A woman on the ferry leans over confidentially and tells you her baby sister was born missing bones. She outlines operations and medical procedures involving surgeries and physical therapies so grim they make the butterfly bandages on your chest curl. You don't know why she's telling you this. You look around for Claire. The woman, taut as a gymnast, tells you her sister was born to her parents late in life and without calcaneums, the bones in the feet that form the heels. Without intervention, there was no chance the child would be able to walk. She can walk now, sort of, but only because her feet were finally amputated and she wears prostheses. "For God's sake," she says, "Annibel's only two-years-old. No one can imagine how much she's suffered." Perhaps you are being self-indulgent, but you butt in to tell Annibel's sister that three weeks ago you had a mastectomy for breast cancer. But Annibel's sister clearly doesn't think that's anything. She looks at you accusingly. She says,Just be glad you have heels.
Heels. At this point, you're not really glad you have heels. You're not glad, either, for being underemployed. Or happy your house has a leaking roof and a flooding basement. Or pleased about the chemotherapy which will pitch you into menopause even though you and Claire have been trying to conceive. You even grouse about the single thick hair that sprouts, blackly, from your undiseased breast like a miniature flagpole. For Pride this year you will attach a tiny rainbow decal to its tip.
You could be dying, is the thing. Why would you care about heels?
The House of a Thousand Flowers, your B+B, clings desperately to the eroding cliffs of the Ucluelet shoreline. All other local accommodations, due to a convention of psychiatrists, are full. Anyhow, you like the name and it is owned and operated by a gay man. When he greets you, shambling out from under a vine-laden pergola, an elderly Lab retriever hops on three legs to his side. The owner wears only shorts and taupe vinyl sandals. Sleet cuts sideways though the air flattening his long chest-hairs. You yourselves are dressed in camouflage gear and bulky fleeces.
"Call me Skip," the man says and grabs your hand between two beefy ones. Plump, he has a fizz of pure white hair, a bulbous nose with exploded capillaries, and bowed legs covered with angry red scabs. His ankles are bigger than his calves.
Claire shuffles bags -- she's carrying her own and yours -- and vigorously shakes his hand. Because she has a fondness for things horticultural, she says, "So you're the gardener?"
"Oh, we do try," Skip says. Fat snowflakes melt on his lashes. He bends down and ruffles the scabious dog's neck. "We love our wisteria, don't we, snookums? In another month, the most darling racemes will positively drip from these vines." He points up. His nails, nearly an inch long, are perfectly buffed.
Indoors is as revoltingly green as outdoors was disappointingly brown. Skip leads you over green shag rugs that haven't been raked in decades, let alone cleaned, telling you to please feel free to use "the great room". You descend a staircase with a rickety cast iron banister, down to a basement room, his sandals snapping against his heels (is he grateful for his heels? Is he?). The dog's nails click on the linoleum.
"Ah," Claire says when he opens the bedroom door and stands back.
It is difficult to speak. The room is painted a high gloss bilious green. There is a double bed with a slippery K-Mart bedspread, thin strips of unframed but beveled and etched mirror plastered to one wall, a latticey orange swag lamp. Nowhere to sit except one lawn chair with frayed and hanging strapping.
Just be glad you have a butt.
"Oh," you say.
"We call this scrumptious palace the Tea Room," Skip says. "For you ladies, our premiere accommodations."
The view of islands and pounding surf is breathtaking. Rufous hummingbirds, unfazed by the weather, their throats a startling, iridescent green, dive-bomb red sugar water in a feeder, buzz like overgrown bees. Skip leads you around the corner to a hot tub. Algae covered, filthy, it steams under a sway-backed shack. Your absent breast itches unmercifully. You lie down gingerly, worried about filth and infection. You wanted this weekend to be special. Claire has spent nearly two months indulging you, and more months are on their way, the months of chemotherapy. You wanted to pamper her a little. You wanted to be able to spoil her. You cant yourself up on one elbow. "Does it stink in here or is it just my imagination?"
"House of a Thousand Promising Brown Sticks," you say. "Are you sure there isn't anywhere else we could go? A budget motel, even?"
"Everything was full," Claire says.
You strike a pact to make the best of it. Claire goes on a reconnaissance mission upstairs and comes back to announce that Skip has an inamorato, a tall muscular man with a goatee. Skip is easily sixty. Easily.
Claire says, "This place might be bearable mid-summer. I mean, at least we wouldn't be stuck indoors."
"The view is nice," you say bravely. The bay has filled with late afternoon fog, pierced through with shafts of lustrous sunlight. Even in your room, you can smell salt in the air overtop the faint odor of dirty sneakers. The rocks in the shallows are distantly blue, and you can hear sea lions braying. At the feeder, hummingbirds spiral.
Claire thumbs through a book on killer whales. She reads out a description of an orca grabbing a seal by the tail and pounding it so hard against the waves that the seal slams out of its skin.
To you, that sounds like cancer. It pounds you so hard against the waves your breast slams out of your skin and you bark like a seal. Just be glad you have nostrils. You can't yet sleep on your stomach or side and you can't get comfortable on your back.
First thing this morning, you stopped at your surgeon's to have your seroma drained. A seroma is a build-up of fluid against your chest wall, but its name reminds you of the disco song: My Seroma! The doctor aimed a syringe the size of Seattle at your chest and sunk the needle. Bloody fluid filled the canister. You felt nothing, naturally, because you are numb, numb, numb, your nerves severed.
After the doctor there was the race to Horseshoe Bay, then the endless wait at the ferry terminal because the first boat was full. Then came the fuel-stinking ferry itself, its food bland and unappetizing, its coffee weak as water, its strangers with their tales of woe, then a tedious, four hour drive across the island. You were really wrung out. You barely lifted your head for Cathedral Grove where old growth trees were bisected by the highway.
"Do we get to drive through one?" you asked.
Claire said, "That's California, silly. This is Canada."
You passed a grocery store with goats grazing on its roof. There was snow in the mountain passes, plenty of it, and cars off the road.
Now Claire informs you that exploring tidal pools can be dangerous. "There can be rouge waves," she says.
"Rouge waves," she corrects. "It says so right here." She holds out the book.
It's true. It says rouge waves not once but three times, surely no typo. You wonder what would happen if you and Claire were tickling a sea anemone, its cat-tongue tentacles closing around your fingers, and got struck by a rouge wave. Certainly you'd look healthier, less like a cancer crip. Perhaps there are other helpful waves too. Eyebrow pencil waves. Lip gloss waves.
"We got hit by a real mascara out there," you could tell your mother during your weekly call.
You can't scratch, but you are going insane. Claire tries to help, tracing ribbons of dead skin down your arm, across your back, but she can't reach the itch. She even tries scratching the air where your breast used to be.
"Let's go get something to eat," she finally says. "Let's blow this pop stand."
The restaurant is the Crab Bar. The theme is Sixties Nautical with fishnet looped across the ceiling holding dried starfish and shells, and a rowboat suspended over the bar. It's small, dim, crowded; you're shown to a table the size of a plate. Cigarette smoke billows towards you like fog, settling around your shoulders. You and Claire both order half crabs. You use nutcrackers, rooting around in the reddened shell with skinny forks; you dip the flesh in hot butter and feed each other.
Despite the struggling ambience, by the end of dinner you find yourself relaxing. You're away from the ever-present worries about having cancer (lumpectomy and radiation? mastectomy? chemo that improves your odds by only 7%?), from the cacophony of the city. You suck Claire's finger deep inside your mouth and confide fantasies of romance and raunchy sex, a room strewn with discarded clothing.
"Our room?" Claire asks.
For a minute, you don't understand what she means.
"We'd have to borrow Pine Sol and a mop," says Claire, "before I'd even consider letting you toss my bra on that floor. If Skip even owns Pine Sol and a mop."
So you have sex in your car, steaming the windows, the roar of the surf pounding in your ears.
"I couldn't bear to lose you," Claire whispers.
"You won't lose me," you say, although this is not what you believe.
"Promise you won't die," Claire says.
But you're mute now, busy. Anyway, how can you make such a vow?
You aren't sure how it happens, but you're on your knees, licking, and Claire's elbow jams the horn, piercing the night. You can't get it to go off. You punch it and fiddle with wire under the dash, but it keeps blaring. Suddenly, a Pacific Rim park ranger shines his light in the driver's window, his face spectral above it. You are tugging on clothes.
"It won't go off," Claire says, rolling down the window as she struggles into her pants. She pauses a second. "Aren't you Skip's boyfriend?"
"Here," Skip's boyfriend says and reaches under the dash just like you did. The noise ceases at once. "You'd be surprised," he says. "I have to do this all the time. By the way, do you have a parking pass?"
"You have to pay to park here. Twenty-four hours a day."
Neither of you says anything. Winded, you hold your coat up to your breast and your incision. All you want is for Skip's boyfriend to disappear.
"I'm sorry, but I'm going to have to write you up. It's the law."
"But we're staying at your house!" Claire protests.
He scribbles, then passes a ticket through the window, tips his hat and says, "Have a good evening, ladies."
Just be glad you have a scar. There is no sign of Skip or his dog back at The House of a Thousand Untrue Advertisements. You pull snowy terrycloth robes from the closet. You vacillate -- nude? suited? -- and settle, for their protective value, on suits. You tiptoe across the veranda and regard the hot tub. It smells like decaying vegetative matter. But when Claire sheds the complimentary robe, she pulls a used condom wrapper from her pocket. Gingerly, you dip your hand into yours and pull up used tissues.
"Let's just crash," Claire says. "Okay? The sooner we go to sleep, the sooner we'll be up and out of here."
First, though, you have to use the communal washroom with its filthy floor and toilet, its pubic hairs in the sink. Before crawling between the inexplicably clean sheets, you try to lock the patio door but it jams open, a cold sliver of wind whistling inside. You settle into bed, kissing Claire as if your life depends on it.
Just be glad you have lips.
Late that night, you are wakened by Skip settling new guests in the room beside you. You can hear every word they say. They discuss hernia operations. You roll into Claire, who holds you.
In the morning, the couple next door make love. As far as you can tell, there is not a lot of what heterosexuals call foreplay, but their bed does slam against the wall behind your heads, joggling your bed. You watch Claire's head slide up and down in time to the man's thrusts. When the man comes, he repeatedly grunts. The woman doesn't come at all, as far as you can tell, but she does say she loves him.
"Good," he mumbles.
"Do you love me?" she asks.
There's a pause, then she says, "Drew? Drew? Are you asleep? Wake up."
"Claire," you whisper, "we have to get out of here."
"We could go back home," Claire says.
But Vancouver seems as distant as Paris, or Rome. And anyhow, the Cancer Agency is waiting with cyclophosphomide, 5FU and methotrexate. You don't want to go back. Not yet.
"Let's not have breakfast here. I'll take you to town," Claire says.
"Is that in the budget?" you ask, but Claire doesn't answer, just trickles kisses across your forehead and cheeks.
Outside the window, it is sunny and gorgeous; the hummingbirds are already feeding.
When you wander upstairs to get a glass of water for your medications, the new couple introduces themselves as Trudy and Drew, from Chemainus. They are both high school science teachers, Trudy tells you.
"When we travel, we collect Teachable Moments," she says with a little giggle.
"TMs," Drew says, "that we can share with our students back home. We're planning to do a unit on mammals of the sea."
Skip calls out, "Coffee or tea? I'm scrambling eggs."
You stand in the kitchen door and politely decline the food. Skip doesn't have a dishwasher; last night's supper dishes swim in a sink of scummy water. Islands of beige, solidified fat skim across them.
"Can I please have a glass?" you ask. A cupped hand would probably be more sanitary.
"You paid to eat here," Skip says, his voice thick with hurt feelings.
"My sweetie wants to take me out."
Skip cracks an egg and turns to face you. His eyes, blue and rheumy, are actually damp. "Oh, please?" he says. "Pretty please with a cherry on top?"
You pause, capitulate.
Trudy messes with the telescope. Drew moves behind her and twines his arms around her.
"Scan the horizon nice and slow," he says. "That's it, honey. Nice and slow."
Trudy tilts the telescope past the sheltered bay towards open water.
"Twenty thousand grey whales migrate past here every spring," Drew tells you. Being a teacher, he's the only one who can read guide books. "Also, there are thirty or forty resident whales."
"I see a blow!" Trudy cries.
You can see blows even without binoculars, but you don't say anything. Grey whales -- big deal, you think. Rocks with fountains. Not that you've ever seen one up close. You came through here with an ex, once, and went out on one of the Canadian Pacific boats. Drenched, cold, the closest you came to a whale sighting was the gunwale. Still, you're willing to try again for Claire's sake, even if the jostling breaks open your incision.
Trudy crows, "TM!" and she and Drew both laugh.
Claire wanders up behind you and puts her chin on your shoulder. Skip says, "Tea's ready, everyone," and carries in a tray of steaming mugs. There is a Tweetie Bird mug and a mug from Tim Hortons. A Charles and Di wedding mug. Considering the divorce and the princess's death, you wouldn't imagine this mug would be happily evocative, but it makes Trudy gush.
She says that Drew proposed on the beach the night before.
Claire says, "Well, congratulations." She turns helplessly to you. "Weren't we on our way out?"
You explain that Skip had already started breakfast. But what you're thinking is that if Drew and Trudy were just engaged, why were they discussing hernias? Why did she have to beg him to tell her he loves her? You say, "Claire and I have been married for seven years."
Trudy's face furrows. "Married?" she says. "What do you mean?"
"Silver bells?" says Claire dryly. "Garters? Bouquets? Shaved legs? Veils?"
Trudy gasps. "Are you guys lesbians?"
"TM!" you chirp. This was always your goal in life, and why you became a lesbian: You wanted to be someone's Teachable Moment. You think, Just be glad you have armpits.
Claire puts her head down on the table. You are helplessly, head-over-the-heels-you-aren't-glad-you-have in love with Claire, even after all these years. Claire is equally smitten with you, so that you often moon, pie-eyed, staring at each other with considerably more gusto than Drew and Trudy. Like many lesbians, you have had a series of pathetic relationships, and Claire arrived when you had given up hoping. Yet because things are so good between you, tension has always ridden just under the surface like a diving whale. At any moment tragedy could intervene, pulling you apart. You convinced Claire you needed a burglar alarm to keep you safe, then after it was installed, found your lump in the shower.
Claire was opening a mail order package from Wichita, Kansas.
"I have a lump," you said.
"A lump?" Claire asked distractedly. She unwrapped a beer mug and held it up to the light.
"In my right breast."
"I didn't order beer mugs," Claire said. "I ordered a down vest."
"I'm making a doctor's appointment," you said.
Claire said, "I can't believe this. There are eight beer mugs here." But then she looked at you. Finally it hit her. You watched it hit her, watched it reach out and strike her like a fist.
Now Drew wants to know if you two are going whale watching. Claire sits back up, apparently reconciled to breakfast. "We were planning to go in a zodiac," he says, as Trudy swoons into his side, "but last weekend a Swedish couple died."
Because he is a teacher, he is the only one who hears news reports.
"A rouge wave swamped them," Claire says.
Trudy blinks and turns to Drew for interpretation.
"Honey, I think she means rogue," Drew says under his breath.
"Think of it this way," Claire says. "If we go down, they can make Zodiac, the Movie."
The dog hops into the great room wagging its intermittently bushy tail. Skip slips plates heaving with bright orange eggs in front of each of you. He says, "If you sign up with Island Adventures, I'll be your captain."
"Our captain? You take your guests whale watching?"
"There's a five percent discount for the lovely honeys who stay at The House of a Thousand Flowers," he says. For some reason, his pudgy hand is circling ever so slowly around his stomach which is, thank heavens, covered. "I always save a session just for my guests. I'll bet you find all the other outfits are booked up with those fooey psychiatrists."
You look at Claire. She looks at you. You push the food around the plate. There is a bit of calcified egg yolk still on the rim from who knows when.
When Skip leaves, Trudy whispers, "That poor dog. They should have put it down."
"It seems to get around fine," Claire observes. She holds her plate down so the dog can eat up her eggs.
"I don't agree with people having disabled pets," Trudy says.
Drew says, "Trudy."
She pops a hand over her mouth. "Oops! You have to say 'pet with a disability,'" she says. "Not disabled pet. Oops."
Claire looks at you.
You spend the morning begging for alternate accommodations in seamy motel lobbies, but every room houses a pasty-skinned psychiatrist. You also inquire of several adventure travel operations about whale watching, but they are, as Skip predicted, fully booked. You drive to Long Beach. It's wild and rugged, with waves tall as pine trees foaming onto the beach. Sandpipers toothpick along like upside down hors d'oeuvres. Claire takes your hand and runs you towards the surf, laughing. She is rosy-cheeked and utterly healthy. Surfers in neoprene jog towards the water with boards velcroed to their ankles.
You clamber up a rock exposed by low tide. Clouds hang murkily along the horizon and like flagstones over your head, low and heavy. Although it was sunny earlier, now it's bordering on rain. Tide pools bristle with life -- brown and crusty sea cucumbers shaped like flaccid penises; shockingly bright starfish, orange and purple, that ooze like sandbags; anemones in tones of gentle greens and pinks. The rocks are thick with barnacles. Everywhere, everywhere, is water. It laps up on the shore, fills the air, seeps through the sand below. The ocean is blue, cavernous, but when the sun is behind clouds it becomes green and forbidding. Not the noxious green of Skip's carpet. Not tropical postcard geen, but a northern green, as if it had dissolved a whole forest of Douglas fir.
"Are you sure you want to do this?" Claire asks when the girl behind the counter at Island Adventures passes you a waiver. The marina is also a grocery store. And a cappuccino bar. Beside you, Drew orders a skinny latte on a leash.
This is all at your own risk. If a rouge wave takes you, you're on your own. If you die of hypothermia, possible here even in midsummer, tough noogies. You hear the insufferable if orgasmic Drew explaining to Trudy that a skinny latte on a leash is actually a cup of coffee with steamed milk to go.
You can't bear the idea of dying of cancer, but somehow dying during a Teachable Moment at sea seems more manageable. It could even make leaving behind your breast, which is in a laboratory sliced into sections, purple dye rimming the tissue where once the tumour rested, and your lymph nodes like fleshy diamonds, seem negligible. Think of the press, for one thing. Think of the Chemainus high school students boning up on rouge waves for the memorial service.
You meet down on the docks near the Canadian Princess cruise ship, now a floating hotel, which swarms with shrinks in dark clothing pointing in all directions toward water. This is where you stayed when you came here with your ex. The two of you had a whopper of a fight, hollering at each other through a port hole, and then went whale watching still furious. You didn't have a proper raincoat. You got soaked to the bone then spilled boiling hot chocolate all down your front.
You have a hard time believing that Skip is going to be your captain, but it's true. There he is on deck, rotund, grey, scab-legged. He says, "Ahoy, adorable maties," and throws out orange survival suits like lifesavers. The dog hops along the deck and jumps in the boat, her tongue lolling out the side of her mouth. The boyfriend slash park ranger is nowhere in sight. Boats creak against cushioning rubber tires affixed to the docks; seagulls whirl through the sky. The zodiac itself it hardly the size of a Volkswagen bug. Yellow, it sloshes up and down on top of the waves. The survival suits are padded from shoulder to ankle and in them, you and Claire, and Drew and Trudy, look like Michelin Men, or obscene orange marshmallows. Drew says the survival suits will keep you warm for twenty minutes, tops, and that you're doomed if help doesn't arrive in that time.
You consider telling him you are doomed anyhow.
He tells you that sharks sometimes attack surfboarders, mistaking them for seals. He launches into a long speech on the feeding habits of great whites.
"TM," Trudy giggles.
"F-O," Claire mutters.
You know what she means.
When you're underway, Claire points back at the dock. Skip's boyfriend, trim, young, uniformed, goateed, stands on the dock with his hands on his hips. Skip wiggles his fingers at him then throws him a smattering of kisses. Trudy makes a face. You putter around the end of the dock, out of range, past grizzled fishing boats drawing nets onto huge spools.
"Hold on, babies," Skip calls once you're past the last of these, as he increases the throttle.
You almost fall off the bench seat, almost go spilling into the cold Pacific. Claire steadies your elbow.
Drew says something about thrust.
Skip slows down to tour you past a colony of honking sea lions, behemoths who could fit two of themselves inside their loose folds of skin. Several of them, alarmed by the zodiac, glide into the water with surprising gracefulness, but there is one atop a low rock that barely raises its head.
"That big boy there is pooping out," Skip yells.
You are positive the sea lion, his eyes limpid and brown, makes contact with you, that the two of you communicate in the special language of dying animals, saying something profound to each other like: "Shit." Just be glad you have an anus.
Skip throttles up and you rocket away from the sea lion's fate.. It is a lot like a ride at an amusement park; you leave the water, bullet through the air, then slam back down in the lee between monster waves. Never mind whales; you don't need whales. You find yourself laughing full-throatedly, unselfconsciously, and despite an itch near your chest, you don't think of cancer or being bald or dying a really pathetic death wearing scarves. You just have fun. You have a laugh riot. You have a conniption. You have a zoo. You keep getting drenched, but you don't care. You snap off ten shots of your twelve exposure throwaway camera roll just on Claire's delighted face.
Skip stops, letting the zodiac float each wave up and down, up and down. He says that whales frequent this area. You don't know how tall the waves actually are, but when you're in one of the valleys, they look about twenty feet higher than you. You have no idea what kind they are, either, rouge, mascara or maybe even lipstick, but does it matter?
Regardless, this is more like it. This is water writ large.
Drew and Trudy, holding binoculars in the front, scan the horizon that's only visible when a wave lifts you high. Drew sees a blow. It is closer than it would be from land, but it is still pretty far off, pretty distant.
Drew turns around to tell you grey whales are baleen feeders who scoop custaceans from the ocean bottom.
Another TM. How sweet.
In the second before a wave swallows you, you see the far-off, barnacled arch of a grey whale's back, then the characteristic spout.
Skip calls out that whale breath, up close, stinks as bad as a drag queen's high heels.
You turn around, laughing, but Skip is bent over, picking off a scab.
You don't wind up very close to any whales.. Still, que sera. It's better than when you came here with your ex. Come to that, your whole life is better. You snake an arm around Claire's back. It's like trying to hold the Pillsbury dough boy, but what the heck. You love her. You're wild about her. You're glad to be in Ucluelet with her, even stuck at The House of a Thousand Unblooming Fagots.
Trudy spots a number of blows towards land. She and Drew train their binoculars. You, however, stare at Claire whose eyes are dancing with pleasure. That's why you and you alone see the whale spy-hopping beside the zodiac, perhaps ten feet out, nearly close enough to touch, its the amazing barnacle-encrusted snout, its long, open mouth with the small, blunt teeth and finally the black, lightless eye which pokes above the wave.
"Turn around slowly," you say to Claire under your breath, and she does.
Time hangs like a curtain, unruffled and unmoving. The sun parts the clouds and beats down on your hair. Claire, to her credit, doesn't gasp. She just seeks out your hand and squeezes it immensely hard, hard enough so that it will hurt later. You don't mind. You couldn't mind anything in this moment, eyeballing a grey whale in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. You can't believe how silent the encounter is. You can't believe that Drew, Trudy and Skip don't see it. It's your own Teachable Moment, the one that exists for just you and Claire. You don't even think to take a picture. But a fist unclenches in your chest, and you realize something that lies under the pain of being so sick: You are really, truly glad you have heels.
The whale blinks, then subsides below the surface like a periscope.
Glad, glad, oh how happy you are to have body parts at all.