Under the streetlight in front of the Aberdeen Hotel is someone I’m not ready to see. The inevitability of this moment tugged at my consciousness that whole seven hours on the road. I walked through it in my mind, the words I would say, the expressions that I would allow to cross my face, and the ones I would work hard to suppress. I had decided I would smile, say hello, be polite. I had decided I would act emotionally mature, like twelve years of my life hadn’t been intertwined with another soul, so sticky are the surfaces of that love that I can’t seem to wash them away.
From this distance, in the low gloaming that sees Aberdeen through the midnight hours of summer, Scott Puzio hasn’t changed a bit. I’ve seen him once since he packed his truck and left me in Calgary. Small towns bring a crowd to a funeral and it was inevitable that Scott would be at my dad’s. We hardly talked that day, it was disjointed, polite, I think there was a hug. Today is different. I don’t have the shield of grief to protect me from displays of raw emotion. I have no right to be raw. I do a quick calculation in my head, five years; five years since I saw the taillights of his truck disappear.
“Scott’s here,” I say. Redundant. Obvious.
“You okay with that?” Matt asks.
“Of course, it’s been five years. I knew he would be here, he’s Mark’s best man,” I reply, heart in throat, feet dragging. Among the reasons that I came to Aberdeen this week, is the wedding of my high school best friend, Jess. Through the years Jess and I have lost and regained touch. At dinner Matt mentioned that everyone who was in town for the wedding was meeting at the Aberdeen Hotel tonight. There wasn’t an excuse in the world that would have gotten me out of it. So we set out, Katie, Matt and I, walking the ten blocks from Thistle Lane to Main Street.
“You should see his baby, Jacob. He is just the most perfect little guy,” Katie gushed, placing the knife directly between my ribs piercing my lungs.
I repeat in my head, I’ve got this. And I do. I totally have this. Too bad my feet won’t listen to my head. My toe hits uneven pavement, catapulting me forward, stumbling, my pace quickens to try and keep my feet even with my upper body, but my feet are too slow and my body is too far ahead. I fall. I feel the sting of pebbles grinding into my hands, the road rash leaving a raspberry on my elbow, and the distinct sound of my jeans ripping at my knees as they skid, along with my pride, against the solid, grey, concrete slab of cement. I wish I had hit my head and passed out.
Somewhere above me I hear Matt and Katie cry out in unison, “Anna!” But the blood pounding in my ears makes me deaf to anything else. And then, lump in my throat, moisture gathering in the corner of my eyes, I erupt in laughter. Because let’s face it, it’s laugh or cry, and frankly falling is funny.
“What the…Anna, are you okay?” That voice. That voice that I loved and then hated, and then yearned for. I am trying to stand up, but the laughter has me curled in a fetal position. I feel Matt’s hands reach under my arms and pull me up, and everyone is laughing.
“I’m okay, god Matt, aren’t you the mayor, you should fix this sidewalk,” I laugh patting my brother on the back. Well, if you have to see your ex-fiancé after five years of radio silence, why not make a complete ass of yourself? It might just get me some free drinks. Soon I see that beside Scott is Debbie, his new wife. She is pretty in a way that makes me jealous, not just because she is pretty, but she actually looks nice, ugh. While I want to hate her, I can’t. She has given Scott everything he ever wanted from me that I couldn’t give. For the briefest moment I can’t help wonder what she is doing with him, but then I remember he was easy to love for a long time.
* * *
There was a humming in my ears. Like when you put your ear to a conch shell and hear the ocean, but this time my ears are the conch shell, the lake water lapping around my body the ocean. The sun was hot, and even with my eyes closed tight, the brightness turned white against my eyelids. I’ve always been a good floater. Ever since I was little I loved just floating on my back, letting the water take me where it would, a mini-adventure in aquatics. In the water I felt weightless, not thinking about my too thick thighs, the bulge around my middle, or the fact that my chin is at risk to double, I just float.
“Da-dum, da-dum, da-dum, da-dum….” I could hear Scott singing the Jaws theme song. He was somewhere close by, but I didn’t dare open my eyes. There was so much peace here. I knew the minute I opened my eyes reality would strike, and the memory of my phone on the beach towel would intrude, it’s red light flashing like a beacon dragging me back to work. If I opened my eyes I would remember the fight that Scott and I had in the morning about his desire to start a family, to actually get married, and my reluctance to give up that part of me. It’s not that I didn’t want kids; I always pictured myself with chubby little babies hanging off my hip. But babies are a lot of work, and I already had a lot of work. The fact that I had made my career a priority over starting a family is the kindling that started most of our fights.
Scott and I had got together in high school. He had come to Aberdeen with his single mom and two younger sisters when we were in grade seven. All of the girls were instantly in love with him. His hair the color of a beach, his eyes the ocean who’s undertow I could easily get pulled into. He was new blood to a group of girls who had spent the past eight years recycling the same boys through our crush list. It wasn’t until the last part of grade twelve that he and I finally seemed to find each other. Starting our relationship in the typical high school fashion, drunk at a party. But we clicked, and found common ground in our desire to leave Aberdeen as soon as school was out.
When we first started dating I was torn between believing that we were destined to be high school sweethearts turned lasting love, and a quick high school relationship before heading to University and testing the waters of all the new guys I would meet there. And it was a little of both for a long time. We both headed to the University of Alberta the fall after graduation and we were in love. Throughout our four years of University we struggled, breaking up several times over the course of our respective programs, but somehow when we walked across the stage to pomp and circumstance we were back together, living in a tiny one bedroom apartment a couple blocks north of Whyte Ave.
I felt the water ripple around me, and I knew that he was getting closer. Just five more seconds, please. Then I felt an arm reach around my middle and pull me under, the coolness of the lake enveloped my senses, making me feel like this was how it should be, this was what life is about, this was why we should be a family. This was fun. I kicked and pushed, clawing my way back to the surface for air, laughing. It was easy being with Scott, and mostly satisfying. But there was something. A trickle of doubt, creating cracks, that with each fight felt like giant chasms.
It was a big deal that I had taken the entire long-weekend to be with Scott, heading to Sylvan Lake to camp. He knew it and I knew that he resented it. I had completed my MBA a few months prior, and had started a new position at Spencer Jacobs, the consulting firm I had been with since my undergrad. A few years ago I had started to be mentored by a senior Vice President within the organization and it had become all consuming. Scott put up with it when we moved to Calgary, he put up with the multiple business trips a month, he even put up with it when I decided to complete my MBA, an all consuming task for two years. All these decisions had been about me, and he had followed suit, and been supportive. But lately he was sick of waiting, and while I couldn’t blame him, I didn’t know how to get out of the spin cycle that had become my life.
Scott wrapped his arms around my middle, pulling me closer, his lips meeting mine. My feet tread water, and I forgot for a moment that we had left breakfast frustrated, cold eggs turned rubbery left uneaten on my plate. “I can’t keep waiting for the next career win to start our lives, Anna, that is no way to live, for either of us,” he had argued. He was right. That fact didn’t bring me closer to agreeing to set a date.
“I don’t like when we fight,” Scott said against my ear.
“I’m not a fan of it either, I’m sorry,” I replied.
“Do you think that we will ever figure this out?” He asked.
“I think you are right. We should quit waiting for something to be enough or right, we should set a date.”
“Let’s start there,” I said, pulling us to where our feet could touch the silty lake bottom. “Then we can talk more about timing for kids, I’m just not ready to say they will happen the moment that we tie the knot.”
“But you do want them, right?” Scott asked.
“Yeah, of course, one day…” I did, I really did, I just couldn’t commit to the timing. There was a selfish part of me that didn’t want to give up sleeping in on Saturday, or being able to leave the house at a moments notice.
* * *
“Let’s get you inside to clean up in the bathroom,” Katie says pressing a tissue, dug from the depths of her purse, to my elbow. I walk freely with her into the Aberdeen Hotel and am jarred by the complete change in the place. I had heard there was a new owner, I hadn’t heard that they replaced everything in the place. It was bigger, with pool tables at one end, new hardwood floors, a mix of high-top tables and booths, and it smelled clean, not like cigarettes and stale booze.
“Holy shit,” I say, taking it all in.
“I know, right? Jaime, the new owner, closed the place down for two months and gutted it. Look’s so much better, like you actually want to walk through the doors here,” Katie replies.
The bar is filled with people from the past, some whom I remember, others seem complete strangers. It is always uncomfortable coming home and running into people who “know” me. Small towns are like this, you grow up in them, your family remains there, and so people hear about you, and what you are doing in the big city, and so people think they know you. It’s like pretending to know what is going on in someone’s life from following them on Facebook, it’s all superficial, no one knows the truth. At least three people I don’t know walk up to me to say hello and that they heard I was in town.
We walk to the bathroom and I recall years ago, after way too many drinks, lying on the cold, dirty tile, Jess pulling me up and dragging me home.
“Are you okay?” Katie asks, and it strikes me how genuine the question is. She is staring at my reflection in the mirror. I take wet paper towel and dab at my elbow.
“Yeah, there’ll be a scab, but it’ll be fine.”
“That’s not what I mean,” Katie says. She turns and leans against the counter.
“You mean Scott?”
Katie looks down at her feet, “No, although I’m sure it can’t be easy to see him. I mean you? Matt wasn’t off when he said you, well you seem different, Anna.”
“Because I’ve lost weight?” I ask, my blood is starting to pound in my ears again, my cheeks reddening under the layers of make-up.
“It’s more than that.”
“You’re right, it is more than that. But I don’t want to get into it here, okay. Let’s just go have some fun, I could really use a drink. First round on me,” I grab my purse with one hand, Katie’s hand in the other and pull her toward the door.
“We will get back to it though,” Katie says.