From “The Coast is a Road,” in People Who Disappear:

1

I know that travelling with you will be dangerous when all the wires blow down across the road on the way to Point No Point. Our first weekend away together. The wires, unravelled by the windstorm, hang from the poles. When you slow the car, I feel the pulse of dying electricity moving in the dark forest. You keep driving and I moan, staring through the window, you muttering, “That is not helping.” My breath forms a solid column in the core of my body as we approach the first wire lying across the road. We cross. The texture of the road under the car’s wheels plays my leg muscles like zithers. The second wire, the third. Each makes me breathe harder. The next will bring down my body, illuminate the forest like a magic lantern, show the bark down to the skin-like grain, the marks made by hungry searching birds. We’ve been sleeping together for a month, but this is when I start to trust your body, when we cross the last dead wire. The rest of the drive goes by in silence. We look through the windows and see what has been left behind by the storm. Rubble of huge cracked-open trunks, pulp of moss and ferns and leaves and needles mortared together by air made solid by speed, fresh trenches in the forest floor, wet black lines in the earth as if wires or veins had been torn up from underneath. The cabin, when we reach it, is quiet and cold. Ocean stretches calm from the edges of the windows.

For the next few days, we pass road crews clearing the mess away, sawing through trees that fell after we passed through. I try not to stare at the men scaling the electrical poles, standing in baskets like the crowsnests on ships, their orange-gloved hands working the wires. Was the current cut off completely before we drove through or did it continue, jagged and trying, moving like pain through an injured limb? I look down at your hand as it covers mine. Any of my friends would chalk to it up to shock, but I feel that the wires allowed us to cross over. It’s a secret between us, a current between our bodies. In the winter daylight, the menace is gone, the wires high and taut in the still air, telegraphing nothing.

2

In the beginning, all we do is drive. The riddled coast is our hunting ground for concealed beaches, cheap motels, and restaurants serving only sandwiches, fried eggs, and beer-battered fish. I wait in motel parking lots while you go in to book the room, because these are tiny towns and we are two women. The rooms are all the same. Beds high and narrow as gurneys, calendar art, plumbing that gurgles and sucks like drainpipes during a rainstorm. These are our first rooms — not the small, separate spaces of our apartments, but these stripped-down cells in grey and paisley, live only with the sounds of us and footsteps of strangers on the ceilings and in the halls.

You go on these drives around the province for your reporting assignments — articles about the failing fisheries, protests against logging companies. “The usual,” you say, and briefly I am thrown by how you see all of this as a taxonomy. Then I find this reassuring, your shrewd bird’s-eye view of the world. The hours I spend watching your profile. Every few kilometres, your eye sweeps me sideways.

On the mornings I wake up in your studio apartment, I watch from bed as you fill mugs with your Bodum, pour in full cream from the half pint you keep only for coffee. This is one of the first things I notice — the attention you pay to small intense things. Cream for your coffee, the ten-dollar half-empty spice bottles crowding the second shelf of your cupboard, the semigloss paint you’ve used in your apartment, a different colour for every wall, directions standing out like disjointed panels of a circus tent.

You don’t like to give direct invitations. My phone rings and I answer it to hear your voice saying, “Oil spill in Howe Sound, wind’s pushing it north,” or, “Whales migrating in the Broken Group Islands.”

Trees flicker by like a film reel in grey and green, and the highway sweeps under the wheels until it is a faint line of colour like no other colour, a faint vein on the underside of the sky’s skin, and we drive farther and farther away.

3

I’ve worked out of my apartment since quitting my last job at a documentary festival — indifferent grant writing that I tell myself is transitional, though it has become lazily long-term — and it’s been easy to enter your mad routine of travel. You spend half the week roaming this part of the coast like an indigenous seabird, the other half locked in your studio apartment and following a migration route of coffee shops with your laptop, typing out articles.

It rains through the first three days we spend driving the road between Tofino and Ucluelet, drinking coffee thick as paint in cafés warm as nests, walking in and out of shops to finger sea-glass necklaces and dry our hair, wondering where all the people went and when we’ll see some whales, as if they will swim onto the sidewalk in front of us out of the dark blue air. On the fourth day, the rain becomes snow and we set off down the highway toward home.

Evening and the thickening snow makes the world a dark glowing white where our headlights touch road and teeming grey where they touch air. The snowy road balanced against the side of the dark mountain, the ultrasound image of a bone inside an arm.

I say we should stop but you’re the one driving.

“Why stop?” you say after a few minutes of silence. “It’s getting worse and if we stop we’ll be in the worse part, right?”

“Snow falls in the same thickness everywhere,” I say. “It doesn’t matter where we stop.”

“This is not the time for Zen koans,” you say.

You drive slowly — our wheels flattening crisp snow — and I jump out every few minutes to clear off the wipers. Snow has suddenly made the world featureless, intimidating as a burned face incapable of forming expression.

“Stop, I think we should stop,” I repeat until you agree.

You can’t pull over because the road’s edges aren’t distinguishable from the creeks, mountainsides, drop-offs — there are only the suggestions of curves that could be snow-shadows and moonlight. Where are the edges?

Snow swallows the darkness whole and you finally pull over. We crawl into the back seat, the snow encasing the car, the thickening cocoon drugging us. We fuck, our deep heat mixing with the cold, and I know that you could break my heart open like the wind.

“I got it used anyway,” you whisper, your body balanced above mine.

“What?”

“The car.”

“Oh.”

“What did you think I meant?” you say and laughter makes your body hard to hold, a bundle of rope I’m trying to gather and keep in my arms. You always laugh at my misunderstandings like a child, mercilessly, then rub my shoulders to coax me back. “Oh sa-a-ad lady,” you say.

A heavy wind starts up and plays the car like a tin drum. When you fall asleep, an hour before I do, your arms straighten and go limp. You roll away from me against the back of the seat. The air from your mouth comes out in cold white clouds and I press my palms against your cheeks to warm your skin.

 

The face in our window the next morning is a woman’s, a road crew worker made cartoonish by the orange vest pulled over her Gore-Tex jacket. Her silver-and-black badge screams Emergency. Her face reddened more by cold or embarassment? The clothes and jackets we heaped sleepily on top of our bodies last night hide almost everything. There’s nothing to do but wave, weakly, a hand to the cold glass. Her footsteps crunch in the icy crust along the side of the car and up the road.

In the road crew’s truck, we drink coffee from their thermoses and listen to their stories about the snowstorm. Worst in near thirty years. Four big slides between here and Ucluelet. Old road so. Hell of a place for a storm, a peninsula, people getting trapped in like guys in a mine. We were damn lucky we kept driving. A man and his son got caught under a slide ten K back and the boy didn’t pull through.

A sick tilt in my stomach. Dying in a snowslide would be worse than drowning, I think. No possibility even for a small struggle. Suffocation and cold combined for a mute finish. Were we making love when the boy died? Or had we still been driving? I push these questions away.

You are asking the appropriate things — do they have food for us, can we ride out in their truck, can they jumpstart our car? The battery drained from keeping up heat all night.

One of the men from the road crew offers to help, says, “Always happy to lend a hand to a damsel in distress.” I watch you enjoy playing along, getting all your lines exactly right.

“Thank you,” you repeat and he nods and nods. “Thank you.” He can’t get the car started. “Are the pipes frozen? Like in a house?” you say. He laughs and shakes his head, which makes him try harder, longer. I catch your elbow and you shake it off. If he catches on, I know, he’ll turn on us with anger equal to his chivalry.

“Don’t,” I hiss in your ear. You shake me off again, grinning.

The worker who saw us through the car window, bodies tangled under yesterday’s clothing, speaks into her handheld radio in the cut-out shadow of her truck, eyes narrowed against the cold.

 

Copyright © Alex Leslie, 2012