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Fiction #161
(published January 8, 2004)
Choosing a Path
by Susan B. Townsend

I found the postcard at the bottom of a drawer. A glossy photo showed white-capped waves crashing against jagged rocks, while the words at the top invited me to "Come and enjoy the spectacular beauty and pristine nature of Vancouver Island's West Coast." The card was unused. I had probably bought it years ago to send to one of my relatives. I went to toss it back in the trash, hesitated, and put it back in the drawer. Although I remembered everything from that summer almost twenty years ago with amazing clarity, the card remained as a token of the best thing that ever happened to me.

There hadn't been any spectacular beauty or pristine nature in the single-wide trailer I called home during my time in Ucluelet— only a leaking roof and the pervasive, permanent smell of mildew. At night, feral cats came up through the abundant holes under the kitchen cabinets and roamed through the trailer. They disappeared with the dawn, leaving urine-soaked pillows and assorted body parts of the mice they murdered during their visit.

Just before I left Victoria and moved up island, I was like someone who has found herself on an unfamiliar street with the daylight fading. A three-week stay in detox left me free of drugs, but full of self-loathing and a terminal case of self-pity. I returned home to search my medicine cabinet and to convince myself that there was something in my train wreck of a life worth living for. Refusing to consult a map, or ask for directions, I ended up running away to a fishing and logging village.

Tony and I met two days after I lied my way out of detox. Clutching my suitcase and a list of Narcotics Anonymous meeting locations, I had told my counselors what they wanted to hear. "Yes," I said. "I'll look for a job. Yes, I'll attend meetings as often as I can. Yes, I'll call someone before I take any pills. Yes, yes, yes."

Tony was in Beacon Hill Park, surrounded by ducks, begging for pieces of the bread he held in his hand. Indulging in a pastime usually reserved for the very young or very old, he stood out. Suddenly aware of being watched, he turned, met my eyes and smiled. Then he held out his bag. "Do you want to feed the ducks?" he asked.

I liked the look of his flannel shirt, the sleeves rolled up to the elbows, revealing startling, intricate tattoos on his forearms. His reddish-brown hair was cut short, but it had obviously been a few days since his last shave. As I walked closer, the look in his pale blue eyes left no doubt in my mind that he appreciated what he saw, too.

I banished any residual loyalty I had to my current lover — a married stockbroker whose afternoon visits, filled with his endless martinis and boring sex, left me feeling sordid and sad. When Tony pulled out a pouch of tobacco and a slim blue package of rolling papers, I returned his smile and reached for the bag of bread. Seduced by those eyes and the prospect of something totally different, I decided that he represented the longed-for opportunity to change my life.

He told me he was a faller in Ucluelet. "I'm not union," he said in a thick French-Canadian accent, "so I don't make the really big money, but I do all right. I've been working four months straight, so I decided to visit the big city. Go to some clubs, meet pretty girls, you know?" His voice suggested that his goal to meet an attractive woman had just been reached, and I blushed in acknowledgement. "But those girls in the clubs. They're what your call it, snobs, eh? Don't even want to dance. Just sit there all night unless they go to the bathroom to check their makeup."

I nodded. "I know girls like that."

"Hey, do you want to go dancing?"

"Sure. I'd love to."

We spent the next three days and nights together, and by the end of his visit, he had convinced me — no difficult task — to return up island with him. "I have a place of my own," he said, "and this time of year, there are plenty of jobs with tourist season coming. Lots of my friends from Quebec come, too. They hitchhike across Canada, stop and work at the Banff Springs Hotel for a while, then pick some fruit in the Okanagan. Then, they come to the island. It will be good to see them."

"You'll love it," he kept telling me, but I was already infatuated with the possibilities beckoning me.

"You'll have your doctorate before you turn thirty," my father used to say. Leaving my master's program half way through had earned me my parents' disappointment. My drug addiction and promiscuity had created the distance between us. In my self-imposed exile from their lives, I created a multitude of excuses not to visit them. I couldn't bear the look in their eyes — the one that told me they shared, or even believed they had somehow caused, my failures. I grew to hate the silence following their inevitable question. "What can we do to help?"

I told them about my plans the day I left. I parroted Tony's words and described a wonderful adventure. Their impassive faces and apathetic responses suggested that most thirty-year-old women were past the age where they needed adventures. I didn't try to explain that Tony's arrival had presented me with an alternative to the thoughts of suicide spreading through my mind like a virus.

My awe at seeing the impossibly long stretches of white sand on Long Beach disappeared when I entered Tony's trailer. On a bright, sunny day, the inside remained dark and damp. A motley assortment of castoff furniture was scattered throughout the room. I began to breathe through my mouth and glanced around, trying to locate the source of a smell that made my stomach roll with nausea. Tony took one look at my face and gestured to the corner. "I forget to take the garbage out before I left," he said without a hint of apology in his voice.

"I think you forgot to do the dishes, too," I replied and pointed to the counters laden with what looked like the entire contents of his kitchen cupboards.

He just laughed and pulled me by the hand down the hall. "Let me show you the bedroom." I grinned and allowed myself to be led. Before Tony, I would have stopped to wash the dishes and take out the trash, but he had introduced me to the appealing concept of letting things go— dismissing the mundane or bothersome— in favor of something more enjoyable and satisfying. Like sex on a sunny afternoon. He made it anything but boring, and there wasn't a martini in sight.

I spent two weeks looking for a job before I ran out of places to apply. Most of the people told me I was too late. They had hired the staff they needed for the tourist season. Others told me that they tried to get along with their regular people, but that something might come up later. Not even the huge fish plant was hiring. They had closed down after the halibut run just before I arrived.

It wasn't long before I discovered that Tony shared my penchant for avoiding the truth, but unlike me, he didn't lie outright. Instead, he had developed expertise in the error of omission. He simply didn't tell the whole story. Turned out, he had worked for a few years falling trees, but not since being suspended for unsafe work practices. Those months he'd worked before coming to Victoria had been spent running a forklift at the fish plant, not out in the forest.

My employment opportunities exhausted, I spent most of my time alone. Up here, Tony was not the guy I had met in Victoria, a fact that made me stop and think one afternoon while I sat on the front steps enjoying the first sunshine in over a week. I came to the conclusion that if we had run into each other here and now, things wouldn't have gone much further than sharing that bag of bread.

Then, it occurred to me that I wasn't the same person anymore, either. The feeling of impending doom that used to embrace me like a second skin had almost disappeared, and I marveled at the occasional sense of contentment. Lately, though, my sense of well being had been shadowed by the growing realization that, by coming up here, I had only stepped out of my life for a while. The time for rejoining the real world was approaching quickly.

I decided that discussing any of this with Tony would be pointless. I knew he would feign interest in what I had to say and appear to listen carefully, but invariably, he would shrug and say something like, "You worry too much." His ability to ignore responsibility, something that charmed me at first, had begun to annoy, and even anger, me. Refusing to argue, he treated my frustration with his usual indifference.

He would be gone for hours and even days at a time, but strangely, I didn't mind. What did bother me was the constant lack of cash. I hadn't brought more than a few dollars with me, and, like some magician's trick, when I saw money go into Tony's pocket I knew it had already vanished. We didn't have a TV because we couldn't afford cable, so I listened to CBC radio. I discovered a tiny library behind the only grocery store in town and spent hours reading, something I used to do all the time. I even memorized the time and location for Narcotics Anonymous from the flyer on the trailer park bulletin board. I hadn't built up my courage to go to a meeting yet, but I wanted to.

I went for long walks around town. People came from all over the world to see Ucluelet. I met visitors from Germany, Japan and France, and when they told me how lucky I was to live in such a beautiful place, I only smiled. How could I explain that a soul could wither in die in splendor just as easily as in squalor?

One afternoon, boredom and curiosity persuaded me to pull down the battered old suitcase on the top shelf of the bedroom closet. Inside, I found a mountain of Zip-Loc bags filled with some fine looking dope. I had no use for it myself — I hated the way it made me feel — but just for a second, I got a buzz, and the hair on my arms stood up as I realized that Tony must know someone who had pills. My reaction to the discovery of Tony's stash only confirmed the nagging sensation that I had to make a change before I ended up lost again.

Later that evening, I heard a knock at the door, and Tony's Doberman, an evil beast who growled whenever she saw me, began to bark like a maniac. "Shut up," I said and shoved her to one side. A young girl - she couldn't have been more than eighteen — stood on the porch, holding a baby. The baby's face was an alarming shade of red. He had fine black hair plastered to his forehead and his eyes were squeezed shut. The girl looked like she wanted to take off running.

"Hi," I said. "Can I help you with something?"

"Is Tony here?"

"Sorry. He might be up at Paul's place, though. Do you know him? Big green house on Main Street. The girl said nothing. Truth is," I said and smiled. "He could be anywhere."

Obvious disappointment forced the girl's eyes to the ground. When she looked up, her face was almost the same color as her baby's. "Can I use your bathroom?" she asked.

"Yeah, sure." I opened the door and she walked past me. "I was just going to have a cup of tea. Would you like some?"

She shook her head. "I can't drink tea or coffee. The caffeine's bad for the baby."

But smoking the dope you were going to buy from Tony isn't, I thought. That wasn't fair. I didn't know for sure she was going to buy dope, or smoke it for that matter. "I've got some chamomile. Is that okay?"

When she came out of the bathroom, I made the tea and carried a mug over to where she sat, perched on the edge of the overstuffed couch as if she still wanted to bolt. I went back to my chair at the kitchen table and sipped my tea. Neither one of us said anything. I didn't feel much like talking, but I figured I should ask her about her baby. People always wanted to talk about their kids, especially when they were fresh, like this one. The baby began to cry, and the girl automatically lifted her shirt. He latched on right away — no problem. The smile on my face froze as something occurred to me. My period was late. I made some rapid calculations and realized it had been ten days or maybe more.

Years ago, during my first marriage, I had actually tried to get pregnant. When it didn't happen, my ex and I went through the usual tests. He got straight A's with his armies of hyperactive sperm, but I didn't even make the finals. I only had one ovary, and my uterus was tipped or something. The doctor told me that it would be a miracle if I ever conceived. I got lazy with birth control, and as the years passed with no pregnancy, I decided that there weren't any unearthly or wondrous events headed my way.

That's why I didn't panic, but when a couple of more weeks went by, I began to wonder if something else might be wrong. I didn't have any of the pregnancy symptoms — at least not the ones in the book I checked at the library. I was hungry all the time, but I decided that could be the result of eating oatmeal and tomato soup for a straight week, waiting for our welfare check.

So, one morning, I headed for the clinic down by the harbor. I peed in a little plastic bottle and changed into a paper gown that ripped as soon as I put it on. Then, I hoisted myself onto the examining table and waited for the doctor.

About fifteen claustrophobic minutes later, the door burst open and a tall, skinny man with a full beard charged in. "I'm Doctor O'Brien," he said with a huge grin. "Your test was positive."

His words hung in the air, hollow and false. There had obviously been a mistake. I opened my mouth to tell him, but nothing came out. His smile vanished, and he pulled up a stool. "You don't look very happy about this."

I shrugged. "Are you sure?" I asked, my voice little more than a whisper.

He nodded. We sat there in silence for a few moments. Then he patted my knee as if consoling a child and picked up my chart. "A doctor in a small town gets to know his patients pretty well, but this is your first appointment. Maybe you can tell me something about yourself.

"My life's kind of a mess. Not as bad as it was, but I'm not in any position to have a baby." My cheeks grew moist with the tears I had been trying to avoid.

"I understand. Well, you don't have to have this baby, you know. You've got options."

"I don't see any options. I either have the baby, or I don't. Either way, I've screwed up again."

He glanced at my chart again. "How old are you now? Almost thirty-one? Did it ever occur to you that you might be ready for this baby?"

I shook my head. "I'd mess it up, somehow. I don't know anything about babies."

"Not many of us do when we have our first, but you'd be amazed at how quickly you, and your baby, figure everything out."

I thought of that girl in my living room feeding her baby — how both of them acted as if they'd been doing it for years. I found myself smiling, remembering how impressed I'd been.

Doctor O'Brien returned my smile. "Go ahead and get dressed," he said. "You've got a lot to think about, but you don't have to make up your mind right now. I want to see you in a week, okay?"


I made my next appointment and headed for home trying to fathom how I could feel confused, frightened and excited, all at the same time. Everywhere I looked, I saw babies, as if somehow the town had conspired while I was in the clinic.

Tony had been home for the past few days. I found him dozing on the couch when I came in. He opened his eyes, and, like Dr. O'Brien, I wasted no words. "Guess what? I'm pregnant."

"You're kidding. How did that happen?"

His answer destroyed the tiny hope that my news would make him happy, would tempt him to share my nervous anticipation. He reached for his pouch of tobacco and rolling papers, a delay tactic he often employed while thinking of a way to discount my concerns. I felt a brief sense of triumph. This wasn't an overdue bill or a pile of dirty laundry. He would have to work overtime to dismiss this new reality.

Finally, he lit his smoke and took a deep drag. "I thought you told me you couldn't get pregnant."

"I didn't think I could, but I guess I'm next in line for a miracle." As soon as I said those words, I knew I would have this baby — a boy. Suddenly I was certain of that. With all that stuff working against him, he still managed to find his way. I guess that meant I was going to have to find my way, too.

"So what are you going to do?" Tony asked. Intrigued by the anxiety I heard in his voice, I ignored his choice of pronouns.

Part of me didn't want to let him off the hook that easily. "I could ask you the same thing," I replied. "It's pretty obvious that I didn't end up in this situation all on my own."

He reached for his stash box, and I shook my head. "Not now, okay? I need you to be straight. I need you to be honest about this."

"You want honest, eh?" He ran his hands through his hair and stared at the ceiling for a few seconds. "I have a child. Back in Quebec. I didn't want children then, and I don't want them now. I thought I didn't have to worry about that with you." He glanced at the door as if expecting reinforcements — one of his friends telling him that this wasn't his problem, perhaps even offering an escape.

"Paul wants me to go to Banff," he said, as if reading my mind.

"I think you should go."

"Really?" He closed his eyes for a moment and his shoulders relaxed as relief passed through his body like a shiver.

His new freedom allowed him to be generous with his concern. "But what will you do?"

I knew all he wanted was credit for asking the question. He wasn't interested in my answer, but I told him anyway. Maybe I needed to say it out loud.

"I'm not sure," I said. "Go back to Victoria. Maybe get a job teaching. I might even go back to school, but before I do anything, I need to have a long talk with my folks." I paused when Tony got a look on his face that told me he had no idea what I meant.

"That's okay," I said and shrugged, dismissing a lengthy explanation. "It's just that they always wanted to know what they could do to help. They're bound to ask again when I go back. I think I know what to say this time."

I paused, hoping for just a second that he might respond, but when I looked into eyes, I realized that he was already gone.

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