A Winner of the Authors on 8th Writing Contest
BY CARRIE STEWART
It was April 26 and talk of the breakup was in the air. It could be any day now.
You couldn’t buy groceries without talking about it; you couldn’t go to the post office without hearing about it; you couldn’t wake up in the morning without thinking about it.
An energy that had been in hibernation all winter would soon be released. Once the breakup had happened, the melt would be rapid; parkas would be returned to the back of closets, and boots, mitts and toques would be packed away and forgotten for another year.
Like everyone, Annie and John waited eagerly and, like everyone, they placed their bets as to the exact day the breakup would happen. That year, the conversation between them had run like this:
“What’s your bet on the breakup, then?” John asked, as every year, but with a slightly nervous, edgy tone that was unusual.
“Well, I don’t know, do I?” Annie snapped irritably as she didn’t do every year, but this time John had asked during Coronation Street. Then, a couple minutes later, during the commercial break, “Uh … when was it last year?”
“May 6th,” he said, fidgeting with his fleece zipper. “May 9th is the average.”
“Well, May 9th, then.”
“What about global warming?”
“Well, May 5th, then. Uh … 12:57 p.m.” she said.
John bet May 3, 5:10 p.m. It was the longest conversation they’d had in a week. Then like always, before bed:
“Did you plug the car in?” Annie asked.
And so, to bed. Though John never seemed to be able to sleep, these days, Annie slept as usual, “Like a dead person,” as John said.
John and Annie, Annie and John, had been together for 18 years by then. They met when they were both volunteer ambulance attendants and were assigned to work together. It hadn’t been a particularly romantic courtship.
Annie had heard about John, and she wasn’t about to be played. He was 12 years older than her, besides. When he told her she had pretty eyes, she frosted over and told him to look at the road. When he tried again, saying that the curve of her neck was elegant, she snorted, “Bull. As if you can even see my neck under my parka and two scarves.”
The ice between them was broken when John had given up on Annie. He accidentally let out a wallop of a loud fart one spring evening in the ambulance when Annie was driving. She’d had to pull over, she was laughing so hard. And when their shift was over and John asked Annie if she wanted to join him for a beer, she did.
They moved in together two months later. Instead of backpacking around Europe as planned, Annie decided John was worth sticking around the North for … at least for a while.
John was more fun than anyone she’d met, and so what if he didn’t want to have children … she didn’t mind. She wasn’t sure she wanted them, either; and besides, she was 22 – lots of time. Europe would still be there.
A few years later, when she started to worry that time was passing her by and she still hadn’t dipped her toes in the Mediterranean, John suggested they both take a month off work and have what he called, by turns, “an epic” or “a trip of a lifetime”.
He’d never much thought to travelling, himself. Yukoner born and raised, his infrequent trips to Vancouver, Edmonton and Calgary were matters of business necessity and served only to solidify his love for home and to form his opinion of cities as “ant piles”.
But he could see the faraway look in Annie’s eyes when she talked about Europe, and he didn’t like the idea of her going alone or, even worse, of her not going at all. They bought Eurail passes and saw as much as they could in a month.
It wasn’t enough time for Annie, though John didn’t realize it. To him, a month away from home was an eternity, and it really was a trip of a lifetime. To Annie, the trip served only to whet her appetite.
The next time Annie suggested a trip away, about a year after they’d returned from Europe, John thought it was too soon to ask for extra time off again.
“It was a year ago!” she said. “Come on! Look … your pick … we didn’t make it to Portugal, last year, so we could try there and maybe go back to Barcelona, too. You liked Barcelona, didn’t you?
Or if Portugal and Spain don’t float your boat this time, we could try the Caribbean. Yvonne was telling me there are some great deals on Caribbean cruises lately. Or maybe you’d like to be a bit more adventurous and go on an African safari? Come on … your choice … I’m game for all of it!”
“Aw, Annie, I just don’t know. It’s going to be a stretch for Rob at work. But why don’t you go? If Yvonne and you were talking about travelling, maybe you wanna just go with her? You know I’m just not the travelling sort.”
Yvonne and Annie did end up going on a cruise that year and travelled so well together they went to Spain and Portugal the next year, and after that, somewhere different every winter. Occasionally Annie would ask John to go places with her, but his lack of enthusiasm was clear and he never begrudged her going without him, although he missed her when she was gone.
He told her he’d run out of gas in his interior travel tank. When she tried to refuel him by showing him enticing travel brochures, he told her that not only was his travel tank out of gas, but that his engine was kaput. He felt lost and out of sorts when travelling; he couldn’t understand why people wilfully put themselves through the discomfort of unfamiliarity.
But he always encouraged her to go on ahead without him.
After that, the question of children surfaced. Annie wanted them, she had decided. This was as bewildering to John as her need to travel, but far more difficult a dilemma to solve.
“Look, Annie, you know I was up front with you right from the start on this …”
“Yes, I know, but it’s not like I was deceiving you. I was 22 then. I’m 32 now,” she said. “It’s not an unusual thing to want.”
“No, but … well, for me it’s … it’s just not me, that’s all. I don’t have anything against other people having kids, but I’m just … I’m not doing it. I don’t want to hurt you, but I’m just not doing it. I can’t.”
There were tears, of course, on both sides, and for a few weeks it seemed inevitable that Annie would leave. There was no compromise, no “you go on ahead without me” that John could offer.
But, finally, Annie told John calmly that she had come to terms with it and that she could see her life with John and without children, but not with children, without John. His relief was complete, but cautious.
“You’re sure, now? I don’t want to be the source of pain for you, you know that. I really only want to make you happy, but you know that’s one thing I can’t do even for you. It’d kill me, but I’d rather you left me if it meant you’d be happy and I wasn’t holding you back.”
Annie thought to herself that the trips with Yvonne would be enough, but that a lifetime without John would not. She never mentioned the subject again after that night. But a couple of years later, and seemingly for no reason in particular, they both started to notice that they were arguing more and more.
John’s expanding waistline, inattentiveness and unwillingness to travel with her; her boredom and tendency to nag; all was fair game between them except for the done-and-dusted, already-answered question of whether or not they should have a child.
Then the arguments withdrew and subsided once more. First the silences in-between arguments grew longer and more stagnant, and then they eased into a comfortable quiet, which was rarely interrupted by argument or anything else passionate, but which made each feel warm and secure enough not to complain; at least, not out loud and not to each other.
They were good people who volunteered for the community and, except when they had to put the siren on the ambulance, they lived a quiet life.
When Yvonne asked her once if she was happy, Annie shrugged.
“I’m content, I guess. I’d tick the ‘satisfactory’ box, I think. Yup. You know … Whatever.”
“Wow. That sure does sound convincingly ecstatic and bursting with enthusiasm for life!” said Yvonne, and the two of them laughed hysterically – or the margaritas did.
On May 3, John arrived home from work with alcohol on his breath. He’d been acting strangely for a least a week, but told Annie each evening that he was just stressed at work, which she accepted so that they could ease into silence and television again.
“What’s the matter? Bad day again?”
“Ah well,” she said. “Roast pork for dinner, anyway. How bad can life be when there’s roast pork for dinner?” Then she noticed the smell coming from John. “You went to the pub, eh? And were you … smoking?” she asked in surprise.
He nodded. “I had a couple,” he answered. “A couple beers, a couple cigarettes.” He hadn’t smoked in at least 15 years.
Then she noticed his face and that he wouldn’t look at her. “What is it, John?” she asked, and what was that she was suddenly feeling – fear? She took his hands in hers and pulled him to sit down at the kitchen table.
There was silence, and she touched his face, trying to force him to look at her. He looked down again. “I don’t know how to say this …”
“Say what?” she asked.
“I need to tell you something …”
When eventually he’d told her, everything was different. “Eighteen years, eighteen years,” she could only repeat. He said he would come back for his things in a few days.
“Where are you going,” she said – not a question, but an accusation.
“Yes, I’m going to … hers … to Helen’s. It’s the right thing to do. I have to. And … I want to. I’m so sorry, Annie.”
“Suddenly it’s important to you to be a father, hey?”
“I’m so sorry, Annie. I didn’t plan this, honest. I – I never cheated on you before. This was it, and it … well, it just turned out like this, and I … I’m so sorry,” he said, reminding her of a child apologizing to his mother for breaking a cherished ornament or a lamp, rather than an 18-year relationship.
“How long have you known?”
“Helen told me about the baby about a week ago,” he said, watching as he traced the placemat edge with his fingertips. “I haven’t been able to tell you. I didn’t know how to say it. But I set today as my deadline, so … Oh, Annie, I’m so sorry.”
“And you’ve been with her how long?”
“It started when you were in Belize, before Christmas. I was drunk. I didn’t mean it and neither did she, and then over the past few months–”
“Then you started to mean it.”
He looked her in the eyes for the first time that evening – and only nodded.
There was silence for a minute, and John whispered, “I don’t expect you to forgive me.”
“It wouldn’t matter to me if you did,” she answered, and was shocked to hear her own calm, even voice. “Get out.” Saying those two words, she thought, might trick herself into thinking that she was throwing him out, rather than the truth – he was leaving her.
“May 3rd. He was right,” she thought later that night. “Not much of a bet when he knew.”
When had the cracks begun, though? And why weren’t the cracks on her side? Surely she was the one who should have made the break and he was the one who should have watched her go.
She should have run from him from the start, travelled the world, lived … lived! Now, John would be a father, which he had never wanted, and she was not going to be the mother of his child, which she had always wanted.
She had understood this last part, before, had reconciled herself to it, but that Helen Lawrence would be … that anyone else would be …
She pictured John lying asleep, just streets away, stretched out beside his pregnant lover, his arm draped over her swelling belly, the three of them sleeping away peacefully, a solid, ready-made family, drifting further and further away from Annie.
Now John would sleep well; but now Annie was wide awake.
Next morning, after a sleepless night, Annie dabbed some of John’s hemorrhoid cream under her eyes to ease the swelling and show the world that nothing was wrong. She grabbed for her parka, but then looked out the window, which wasn’t covered in frost for the first time in months.
She always had mixed feelings about this time of year; of course, like everyone else, she longed for the long months of snow and ice to melt into warmth. But there was a certain ease to being engulfed within a warm, friendly parka each morning.
Each year she parted with her parka, reluctantly, as spring arrived, quite unlike John, who wore shorts at the first sign of leaf buds forming on the trees, often while the temperature was still below freezing.
She always felt it was too sudden – this abrupt expectation to expose yourself again and engage in a relationship with a nature you’d forgotten. Soon, naked feet would be groped by sandals and white arms and legs would be bared and caressed by sun.
Unreal as it felt, at that moment, there would be a time for sunlight and warmth again. It was worth waiting for. But for now, she left the parka on and decided to walk by the travel agent’s window on the way to work. Maybe it was time for a trip without John or Yvonne.