Break from Reality
It was safer to walk beside, and not float down the Kicking Horse Corridor on this beautiful summer day. This dangerous river just outside of the town of Golden, British Columbia, tempted many white water rafters to ride its class three and four rapids. It raced past her heading down to the to the monstrous waves at the midpoint of the famous four-plus rapids of the “Double Trouble Lower Canyon”. She remembered vividly that when she had rafted at the base of these waves, it was simply impossible to see above the angry foaming water.
“Wild strawberries,” Della spoke above the roar of the water, pointing out the tiny berries. They were in search of the infamous huckleberries that grew along the banks of this dangerous river. The wild water felt like the raging conflict inside of her that had been wearing down her empty caverns. She did not even know who she was anymore as she operated on auto pilot under the weight of a heavy emotional fog. Today, it lifted just enough for her to remember a major life event. Della, who was always a good counsellor, had a knack for opening Jill up to share her memories.
They came to where the river climaxed to turbulent white water. The rafting accident where she and a group of rafters had over-turned, still gripped her chest in retrospect. It had been unusually high run-off from the mountains, and they had been advised that it would be a tricky run. “It happened just over there,” Jill pointed to where they had been submerged after eddying into a large rock. When the raft overturned, the frigid waters shocked her breath away. Pat who had fallen in behind her, yelled at her to get out of the main current. His voice was drowned out by the rumble of the water as she lost track of which way was up as she was tugged below. Her canoe training course came back to her after this initial panic, and she maneuvered herself to float on her back, feet first. After what seemed like an eternity, she surfaced to a log jutting out from the side of the bank. It cracked under the weight of her fumbled attempt to seize it as the monster river swallowed her back into its gut. In the final seconds before the raft turned over, she had been holding on so tightly that her hands had clawed up with numbness, making it difficult for her to grab anything after she fell in.
She felt the descent of the water become steeper and narrower as she spun through it towards the waterfall ahead. Another rafter floated past her, grasping out at her in desperation before being pulled in another direction. Again, she heard Pat yelling to her in indiscernible bursts each time she bounced above a wave. She caught sight of his wet body and helmet out of the corner of her eye running along the bank. He had escaped, but she could not seem to pull away from the grips of the rapids. A large boulder confronted her, and she used the opportunity to thrust away from it with all of the power that her legs still provided her. She became snagged on one of the dead trees. Pat caught up to her a few minutes later, but could not reach her through the dense fallen timber blocking her from the shore. “Are you okay?” he yelled. She was unsure as she spit up water.
“Jill, when did that happen?” Della’s question roused her back to the present, away from the dramatic memory.
Jill shrugged her shoulders. “A few years ago.” She did not tell Della about the seed of a baby clinging to life inside of her as she fought the river to stay alive for both of them. Three of the rafters had been taken to the hospital. Two had sustained critical injuries. One had died. She had been lucky, and chose never to white water raft again. Della commented with a fond smile, “I never knew you were such a dare devil. You think you know someone…” But Della did not know her, Jill confirmed to herself.
Lately, Jill had been discovering new things about herself. She always felt like she was just on the cusp of figuring things out, but her low energy and disoriented state prevented her from actually getting her land legs. Her thoughts were often lost to memories and dreams. On occasion, her dreams from the night before lingered in her daytime consciousness like a heavy jet lag. The distinctions between wakefulness and sleep were often unclear to her. ‘Burn-out’, she concluded. Working as an educator had dominated her life. It kept her financially viable, but emotionally tired. Managing students had become her forte where she really only wanted to escape from the responsibility of managing people at all. Making sense of herself was difficult enough.
Last week, her field trip to the Calgary Court of Queen’s Bench with her grade nine students had brought about a similar type of flash back. During the tour of this grand ‘place of law’, a building that she thought she had never visited before, she found herself knowing more about it than she could explain. There was a marked déjà vu as they walked over the aging red carpets. She guessed that perhaps she had gone on a field trip to this location when she had been a student which might account for her vivid understanding of the building and its functions. For example, she knew exactly where morning chambers were held, and where the process of putting a claim forward happened. The offices were also eerily familiar. She described the roles of the clerk, judge and lawyers, to her students, despite her inexperience with the legal system. She had been part of all of this before, but she could not quite figure out when that might have been. She tried to explain this experience to Della when they met again. Della asked, “Did you see any people that you knew?” Jill shook her head wondering why Della would ask this question.
Jill caught herself looking out of the office window across the street to the bar with the neon light blinking out “Abanico”. She smiled to herself about this special Salsa night club. It had been a crazy night of dancing that had continued into the bedroom of her handsome dance partner. “Where have you been all my life?” he repeated to her in the heat of passion and then during the much unexpected tenderness that followed. He had confided to her his profession. He was a doctor with a bad habit of dancing Salsa on Friday nights. He explained that he worked with children in paediatrics. His father, had also been a doctor.
“I’m a teacher,” she let slip out some discontentment about her profession.
“And if you could do something else, what would it be?” he asked in a smooth baritone voice.
She admitted her dream. “I’ve always wanted to study law.”
“Then why don’t you?” he dangled his fingers over her body, caressing her skin delicately.
“Time,” she paused, “Money.”
“What if a crazy doctor who had fallen instantly in love with you, offered to pay for your tuition?”
“He offered to pay for your tuition?!” Della said in shock, snapping them both out of the story. Jill nodded. “Unbelievable.” Della gasped. “I had no idea.”
Jill shrugged her shoulders, “It was a ridiculous offer, don’t you think? He didn’t even know me.”
“It is pretty generous,” Della took off her glasses and looked at her closely. “What happened after that?”
Jill had difficulty remembering what happened next. Time had a way of hiding details from her. “I don’t know,” Jill was disconcerted. “I just know that I am super tired. I should probably go home. I’m not very good company.” Della mused over this sudden departure that Jill usually made near the end of their visits. “Call me, Jill.” They hugged, and Jill left the building quickly.
That night she found it more difficult to respond to her boyfriend Gavin’s affection. He was her first love and was the one that had gotten away. However, she could not shake the memories of that magical night of passion with the doctor all those years ago. “What’s wrong?” Gavin asked when she was more tentative to his touch than normal.
“Nothing. Tired, probably,” and she made a point of rolling over and kissing him deeply. He was always there when she needed him. However, being with him always seemed a bit surreal to her. His ageless curly dark hair and ocean blue eyes made her shiver with love and excitement.
“You seem distracted,” he noticed. She confided to Gavin about her recent memory of Pat, leaving out the details.
“Did you love him?”
“I think so,” she was genuinely confused.
“Do you still love him?” She could not answer him because she was not entirely sure. This fatal hesitation to reply to Gavin right away, filled the room with a difficult pause. He got up to leave the room. She called after him. “I’m sorry, Gavin. Please come back.” She coerced him to return to her open arms. He removed the space between them and held her tightly. “It was just a weird memory of my past coming back through the years.” His quick forgiveness of her confirmed that he was just a little too good to be real.
He touched her cheek gently, and whispered, “I love you.” He sometimes had no limits as to what he would accept from her, even her telling him memories of past lovers like Pat. Gavin’s tolerance for almost everything about her was truly remarkable. But lately, there was a disconnect between them that pushed her further away from him into her dreams and fantasies.
That night, the large king-sized bed and their large comforter was not big enough to prevent Gavin’s restless tossing from keeping her awake. She eventually dozed off in the early morning light after he left for work. Her morning dream was vivid, leaving her with an unconscious emotional hangover in the wake of it.
She dreamed that she was having dinner with a large family of about ten people around a beautifully sanded cedar plank table. The tall windows of this dining room had elegant stained glass flowers at the top of each panel. This family had probably had hundreds of family dinners together in this very room. Everyone was laughing. Even though the faces of the people were foggy, they were familiar enough for her to know that they were her family. The youngest boy who looked to be in his early teens was joking and doing impressions of his grandfather while everyone was egging him on. The cow lick on the front of his hair line was distinctly Jill’s cow lick. Was it her nephew or perhaps her son? The grandmother of the group came in with a large plump turkey glistening with a butter glaze. She could smell the mashed potatoes and gravy. At this point, she felt the hand on her leg of the man who she assumed to be her husband. His presence was reassuring.
The alarm clock startled her awake, ripping her out of the dream. The family faces and conversations evaporated into the light of day. She rehearsed the faces of the boy, the grandmother, the grandfather and a husband before she fully awoke. She tried to memorize each one of them before she drifted into focus of her bedroom with the flower pot of lilies on the window sill; her dream catcher pinned to the mirror; the picture of the Westminster Abbey on the wall; Gavin’s pants on the floor. She shut her eyes. The family of her dreams slowly disappeared the harder that she tried to retrieve them into consciousness.
Today, after a full teaching day, walking through the motions of teaching five different high school English classes, she left school as soon as the final bell rang at 3:15 PM. Her years of teaching had established a survival cycle that carried her through to the very last second of the school day until the last student waved good-bye. She would then shut the window blinds, organize the room, and behind closed doors, take off her cheerful teacher masque. It was not uncommon for her to leave school to go home and sleep for a couple of hours—exhausted. Then she would begin her routine of making food and participating in conversation with Gavin about her seemingly interesting, but relatively meaningless day teaching reading and writing skills to students who would likely never read another book, let alone write anything interesting after graduating.
Today, she decided to go to the mall. Her wardrobe would benefit from a couple of new dresses. However, despite her good intentions of retail therapy, the mall quickly overwhelmed her and she realized that she did not have the energy to undress and redress into different garments to see if they suited her. Instead, she sat in the food court while hundreds of people roamed around her carrying shopping bags, or holding the hands of noisy toddlers. Senior gentlemen played cards on one of the tables in the corner. Rap music lured teenagers into clothing stores. Some of these teenagers were her students, but they did not seem to recognize her. A few store employees were hanging Halloween decorations.
Then she saw his face. It was the same freckled adolescent face from her dream. Her heart constricted inside of her in recognition, and she stood up to see him more clearly around the people blocking her view. He was perusing the newest software titles in the window of a technology store. She started to walk towards him, and then at the last minute, hung back. His loose skater T-shirt hung over his jeans which he wore low on his hips. He slouched as he walked, and met up with a couple of his friends who all looked to be about fourteen years old.
She discreetly watched him discussing and pointing at some of the products in the store, until he waved good bye to the boys to leave them. She decided to follow him and reasoned that by doing so, she might be able to find the family in her dream—her family. She ran to her car to park near the bus stop where he sat waiting a few meters away. He was plugged into his phone, oblivious to her watching him. He eventually boarded the bus, and she easily followed the cumbersome white whale as it made its way in and out of traffic.
While she drove behind him, the memory of a baby came back to her. In her mind now there was a baby that had survived the rafting accident. Several months after the incident, the baby had slowly and painfully emerged from her body with the assistance of the doctor’s forceps after a thirty-four hour labour. Each hour of the delivery was vivid: the water breaking; the back labour, and then finally his dramatic entrance into her life with a large head, and a big cry. Her recent dreams always involved a son. However, these memories of motherhood did not align with her present reality. The war of what was the truth or fantasy raged inside of her, but the tangible facts broke through her psyche in large staccato bursts. There was no child in her life!
She continued to navigate behind the bus as it slowed and started again with people loading and disembarking. It headed out of town into the suburbs where the houses and the yards increased in size and price. She drove past a large sub-urban school of the rich and famous where the public “haves” were considerably more than the “have-nots” of her school. Next she drove past golfers warming up on the driving range in the foreground of the Rocky Mountains.
When he finally did jump off of the bus, they were in one of the wealthiest sub-divisions on the westside of town. The houses were no longer the bungalows of the city that she knew from her childhood. These were five and ten thousand square foot mansions that were owned by the city’s wealthy doctors, lawyers and politicians. As he walked through his neighbourhood, he waved to people he recognized on the street. He did not notice her following him discretely from a block away.
He made his way to a large well-established brown sandstone mansion that was on the peak of this hillside community. It was a heritage home that had been here long before the newer community below it had developed. The old turrets on the corners of the house made a grand architectural statement. Large picture windows looked out to the foothills beyond, and welcomed the setting sun this evening. She drove closer to confirm that the glass was topped with the beautiful designs of irises and pansies that she remembered from the house in her dream. It was the same house.
She realized that to follow him any further to the crest of this cul de sac might reveal her presence to the boy and his family, but she decided to take this risk rationalizing that she was doing nothing wrong. The boy continued to be unaware of her as he walked through the elegant metal gateway and up to a man on the front lawn who had been inspecting the garden with clippers in hand. Their postures and mannerisms were the same. Their mutual affection was obvious even from this distance as the father patted his son’s back.
The tall grey-hared man pulled up his glasses and she could see his eyes and dark eyebrows. They were the same eyes that had looked through her as they danced the night away all those years ago. They were the eyes of the doctor who had offered her a future. It was the Pat who had frantically run along the banks of the river helping to save her when their raft had overturned. He was the husband in her dreams and the father of the little being within her. In a rash decision to understand this story completely, she got out of the car. It was still difficult to see his face, and when he saw her standing beside the car, he gave no sign of recognition.
She reached into her memories trying to pummel them to life. What was happening? A snake of trepidation suddenly bit her with reality. Maybe she had never really met this guy. Perhaps this was all just a crazy dream. Maybe his promises to make all of her dreams come true had not really happened. Almost as if on cue, a beautiful woman stepped out onto the enormous covered veranda and called out to him. “Pat!” She suspected that it was his wife. The boy waved at the woman and then turned to peer out at Jill. The truth socked her in the stomach. If she had not actually met Pat, then where did all of these memories and dreams come from? They were such believable stories with details that had pointed her here towards something so tangible.
Suddenly afraid, she got back into the car. She was certain that she and Pat had a connection, but she was no longer confident that it was a link with reality. Perhaps she was living on the cusp of two realities—one real and the other in her dreams. She was paralyzed with confusion, unable to start the ignition and put the car into gear to go home to Gavin.
Tears leaked from her eyes as she willed herself to drive away from the house that housed the family that had loved her so openly in her dream. She had always wanted a family like that. She looked out at Pat and found that he was now looking at her inquiringly, shielding his eyes from the sun. He was probably asking himself who this crazy woman was casing his house. She let out a despairing sigh. The memory of the frozen currents of that long ago river made her hands go numb on the steering wheel as she fought to hold on.
Regaining her composure, she thought about Gavin and the wonderful future that lay ahead of them if she could only let go of this ridiculous fantasy. He was her best friend from her childhood, and he made sense to her. He never aged. He never changed. Anything else was simply too confusing. She finally found the courage to leave.
The knock at her window startled her as the boy beckoned her to open it. After fumbling to do so, he sounded exasperated, “Mom, what are you doing? Aunty Marie has supper ready and I’m hungry too. Dad’s been waiting for both of us for a while. Why are you sitting out here in the car?”
She froze and fell forward onto the hot steering wheel. And then what might have been became her new reality.