Summer is so changeable. The sun beams down, then thunder and lightning a moment later. Sometimes all at once. I feel that way as I get into the driver’s seat—all thunder and lightning and sun shining between slivers of dark cloud. So why not leave the top down and step on the gas?
The invitation arrived three days ago. It went straight in the trash. The next day, I rescued it from under a pile of broken eggshells. Today, I got in the car and drove.
Norglenwold is this little strip of land along the southeast shore of Sylvan Lake. It’s a summer village with rows of gigantic homes. On one end, a massive log “cabin” representing lumberjack Alberta chic. On the other, an ultra-modern cement and corrugated metal monstrosity with floor-to-ceiling windows. None of it is even halfway affordable. A rental, then. And not a cheap one.
Despite my rising anxiety, the drive is beautiful. I’m glad for the cool breeze and even the light sprinkling of rain. It’s grounding. Makes me conscious of my body when my mind is crawling halfway out of my head to explore the possibilities.
The house is what I expected: a looming three-story with a country-colonial build. It’s a marriage of the styles in the area—both modern and old world. New and nostalgic, with its square-panelled windows staring down the crooked driveway. Wooden gables warming the white and blue exterior. It sparks a distinct memory of a trip we took in junior year and a massive party we crashed. Cars line the driveway, so I park on the road. The sounds of revelry from the house also remind me of junior year. But we aren’t kids anymore. It’s been a long time since I felt comfortable crashing parties.
I recognize a couple making out against a parked car. Both from high school. Nice that they’re still together? Or maybe rekindling an old flame.
“Where’s Coltyn?” I yell. One of them holds up a middle finger without coming up for air.
Music filters from the other side of the fence, thumping bass shivering the wild rose bushes. I follow the flagstone path and push through the gate. The backyard is a who’s who of our high school years. A few I don’t recognize, older friends? Far-flung friends? Some from junior high? They’re dancing, they’re drinking. There’s booze flowing and I swipe through clouds of smoke on my way down the path. Conversation sparks on every side of me. Music sends vibrations through the soles of my feet into my rib cage. Maybe this is a mistake, I think. But curiosity wins out, and I sidle up to someone I recognize.
“Have you seen the host?”
“Coltyn? Maybe he’s late?” He shrugs.
I doubt it. Putting all this together. Making me come all this way. He’s got to be here somewhere. I comb through the faces for a glimpse, heart up in my throat like I’m at the top of a rollercoaster, waiting to fall.
There’s an in-ground pool and a tacky beach hut on my right. A banner strung from the roof says “Bon Voyage”. Some revellers have found their way into the water, a pile of clothes on the deck. As I pass the beach hut, I accept a drink from a girl I don’t know. “Where’s Coltyn?” I ask.
She laughs, a wave crashing over the shore. “Some goodbye party this turned out to be. Looks like he’s already fucked off.”
Past the pool, there’s an open lawn that slopes down to the lake. Lounge chairs are scattered across the grass and people mill between groups. Cigarette and marijuana smoke curl in noxious clouds. I notice more college friends, a few relatives. That guy that sat across from us in English 102 and hit on Coltyn. Every. Damn. Day. I scan for him, start listening to the conversations around me as I get further from the thrumming music.
“I heard he got a job in the States, that he’s leaving tomorrow.”
“I heard he met a girl and is moving to France.”
“What? Josie told me Denmark.”
The theories range so far afield and become so specific I find each possibility adds more knots to my stomach. Why should I care if Coltyn’s with a woman? Why should I care if he’s leaving the country?
Why am I here?
It’s hard to love someone for as many years as I have and divorce yourself from the outcome. Something about being apart, but knowing I might see him at our favourite book shop. Being apart, but expecting to find him in that pretentious grocery store down the block. Being apart, but knowing he still visits the same restaurant every Friday night because the bartender is the only therapist he’s ever allowed himself. Knowing Coltyn could be on the other side of the world makes me feel like a rope, once taut, now severed. Trapped in that moment where it shivers with relieved tension.
I glimpse Coltyn’s sister Anna, their mother, and his friend James seated around a fire pit closer to the lake, away from the other guests. These are the people I remember best from my time with him. Anna sees me over her mother’s blonde head and stands up, wiping her palms on her jeans. She walks around the firepit as the others turn to stare, offering a conciliatory smile that I return with a shrug and a shake of my head.
“Matt,” she says, surprised, “you came.”
I nod, eyes prickling with emotion I didn’t expect. One day you’re part of someone’s family, the next... I’m surprised when Anna reaches out and pulls me into an embrace. When we move apart, I release the tension of a held breath. “So where’s he going, anyway?”
“Rehab,” she rolls her eyes, shrugging. “Or so he tells us.”
My heart’s doing a drum roll. I’m not sure if this is another rumour, or something else. It would explain a lot. It would help me pack the last few years of our relationship into a neat little box and name it “addiction issues” instead of trying to sift through each item like it’s part of an unsolvable mystery.
“You don’t believe him?”
She shrugs, wets her lips. “He... insisted on this big ass party. Insisted on having everyone he ever knew here. But he hasn’t tried to sneak a drink. Hasn’t talked to anyone. He’s just... it’s like he doesn’t expect to come back.”
I swallow more questions. Bite back emotions. “Where is he?”
Anna nods her head towards the water and gives my shoulder a squeeze before making her way back to her seat.
Past the circle of family, there’s a dip where the grass gives way to a mixture of soft and pebbly sand. The sand slopes down to the waterline. Trees encroach on either side and then spread out. The clearing welcomes me to a small and private beach overlooking the water.
The western shore is a dark strip above the glassy surface of the lake. Golden yellow light turns to blood over the horizon, painting the bottom of the clouds. The water reflects the sky. Red and yellow, orange and pink in a gradient of light and pattern broken by ripples and waves. An ocean of colours at the edge of which I find the party’s recalcitrant host.
He’s sitting in the sand, pant legs rolled up his calves, bare feet sucked into the sand by the lapping water. I shuck off my shoes and crunch across pebbles towards him. He turns—and I hate myself for the way my heart breaks. Despite skin lit with golden sunlight, he’s chalky pale in the shadows. Ashen blonde hair cropped too close to his scalp, shoulders jutting up at harsh angles as he readjusts his obviously depleted weight. He looks like he’s on leave from some private war.
I make my way down the beach silently and sit next to him.
As I settle, Coltyn slides his hand towards mine and grasps it. It’s such an innocent action, one I might have taken for granted before.
“I knew you’d come,” he says.
“You’ve always put too much faith in me,” I say.
“Not always.” It’s as close to an apology as I can expect. I bite my lip, nod. Squeeze that hand like it’s the last time I’ll hold it.
“Anna says the party was your idea.”
“So what’s the point Colt, why the spectacle?”
“No spectacle,” he shakes his head, offended, and looks up at the sky. “I wanted to know who’d show up. What they’d say.”
“It kinda feels like you lured me here,” I tease.
“It’s not all about you.” He lowers his head and nudges me with a bony shoulder.
“What’s it about then?”
He looks down at our hands.“I’m moving to hospice this week,” he says, voice gruff. “Once I’m in there. I don’t come out.”
I rotate our clasped hands and take in the IV port taped to the back of his wrist. When I bite the inside of my bottom lip, it’s hard enough to taste iron.
Sunset is dissipating. The golden light withdrawing from our faces and leaving them hollow. I lean across, planting one hand in the damp sand and gripping his face with the other. I rest my forehead against his. This close, I can smell his shampoo, visualize the label on the bottle in our shower— rosemary and mint. Somewhere below the familiar scents is something new. Starched linens and antiseptic. His breathing hitches in his chest and a cold hand clasps the back of my neck. We stay like that awhile, until he shivers, and I wrap him in my arms.
“Time for my exit.” Coltyn breathes, warm and gentle into the bend of my neck.
It takes a while to untangle. Our clothes are damp and sandy, and he’s trembling. I lift him to his feet and we walk up the beach arm-in-arm.
We start at the firepit, I shake James’ hand and hug Coltyn’s mother too long. I support him up the hill through dwindling revellers. College mates and exes. Cousins and second cousins. We make our way through the high school friends, the oldest acquaintances. Smiling, shaking hands. Thanks for coming. Thanks for being here. Where you going, man? Somewhere new. Somewhere I’ve never been.
There must be a plan in place because, as we near the top of the hill, the air starts to buzz and fill with smoke. Hundreds of sparklers light up the dark. The guest’s shout and holler: goodbye, sayonara, see you soon.
I take his hand in mine and lead him through the double gate. Take him down the driveway. He’s tired, and he’s pale. I lift him in my arms like a bride and carry him the last few steps, set him in the passenger seat of my rented convertible.
It’s dark, it’s cold and there are clouds overhead threatening to burst. We drive with the top down, hands clasped over the gearbox and no destination in mind. Neither one of us dares to speak. No apologies. No platitudes.