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January Grand Cayman…
I see the blues and greens through the oval airplane window as the pilot loops a half circle around Grand Cayman Island. The sea is emerald, turquoise, and in some places, pale lapis lazuli, the sky an endless expanse of cloudless cornflower blue. The teeny slice of earth we shall soon land upon has a pale, straw-coloured outline encasing crayon Kelly greens and blistering limes.
My eyes are hungry for colour after subsisting on winter grays and browns and mucky whites. And now I’m cheating, sneaking in an undeserved respite when I should be back in Halifax, searching for new writing work and figuring out my financial future.
Hardly days after my flesh thaws, the Christmas Winds arrive, bumped over a month. I venture down to the beach.
Sea gales blow in waves that ride into shore in zigzag madness. Strange objects float in the swells—a bright orange canister, a black sweatshirt, a lost plank that dips in and out of the water and then stands on end right before the sea sucks it into the barrel of a wave.
Looking down the beach, the Atlantic has eaten the shoreline for its midnight snack. Flat smooth sand is scarred with rocks and pebbles, and in places the beach is sheered away entirely. As the wind whips my hair into my eyes and mouth, I concede defeat.
I pad up the outdoor stairwell back to Leslie and Paul’s second story flat and sequester myself on the balcony to watch the roiling waves without worry of undertow or riptide. Below, the workmen hustle, filling bags with sand to pile atop each other and erect a wall that will stop the sea from depositing rocks and soaking wet seaweed where it shouldn’t be.
The recalcitrant sea climbs up the beach anyway, over the stone fence, over the barricade of bags, past the hedges, slamming against the sliding glass doors of the flats below, cheekily swirling around the men’s knees as it retreats. They run their hands through their hair in exasperation, half smiles on their faces as they shake their heads at this naughty sea.
The bags might as well be Lego blocks, for all the good they do. This spit of land, plunked in the middle of the ocean, belongs to the ocean, and she makes the rules. Even if you don’t believe that, you must know that no one can catch the wind or redirect the sea, though we can’t help but try.
Routine sets in once the winds retreat.
At 6am, I slip on my bathing suit to go for a run along the road, returning bare-footed along the beach. It’s not long before the sand sloughs the roughness from my feet, leaving them buttery soft and honey supple. Fingernails and toenails bleach into whiteness, and my skin tans peanut butter brown by sunshine. When I take off my black bikini, its pale, phantom twin remains on my body.
Leslie and Paul spoil and indulge me. I read a book a day sometimes, and at night my best friend and I and watch our way through You, Me and the Apocalypse, one eppie at a time, ogling Rob Lowe’s Oh, so yummy good looks.
Her sister Jennifer and brother-in-law Cory arrive for a short four-day sojourn far from Canada and snow, and we expand into five.
At dinner one night, Paul gets up from the table and stands at the kitchen sink while the rest of us heap more salad on our plates. Someone, not sure who, glances over and sees Paul gasping for air. Shoving back our chairs, the four of us run to him.
“Paul, you can’t breath, can you?” Leslie asks, and he nods his ascent. Cory wraps his arms around Paul’s body and lifts him in the air like a rag doll.
“Come on buddy, get it out,” Cory says as he squeezes a second and third time, until whatever it is dislodges and Paul breaths once again.
As his skin recolours from gray to pink, we thank Heimlich for the maneuver and Cory for the competence and I give send out gratitude to whatever magical grace deigned that this night will not be a night of tragedy.
The next day, I remark to Leslie on her calm during the scare. Spare with her sentiment, in the fewest of words, I understand the depth of her fear has yet to recede.
Paul slips into the background during the sixteen-day best friend pajama party, taking on lunch duty during the weekdays and cocktail duty on the weekends. Every now and again, he suggests we go out instead of cooking.
The last week, he takes us for a boat ride.
Thorny horns of the five-pointed sea stars in Starfish Alley poke my fingertips at my touch, and in Stingray City, a tour guide slips a baby in my arms, and I stroke its velvety softness like it’s a baby’s bottom. Paul anchors in a coral reef where we go snorkeling, and I’m wide-eyed at the undersea city of luminescent, vibrant beings.
One evening, we go out for dinner at a new restaurant, Avecita, at The Kimpton Seafire, a hotel down the beach. It’s a chi-chi dress up place, and when Leslie emerges from their bedroom in a black and white dress and high heels, Paul grins, as if he can’t quite believe his luck scoring her as his wife for thirty-three years.
The shimmy and shifts and invisible tethers of this marriage reach out and feed me, too, a constant that says everything is very right in this world, simply because Paul loves Leslie and Leslie loves Paul.
The Sunday before I leave is my 56th birthday.
When I return from my morning run, and we’ve finished breakfast, and we’re idling around the kitchen island chatting away, Leslie suddenly remembers what day it is and screeches.
“Oh, it’s your birthday! Happy Birthday!” she says, handing me a teeny present, wrapped in birthday paper and a pretty bow.
I rip it open to find a jeweler’s box and lift the lid. Inside is nestled a pair of beautiful blue earrings, the exact shade of the sea in the shallows.
“There,” she says as I put them on. “Jewelry on your birthday.”
Of course I cry. I’d whined to her for decades, hating myself for it, that all I ever wanted for just one birthday was for someone who loved me, not including my sons, to give me jewelry.
“The stones are blue topaz,” she says in my ear when I hug her. “You can think of this visit every time you wear them.”
A heap of oysters sit on the table between us.
My latest new friend had somehow enticed me to try an oyster in February, and ten naked soldiers await my newfound addiction. It’s shocking how much I enjoy these creatures. For years, Leslie had asked me to consider giving oysters a chance, and I’d flat out refused.
“They have a lovely very light salty flavour of whatever part of the sea they come out of, and they have the texture, really, of foie gras.” she’d explained. Yet I simply couldn’t fathom how anything so slimy looking could not taste disgusting.
At the Argyle Street restaurant Lot 6, I’m eager to quaff my share with the very man who’d opened up my oyster eyes. Breaking bread with him for the seventh or maybe eighth hang out adventure, I’m liking this new friendship. Easy and breezy, it’s got a fun, yakfest dynamic. Nonstop conversation often deters us from clocking time’s passage, and on more than one occasion, we’d ended up the last table in a restaurant, servers to polite to interrupt and move us along so they can close up for the night, thank you very much.
Who holds the talking stick shifts between us, depending on the topic—business (him) Trump (me) and family (both of us). No Trump talk tonight, though. As the empty oyster shells pile up, conversation U-turns into personal zones, a normal phenomenon when jumping into a new friendship midway though fifty plus years of living. He freely shares his story, and I listen, asking the odd question. And then, when he finally clues in that while I’ve probed the dark nether regions of his life, I’ve yet to ante up on much of my own, and the table turns.
He begins to ask me questions—what I might be looking for in a relationship, what happened with my divorce. I freeze up and then blather an awkward, completely uninformative non-answer. And then I fess up “Uh, I’m not so good at talking about me… takes me a while,” I take solace in the fact that although I haven’t said much of anything, at least I manage to stifle a Looneytoon Porky Pig-like closer, “Da-deet, da-deet! That’s all folks!”
Likely, thinking he’s chosen safer, benign territory, he next asks, “So, how long are you going to stay in Halifax?”
Nope. Looking at him across the lone remaining mollusk finds me likewise tongue-tied. I stall by picking up the last Malagash oyster, spooning on a bit of Mignonette and tipping it into my mouth. Biting into the sea-flavoured flesh, I taste ocean and wind.
Oysters start life as free-swimming larvae. Riding sea currents, they search out rich founts of phytoplankton and then latch onto the teeniest bits of calcium carbonate to form an oyster spat, the beginnings of their shell. Next they grow a tiny foot to attach permanently to undersea rocks or ledges, sometimes old oyster beds, relinquishing freedom and mobility near a steady food source. Settling is what it’s called.
Locations of choice are estuaries, bays, tidal creeks and sometimes even sounds, anywhere the tidal shifts are guaranteed to rush over them. They prefer saltwater, but brackish water will do. As the tide advances and recedes, their gills filter the briny water, plucking out calcium to thicken shells for stormy seas and plankton to fatten bellies enough to get through cold winter waters, when everything falls asleep.
It’s a fair trade, I think, swapping liberty for sea currents, trusting the tidal system’s generosity to deliver to them what they will need for life.
Leslie’s mentioned a few times lately that I might consider editing the name of my blog, scratching out the ‘no’ since by owning a house, I appear to be settling.
She’d indulged last year’s grumblings about moving back to Waterloo once I’d spent a year in the East Coast straightening out my soul. The fact that I’d accomplished the deed yet seven months past the scheduled Waterloo move back date I remain on the peninsula came as no surprise to her. She’d been the strongest voice urging me to stay.
I swallow my new infatuation, the last of the ten. And when the oyster is deep in my belly, its lingering finish teases my taste buds, making me want for more. Across the table, he still waits on my answer. Lifting my hand to my ear, I touch my thumb to the post of my sea-coloured birthday earrings and run my index finger on the blue stone’s facets. I don’t have much to say here, but the least I can do is give him the truth.
“Um, how long I’ll stay here? Well, though I love Halifax, I don’t have a clue.”
A March skate…
Four on the sidewalk rarely works, particularly on a peninsula where everything is a mite squishy and mini-sized. We split into twos, Warren and Sara in front, Liane and I behind.
Hockey skates slung over my shoulder, their red blade guards are lit by the headlights of the car stopped at the cross walk while we cross Robie Street on our way to The Emera Oval. Reaching my hand to hold the front skate steady, Liane and I accelerate our gait to match the pace of Warren and his long, lanky legs. Poor Sara. A full foot shorter than Warren, she speeds up to a rapid trot that has her teeny feet doubling up, two steps to his every one.
Though the air hovers a notch above freezing on this fine clear night, the walk has me sweating. Yet again, I’ve overdosed on layers, a perennial problem due to life in a house with a resting temperature of 13.3 degrees Celsius, 24/7. Admittedly, I hold the thermostat steady at the setting. It’s exactly warm enough that the pipes don’t freeze and cool enough not to churn through a $700 tank of oil in two weeks.
As it turns out, I still live in a shed, the fall insulation fix proving to have been a snake oil sales job on a naïve Come from away. Sara and Warren, back from their long trip not even a week, are having acclimatization issues.
“Can we each give you ten bucks and turn the heat up a little?” Sara asked yesterday through her chattering teeth.
Doing the heat per oil litre math, I figured thirty bucks might buy an extra two degrees for about six hours and said, “Nope. You’d have to make it a hundred extra bucks each, per month, and even then, you’ll be walking around with a blanket.
“Life Lesson Number One: Don’t ever buy a house without insulation,” replied student Sara.
While the three grab their skates, I listen to Elvis Presley’s A Little Less Conversation blast away on the outdoor speakers. Bopping my hips to its infectious beat, I watch the skaters. I’d actually heard about this outdoor rink the summer before I moved to Halifax, back in LuluLemon Land. My neighbour Rosie, an avid speed skater, had talked enthusiastically about the rink after I’d mentioned my new flat was in Halifax’s North End. A hop and a skip from Duncan Street, the ice is the size of three hockey rinks and was originally built for the 2011 Canada Games. Post the event, the city converted it to a community rink, free skate rentals to boot.
The four of us, all laced up, hit the ice.
A little boy zooms around me, furiously pumping his arms, the flash of blades a blur as he glides one foot expertly over the other to skate faster, faster, faster. A few of the smaller kids drop like flies, legs and arms noodle splats on ice, hats and coats crumpling into brightly coloured puddles. In seconds, though, a Gumby like move has them up on their blades and gone again.
The hockey players and figure skaters stick out in the crowd, their effortless elegance a picturesque ode to Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000-hour practice rule. An older man does perpendicular switchbacks on the ice ahead of me, mesmerizing me for a full entire loop. I hear ABBA’s Dancing Queen, and suddenly remember being seventeen, underage Sabine and I in Waterloo Inn disco, Ruby’s, dancing the night away.
I skate by Warren, Sara and Liane, standing to the side of the ice for a breather, and when a turnaround to wave back at them fails, my skates slip out from beneath me and I plunk down on the ice, bottom first. Warren is at my side in seconds, and after helping me up, he admonishes for falling, the way I used to do to him when he crossed the street without looking, speaking out of fear, rather than anger.
As my son skates a few rounds with me, out of nowhere, postcard perfect snowflakes descend from the sky. In my throat arrives a lump, that one that comes when something completely unplanned rolls over into a sweetness you know you going to lock away to revisit again later, even as you’re busy living that moment.
After we’re home from the skate, I put on my multi-layered jammies and crawl into bed, hot water bottle at my feet, electric blanket on high and several duvets piled atop my body. I leave the other three in the new TV room, christened the new Cave, to draw upon the mighty Netflix and the latest season of Master Chef. My nephew Spencer returns home from his night class while I’m still awake. When he opens the door to the Cave, Warren’s shrieks of glee roar into my room.
“Spencie! You’re home! Gimme a hug!”
Turning off my light, I comfy up, and pull the covers up around my shoulders, knowing the two twenty-something men in the next room are clasping each other in a giant cousin hug and Sara is rolling her eyes at them as if to say, “Settle down, boys. You just saw each other four hours ago.”
My house is full again, and it’s lovely.
A best friend’s gift…
Wednesday afternoon an email from my best friend pops into my inbox. My Monday missive to her was jam-packed with news of East Coast friends, my work search, book writing, Duncan Street life, oysters, Sara and Warren, and a wee dose of middle-age angst.
In the first few sentences, she says aren’t I happy “every every every day” about making the decision to move to Halifax. She well knows the answer. I love it here, and I’m having the adventure of my life. So yes, “every every every day” I’m happy for that decision. And sure, she’s also right about the Duncan Street house being more of a ‘fixed’ address situation.
Leslie and I only lived in the same city of Waterloo for a scant four years. When we were both thirty-four, she moved to Burlington. After that it was the Grand Bahamas, then Oakville, next was Jersey in the Channel Islands, followed by London, England, and now Cayman. We had a running joke that we always moved at the same time because each time she pulled up stakes, so did I, except until Halifax, my moves were all within Waterloo.
My sons had all asked me for the details on the trip to Cayman. “Oh, that Leslie,” they’d said, laughing away as I relayed first-hand news of the woman they refer to as their other mother. And then, she’d sent me home from the Cayman visit with those birthday earrings, which I’ve worn every day since returning to Halifax, though it’s not the visit or the sea that comes to mind when I see or touch them.
Leslie had caught me at the bottom of the two-year free fall that had followed the end of my apoplectic second marriage. She’d encouraged the Halifax move over emails and FaceTime calls and many visits. And then eighteen months ago, she’d flown to Waterloo to help box me up my life and then driven with Bella, me and a jam-packed car the 1892 kilometres to Halifax. She’d spent a week setting up the Cave, organizing the teeny space into the beginnings of a home. In the year and a half since I’ve lived here as I struggled to put myself back together while carving out a life, she’d said all the right things at just the right times.
She thinks sometimes I don’t listen to her. Recently she’d given me the gears for refusing to try oysters with her, miffed when I’d up and downed one with a new friend I hardly knew. What she doesn’t realize is that it was her groundwork with all the oyster talk that had me ready to give one a go in the first place.
Settling has got nothing to with my address, fixed or not. I don’t know how long I will be here, and knowing doesn’t seem important or a question that needs an answer right now. At some point, someone or something will likely come along that will make me want to answer that question. Probably, I will send multiple notes to Leslie, debating whether to stay or go, and it’ll all work out. Until then, I’m free floating with the sea and the wind, my foot settled firmly aside my best friend’s solid stance.
In the meantime, it’s back to finding work, finishing my book, chasing down a publisher and learning how to shuck oysters before Friday. My Halifax friends Bob and Cindy are coming Friday night. Not to worry, I’ve told them both to dress very, very warmly.
And by the by Leslie, I love you, and thanks.
* * *
PS Living the dream, writing eight hours a day and seven days a week (though mama must soon find paid work cuz she needs a new pair of shoes), the book is skipping along, full first draft scheduled for completion in May.
PPS Photos and videos!
The Emera Oval skating rink.