and into their eyes. Sagey and The Dancer are standing on the side of the road, the only sounds in the air are the intermittent whirl of cars flying towards cottage country, the sun inching its way closer to sleep. Anticipation is a slow, steady curse in summer. It marks you, like a stubbed toe, and pulses quietly, waiting to expose you in the coming darkness. Sagey waits each night for the feeling to pass, but like water dripping from a gutter after a storm, the need to escape and the need to know obfuscates everything, and only the one sound repeats itself over and over again. The long days and the slow heat and the change of pace disguise the things a cold season cannot. Summer hides the truth, not winter.
Why am I here? She thinks. Who is this man? I’ve no business being here. There are no answers for The Dancer in this place. She wonders if she’s come out due to some debt to Claire, as if she owes her memory something more.
Lakes emerge from the ether. Harley Davidsons and minivans share real estate at overpopulated highway rest stops. The colour of the sky starts changing to black, the night’s hungry again for day.
Sagey has come to understand what penitence means, if anything at all. I haven’t come for you, Claire. I came for me. He looks at The Dancer, a puzzled look on her face as she wipes the dust from her blue eyes. The sun burns down on their bare necks. Dry, tall grass rustles at their feet. They stand idly together, fixed on a set of dead flowers left there by Claire’s mother, a white stake slumped in the ground and rotting. A fence post skewed to one side. The sun sits still and hot in the sky, a burning star watching memories become born again.
“She was a dancer once, like me.”
“I didn’t know that.”
“I left for the city, when we were still young. Her parents . . . ”
“She liked nail polish on her toes.”
“We all did. We would sit around and paint each other’s. She was wonderful. All the girls thought so.”
“Why did she stop dancing? ”
“Even then, you could tell she was afraid to be on stage, afraid to be ugly. She fell once. We couldn’t have been more than nine. She was never the same.”
The wind picks up, and he looks at her.
“Thank you,” he says. “For coming.”
“I didn’t know her like you did.”
“You knew her better.”
“You don’t know that.”
“She never talked about the things she loved most.”
“Why am I here? ” The Dancer asks.
“I’m not sure.”
“Why are you here, Sagey.”
“People are afraid of the details of tragedy.”
“And you aren’t? ”
“I just couldn’t imagine it anymore. I needed a picture of this place.”
“Do you think she would want that? ”
“Does it matter.”
“Then it’s for you.”
“Yes. And you. As a witness.”
“A witness? ”
“So I know years from now, if I ever try to remember how it happened, or where it was, then someone else will understand.”
“I didn’t peg you as so melodramatic.”
“I didn’t think she was either.”
They are sitting on the hood of a red Ford Focus on the edge of a lake. It is morning. The wind sifts off the water’s edge like a mother hushing her child. Sagey feels nauseous.
“I don’t know where else to go. It’s safe here, in this place.”
“You can’t love her memory forever.”
“What’s his name? ”
She stands up, contorting her body in a way that makes her appear taller, and once eye level with Sagey, walks off towards the highway.
In the chilled, dry nighttime air of early autumn, flowers breathe life onto Parc Avenue. Midnight—the street already sleeping. What had he gained or lost, Sagey wondered. Why was there always a cost, a weight, a price. His long strides pushing him closer to The Dancer.
He remembered back to that summer night, in a dusty motel off the side of the highway. Two single beds lying side by side like old partners in crime, not a word between them for hours. He’d watched The Dancer studying the grief on his face –wincing, twisted cheek muscles, a grimace of the upper lip, eyebrows arching to mask the salt in his eyes.
She sat still on the edge of her bed and witnessed him crawl under the harvest yellow blankets then stop, looking at her with puzzled, weary eyes, lifting the corner of the sheets like someone opening the screen door on a hot summer afternoon, calling her home. And she slid in, no words, and lay beside his outstretched body, her heartbeat echoing the thundering crickets outside. They lay still, remembering what brought them here, remembering what they’d seen that day: a thin, black tire mark; a stake; flowers decaying. The only things left.
With her eyes closed but not sleeping, The Dancer begins to understand the symbol she represents, the tether Sagey has strung himself to, a beginning rather than an end. And long into the night, long past the hour of perpetual sleep, a transformation occurs, and she sees this belief manifest, not just through his eyes, but her own. Perhaps it is his short, stark breathing, or the way she slips into the crook of his torso, but she knows, as dawn streaks through the cracks of the thin motel curtains, that after all this, she still wants to save him. The first revelation of love in a possible sense.
It is not until weeks later, back in Montreal, when he knocks on her door just past sundown, that they make love on the floor beside her bed, cool autumn air flying in from the open windows, his body guiding her body away from the comforts of a mattress and onto the hardwood of her tiny apartment. This time he did not dream of death, nor did he imagine her strong ballerina legs clutching themselves around his head and snapping it off like a coconut shell. He imagined autumn wheat fields, swinging her by the arms, the sun low and precious to their eyes. He imagined a slow, rising river in the countryside, cast against tall, leafy grass—like the kind you can whistle with—and settling his toes into the cool water before hearing her in the distance call for him. He bargained her body for ocean breezes, and thick, white waves crashing against ancient rocks below them. He asked for forgiveness, laying his weight upon her weight, and begged for the city to disappear. If this was what salvation felt like, he wanted her close, he wanted them both close, body and soul together, he the bridge that extended across the valley, one hand in the sky, the other stretching toward the earth where her fingers awaited.