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In August of 1994, I bought a twenty-year-old ferro-cement ketch on the coast of British Columbia. I did this in an effort to distract myself--at the time I was so absorbed in self-pity my eyes were crossed. I had been wandering around marinas sorrowfully leaning my head against dock pilings and losing my train of thought; I had the demeanor of an aging milk cow with the scours. People who met me thought I was either drunk or deranged. The most immediate cause of all this was a woman half a continent away who had been headed further for months. My sadness at our parting was histrionically out of proportion to anything that could have been justified by events.
I spent weeks chain-smoking and staring at the ground. At the time I was working as a doctor at a summer camp for Canadian army cadets in the B.C. Interior. It was an absurd job and I made an absurd picture, shuffling around the dusty parade grounds, hands in pockets, sighing grandly and ignoring the columns of pubescent boys and girls marching stiffly past me. I was twenty-nine and had been out of the army myself for only a year.
That summer, many Canadian medical officers were being sent to Rwanda and Bosnia. The army had always provided a doctor for the camp, but now they were short-staffed, which is how I had come to be there. When they called to ask me to fill in, I was working up in the Arctic, on the coast of Hudson Bay. It was late June, and so cold that even the river ice hadn't broken yet. The sea pack was solid to the horizon. I said yes without even thinking.
At the time I was drifting and had been since the previous summer--ever since leaving the army. I had been in Winnipeg, on my way to the job in the Arctic, when I met her. There was a week of slow suppers and long, delicious conversation. This was earlier in the winter and she was gentle, very beautiful and a little melancholic, and I was entranced by her. When it came time for me to fly north, we made imprecise plans about how we would meet. We agreed to call and write often. I started work at a small hospital on the shore of Hudson Bay. My second day there, an old man became very sick and needed to be transferred to the intensive care unit in Winnipeg. I volunteered to accompany him. I called her from the airport. After leaving the hospital I took a cab straight to her house.
During the time I was up in the Arctic, we telephoned one another almost daily but avoided the question of whether I should move to the city or she should move up there. It was an obvious but awkward issue. Part of the delight we took in seeing one another was the intermittency of our contact. As if that made our visits more potent, rather than, with increasing time and distance, less and less. It is a banal and familiar circumstance. Among soldiers, or the nurses in the Arctic, it is a cliche.
Then the army phoned, with this job in British Columbia. I would be just as far from Winnipeg, working there. Off I went.
About a month after I arrived at the summer camp she came out to visit me. We stayed together in a resort near the army base with the memorable name of Teddy Bear Lodge. There were small cabins with televisions and a swing set for children. The mountains rose up all around, and across the highway from our cabin was a long, deep lake. We tried to swim there but it wasn't possible. It was much too cold.
Before this we had only had the hurried, lip-biting, kiss-filled visits in Winnipeg when I had come down on the air ambulance. The Teddy Bear Lodge got our hopes up, but in the sustained company of the other, we each forgot two-thirds of the words we knew. After two weeks she went home. Saying goodbye at the bus terminal, we didn't confront the issue.
A month later, she telephoned me at work to tell me about the man she had met. She told me his name and apologized. She subsequently married him and they now have a baby daughter. Our mutual friends tell me that she is happier than they've ever seen her. Her graciousness and kindness in our limited intimacy only made my anguish more potent and my feeling of victimhood more laughable. To feel unentitled to your self-pity about triples it.
My roommate at the summer camp became alarmed and embarrassed as he watched me involute into a black and anguished puddle of self-obsessed sorrow. It felt ridiculous even at the time. I was tearing my clothes over one of the most abbreviated love affairs I'd ever had; it made no sense. If I went back to the city she lived in, which I had lived in before the army, I thought that I would drown. In the army, desperate for distraction, I had daydreamed about sailing on the ocean. I was from Manitoba; I knew nothing about sailing and had never been on the ocean in a little boat of any sort.
I found myself standing on a dock in Genoa Bay, on the southern tip of Vancouver Island, in the company of a sixty-year-old man with a whiskey nose the size and color of a bruised and overripe beet. His name was Peter Ericson and he owned a sailboat brokerage, but his consuming passion seemed to be the promulgation of his theory that the Pacific Islands and most of the New World had been colonized by an ancient Scandinavian seafaring culture that revered magnetic fields. And maybe herring.
Before Ericson would even let me see his boats he had showed me his publications in the local Boat Journal. These were supposed to be advertisements for his business, but in fact they were long rants on the forgotten nobility of the Great White Gods, the Vikings, who journeyed forth in the ancient mists to show the less savvy races just how it was done. But the ghosts of the Norse sailor-folk could rest easy now, for Ericson had figured it out. And was bound to inform the world. Or, at any rate, me.
From the Hardcover edition.