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Contemporary Fiction

We walked along the wind-blasted shore, where the scimitar wings of a lone osprey sliced great arcs through the late-winter sky. Syrita was about to drive back to the city. She shoved her hands deep in her pockets, cheeks ruddy from the breeze. “You’ve got Room 201 for the long weekend. No car, no cash, no credit card. No Wi-Fi. Just get the damn thing done. Okay?”

I nodded. I felt immeasurable gratitude for her “tough love” approach but between us, it was taboo to say anything sentimental, such as “Thanks for rescuing me, yet again.” During the drive here, to the village of Thornbury, I had bewailed my impossible assignment, my debut review for an internationally renowned magazine. She’d heard how wracked with guilt I felt: how patchy and incomplete I feared my reading was; how much I worried that bad blood between the author and me could interfere with an even-handed review. When I turned toward Syrita, I saw her glancing at her watch, a motion as clear and fast as a shiny blade.

“C’mon, Lin, buck up,” she said. “You agonize so much over critiquing the work of others that it takes years off your life.” She was exasperated, I could tell.

“Yes! That’s it!” I said.

We reached the promontory. I saw the white-tipped indigo waves, and wondered how the osprey knew exactly where to dive for fish.

“Visualize this,” Syrita said. “Lay out each worry, like it’s end of season, and you are laying out your winter clothes. The ones you’ve been wearing all winter. Acknowledge them. Then fold them up, pack them away, and start the new season.”

I closed my eyes and visualized. First, the “winter clothes”: the doubts and tribulation lying there like turtlenecks and puffy coat that I was so heartily sick of. Then I imagined putting them all away. I could do this review; I could set aside my feelings of being an impostor.

 “The magazine is dying for someone with your background,” she reminded me. “They want a good reviewer for this global-warming novel. It’s the start of a trend.”

“Cli-fi,” I said. “Climate crisis fiction.”

“You have sterling credentials,” Syrita continued. “You’ve paid your dues… worked as a glaciologist at McMurdo Station until your toes froze. And since then, you’ve published a novel… you know what makes a great story.”

She put her arm around my shoulder and drew me close. We’d been through so much together: best friends since elementary school days, bridesmaids at each other’s weddings, even sweated through our thesis-writing days. I’d branched off to study glaciers while she’d studied history—but we’d always kept in touch. And now she was putting me in pseudo-lockdown so that I would complete the review I’d agreed to do. “Are you ready?”

I scanned the sky for the osprey, but it was gone. “I guess.”

*       *       *

We trudged back to the car and she drove five minutes to Penny’s Motel, a 23-bedroom motel still hanging its original sign circa 1955. Nestled in the crook of the Blue Mountains, it lay on the outskirts of Thornbury, near the Craigleith Ski Club, and was the perfect getaway for part-time ski bums—or stressed-out critics striving to make a deadline.

“Hey, look. Spa treatment can be your reward,” she said, slipping me a brochure promoting massages and “hydrotherapy circuits on 25 acres of natural forest directly overlooking the Niagara escarpment.”

“Not my thing,” I said, pushing it back.

“You still haven’t been to a spa?” she said, her eyes lighting with evangelical fervor.

“Not even tempted.”

“Good,” she said. “The perfect place to get something done.”

*       *       *

She was right; I did have my demons to wrestle with. I called the biggest fattest one William because he reminded me of the schoolyard bully who used to sit on my chest and try to kiss me while Syrita pummelled him frantically to get off. We’d vanquished him in grade six, I think. I felt like Googling his name—then remembered: no Wi-Fi.

I pulled out the advanced readers’ copy of Cold Giants Awaken, shaggy with yellow stick-it notes, The title referred to melting glaciers, which formed the stark white backdrop against which the action took place “at a remote station” spookily reminiscent of McMurdo.  “The world was getting hotter but Joe Amundsen had never been colder in his life,” I wrote. “Hotter” or “warmer,” I fretted. Never mind! Get this thing done! I reached for the flask of Jack Daniels I’d brought.

I was not going to let Syrita down. She was the best friend of all best friends. Self-appointed guardian angel. I owed her my life—but let me not count the ways. Not today, anyway. I had a review to write. I had to quell the anxiety of leaving my normal wallflower position, striding into the limelight, and publicly declaring an opinion on a book written by a Golden Boy. I had to dull the agony of being a critic.

Sure, I had an opinion about the book. I had an insider’s angle as to why the flaws were flaws—and why, rarely, the novel managed to surprise and delight. I continued to wrestle with Demon William as I crafted my take-down. Tough love for the author. An honest review. For Syrita.

*       *       *

I was awakened by the sound of the next-door unit waking up: toilet flushing, shower pipe screaming, cupboard doors slamming. I realized I had keeled over on the bed, exhausted, sour with sweat and hangover-breath, the exuded vapors of a body metabolizing alcohol. My screen was dark—the laptop was out of power. I got up, hung the Do Not Disturb sign on the outer doorknob, had a pee, undressed, and slid between the sheets to grab a couple hours more shut-eye. As I drifted off, I reflected on day one. The review had been started. The review was half-finished. The review was nearly done. I felt like I’d broken through. It was all due to Syrita. Plus a little Jack Daniels to quell the opening jitters.

*       *       *

Sometime in the middle of day two, I was ambushed by homesickness. I woke up creaky, missing my comfortable bed. I missed my daily Wordle. I missed Ranger, my rescue German shepherd, who needed walkies at sunrise and sunset. I thought of Colin at home, binge-watching the Netflix series we’d agreed to watch together. He always descended into slob mode when I left town. Two years of WFH had soured us, had proven that adage about familiarity and contempt. I was sick of his grunts and farts and random bursts of exercise. And he complained I was irritable and undisciplined. Guilty as charged: who wouldn’t be moody if they were getting up every night with an old sick dog like Ranger? Colin and I withdrew from each other. But still I missed the lout. So, as Syrita had suggested, I “laid out the winter clothes” of my homesickness, acknowledged every familiar thing I was missing—and packed them away.

An hour later, I threw out the first draft of the review. It was too antagonistic. No sense committing career suicide. After all, Golden Boy was an established name—what did I know? I tore off the boxing gloves and put on the kid gloves. I began anew.

As pre-arranged, that night Syrita called me at 8 o’clock. (When was the last time I’d held a big plastic receiver to my ear?) She reported Colin had called her once to ask for the name of an emergency plumber. We had our chuckle. “How goes it with you?” she asked.

“I’m ready to come home now,” I said.

Now?” she said. “What, are you missing what’s-his-face so much?” The teasing in her voice was unmistakable. She knew I was fed up with Colin. “Remember to make sure you can substantiate every point you make. That magazine has killer fact-checkers, I’ve heard. Look up page numbers and quotes.”

I groaned.

“Just one more day, kiddo. Polish, polish,” she said. “Hey, why don’t you reward yourself tonight? Maybe go out to the spa? No, I’m kidding, I know you hate it.” The ice clinked in her glass. “Seriously, give it one more read-through before you call it done.”

“One more read-through,” I said in a monotone. I yawned. We rang off. What Syrita didn’t know is that I’d brought a make-up kit, high heels and a slinky wrap-around dress. The stuff I’d stopped wearing because, you know, WFH.

I unzipped that make-up kit now. I did my face and slipped on new duds, transforming into glamor-girl. She had said “Reward yourself,” right? I was running a tab at Penny’s already… why not check out their retro lounge?

I struck up a conversation with the second good-looking guy I met. First good-looking would have been too cheap. Syrita was right; I was in a mood to celebrate. My review was done. My time in purgatory at Penny’s Motel would soon be at an end. And my time with Colin was done now, too.

*       *       *

I woke up, face down on the bed, filled with revulsion. The guy had no technique to speak of. No style. Just brute force, get the job done.

Yes, I would have to change my review.

I pushed myself off the bed, re-wrapped the wrap-around. John came out of the washroom, enveloped in shampoo-y mist. Tanned and rugged, he looked like the gorgeous ski instructor you might find adorning the cover of a fantasy novel.

“Gotta go,” I said, finger-combing my hair. “Big deadline… something I missed.”

He looked bewildered, like we had flipped our scripts. Which, maybe, we had.

“Nothing personal, John,” I said, “I had a lovely hook-up and I hope you did, too.” I hugged him and walked out that door, thinking, gosh, did I get that right? Was his name John?

Back at Room 201, I changed into sensible clothes and went for a brief walk along the shore. I felt the strong wind pushing against me, whipping my longish hair into my face, like a force actively dissuading me from continuing. Like a rude bouncer barring me from an exclusive club. This began to stir the contrarian in me. Why kowtow to a Golden Boy? I owed the readership something more honest than the fawning second draft I’d written.

I raced back. Syrita would be coming by tomorrow to pick me up. I had no time to lose. I wrote, rewrote and revised all day. At the 8 o’clock check-in call I could hear Ranger’s throaty “woof” in the background.

“I’ve had a change of heart,” I told her. “Draft two was smarmy—I tossed it. Draft three is now self-righteous yet incisive…guaranteed to aggravate the author and cause the collapse of my career as a professional writer.”

She laughed. “That’s why people will read it—you are fearless!”

“Only on paper.”

“Yes, well… that’s where it counts.” She told me to expect her at 9 AM.

*       *       *

The next morning, Syrita’s car pulled up outside Room 201 at noon. I was nearly sick from caffeine and nerves. She offered profuse apologies but no explanation.

“Hey, look, done!” I said, wagging the third draft at her (the paper copy, printed at Penny’s Motel front desk).

“Wow! I knew you could!” Forced jollity. She put on a smile and grabbed my duffel bag. She drove out the parking lot and put on the turn signal to head straight home.

“What?” I said in mock dismay. “Where’s that trip to the spa you promised? I could use some strong hydrotherapy about now.” I was feeling so celebratory, so relieved. So grateful she had insisted on this pseudo-lockdown. For her, I would even descend to the Circle of Hell marked “Sauna This Way.”

“Maybe not today.” She kept driving, her hands on the steering wheel at ten and two, and did not make eye contact.

“Wait, did you settle up the bill?” I said.

“Uh-huh.”

“I hope you weren’t shocked by it. You did say I could charge meals and bar tab to it. I myself was stunned, sixteen bucks for toast and eggs…” I knew I was babbling, putting words between us like mounds of bubble wrap. My mind churned as the scenery of the Niagara Escarpment in early, early spring flew past. The season had switched, it seemed, over the course of the long weekend. From bare knobby winter branches raised in surrender to plump-budded boughs, arms raised in exultation.

“I sort of thought Colin might drive out with you,” I ventured.

“Colin?”

She said it so casually. I suddenly went on high alert. Click, click, click. The suggestion to “get out of the house for a bit.” The all-expenses-paid weekend away. The long weekend. The pre-arranged times for phone calls. That last call, when she sounded breathy and rushed. Ranger’s distant bark, as if he was trying to summon me. I gnawed on a chapped lip.

Colin. My albatross, the relationship that had passed its best-before date. Colin. I recalled lying there after our last love-making, feeling resentful and wishing I could find the re-boot button. That surreal night with John had been fun, spontaneous, ravishing. Perhaps I was testing the waters: how did it feel to be out in the dating scene? Did I still have what it takes—the courage to put myself out there, just like I’d done in the review?

Syrita kept her eyes glued to the road. A new hope started to fill my chest. Not just the peculiar lightness of meeting a tough deadline—with an honest review. But maybe she’d done me a massive favor on the personal front. Syrita… and Colin? A small ripple of how-dare-they indignation was diluted by a flood of relief. Someone else had the burden of announcing a break-up. Someone else could take the blame and bear the guilt of dumping the other.

She accelerated to pass a large semi loaded with lumber. I always fear: are those logs firmly chained in place? I held my breath. She caught my eye as she signalled and shoulder-checked to return to her lane. “There’s something you should know,” she began.

I squeezed the armrest, looking straight ahead.

“Ranger took a turn for the worse,” she said. “Without you around, he refused to eat and so couldn’t properly absorb his meds. The last time we spoke… Colin and I were with him in the vet clinic.”

“The veterinarian?”

“I’m sorry.” She put a finger under her sunglasses and wiped away a tear. “I figured a long weekend was not so long… but what do I know about dogs, eh?”

THE END

April 15, 2022 22:22

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