It was an item on his bucket list. She was just a passenger along for the ride. He was travelling to the States for work and wanted to extend the trip to take advantage of the great Aurora season.
‘But it’s the best time of the month. And the best time of the year. We’d be in one of the best spots on earth to see it.’ He debated his points vehemently, ‘It’d be a shame not go. We’ll go to Vancouver first for a few days to acclimatise, then on to Whitehorse in the Yukon. And, I promise, we’ll go to Hawaii afterwards for a week. Let’s call it ‘The Fire and Ice Tour’?’
She nodded and even smiled at his enthusiasm. He was a completely different person when he was like this. This child-like enthusiasm was one of the first things she had liked about him. She’d been out with a girlfriend for dinner when her friend’s boyfriend turned up at the bar. They chatted briefly when he announced that he was off to a buck’s night at a strip club.
‘Why don’t you ladies join me?’ the boyfriend proposed with a cheeky grin.
‘Go on, I’ve never been and I’ve always wondered what they’re really like,’ she convinced her friend, the wines and cocktails no doubt massaging their decision.
So minutes later they were in a taxi on their way to a strip club. Feeling quite excited by their libertine actions, the girls smiled broadly as they escorted the boyfriend in. And that’s where they met – at a buck’s party in a strip club. When people asked how they met, they’d tag-team through the anecdote smiling as each took their turn. She never quite knew if people were somehow commenting on their obviously divergent lifestyles or just naturally curious.
Things were light and fun to begin with. They knew they had their differences. She had kids and lived in the suburbs. He lived in the city and didn’t want any kids of his own. He’d lived alone for eight years. She’d dated for the last five. They had a great time together going out with friends for dinner, drinks and parties. She long ago learnt not to bother planning a future too firmly as things never worked out that way. The only thing he planned ahead was holidays. She loved getting away though always looked forward to returning home. He put off returning to reality as long as he could.
Before they left Australia, she organised a joint counselling session. He couldn’t see any problem. She didn’t want things to go on like this. Stepping out of the dark cool counsellor’s office, she took his hand in hers and they both hid in the shade of the building while waiting for the pedestrian lights to change.
‘So,’ she coolly said, ‘should we go grab something to eat?’
‘I’m not really hungry. Had a late lunch,’ he replied curtly as though his quota of words had been used up during the previous hour. He didn’t look at her but stared straight ahead wishing the lights to change by the sheer force of his will.
Lower back aching from sitting, she shifted her weight on her feet. The concrete footpath radiated heat, shimmering in the afternoon sun.
‘We should organise the snow gear when we get back anyway,’ he reminded himself as much as her. She knew when they got back to his apartment the chance to discuss how this first session had gone would be lost. She really liked their counsellor, Troy, with his purple checked shirt matching his purple socks.
‘I think he’s gay,’ she said, hoping he’d comment and she could lead him in to further conversation. He didn’t bite. She carried on anyway. She was usually the one to lead things. ‘Well, I thought for a getting-to-know-you, housekeeping kind of session that went okay.’
‘Yeah, I guess so,’ he admitted and leaned in for a peck of a kiss to seal the point. ‘We could get some take away noodles from the place downstairs if you like.’
She clasped his hand again as they crossed the road towards his bright yellow Korean sports car. She didn’t love the car. He did. He’d had a plain black station wagon when they first starting going out. She had liked its anonymity. ‘Short, tubby, balding man in a loud sports car. No clichés there. At least, you can always find it in the car park,’ she silently reminded herself as they approached.
It was only recently that things had started to turn sour. It was the little things. It usually is. He wanted to go out and some nights she wanted to stay in. She worked weekends. On Friday nights, he’d start drinking the moment he arrived home from work even when they had a big night out planned. His glass would never empty and he’d put on dance music so loud that the neighbours started to complain.
‘It’s my Friday night,’ he said. ‘I can do what I like. I like a drink before I go out.’
‘To go out for more drinks,’ she would say under her breath.
Usually she gave in and went out, dressed in a new favourite party dress, low cut at the front just how he liked it. It was only when they were at the club that he became sullen. His chin inches from a drink; he’d look over the glass watching her. She loved the chance to meet new people or catch up with old friends. Middle suburban mum during the week, this was her chance to transform.
She smiled. People bought her drinks and admired her outfits. She preened and spun for her admirers, laughing all the while. He leaned against the bar in the corner and scowled.
Occasionally he’d try the same act but he came off more inebriated bumblebee than social butterfly. That was when his sulking would really kick in. How come she got the attention and he didn’t. He tried flirting with other women. Many times, people would ask her what he was on. Once his dance moves were enthusiastic and earnest. Now she just felt pity.
Watching the frozen world of Whitehorse though a fogged-up taxi window, they passed a paddleboat stuck in the frozen Klondike River. Klondike was a name she’d heard of but without context, it had meant nothing. Stuck in winter ice, the historical wooden boat hadn’t gone anywhere in a long time and wasn’t going anywhere soon.
Minus 21 degrees was going to be colder than she was used to or in fact had ever felt before. He had measured them up and organised the snow gear complete with boots to be there waiting for them.
Trying on the snow gear, she couldn’t believe how ridiculous she felt in it. She never fitted into standard clothes easily. She was short and what was politely termed curvaceous. The jacket sleeves reached down passed her knees and the legs were bunched up over her boots so she found it difficult to walk. Of course, out there, there wouldn’t really be anything to walk to.
‘How come it’s so long in the arms and legs? Are you sure this is mine?’ She felt hobbled at how little she could move in the padded jacket and pants. His gear fit fine of course. She felt like an overgrown child learning to walk again.
‘There’s no way I’m going out like this,’ she said.
Plentiful supplies of booze and food were purchased from town to see them through their five days at the cabin. Dropped off by a large SUV, it would return almost a week later to pick them up. Far from any neighbours, they had their phones in case of emergencies.
Deep wide tyre tracks were all that was left as the truck disappeared through the black, spiky forest. Expanses of endless white fields merged with the snow-covered mountain ranges in the far distance. Soft pinks and lilacs filled the sky as the sun set on their first evening in the log cabin.
Retreating inside, he poured liberal amounts of wine whilst she put out a platter of cheese, meats and bread to nibble on. Their wet snow gear was draped across the chairs in their tiny cabin. No stereo system to fill the silence, they resorted to cable TV for the soundtrack to their evening. Food Network shows on repeat would amuse at first, only to grate in the coming days. Outside the darkness rolled in, blanketing the sparse forest surrounding their quaint little cabin.
Naturally the best viewing hours for the Aurora Borealis would be in the middle of the night. She said that she’d turn in and he promised to wake her if there was anything to see. Solar flares had been active these last few days so things looked promising. The wine bottle clanked in the sink as he reached for a second one. Lights were turned off and he methodically donned his snow gear before stepping out into the black moon-less night. He sat in his chair and hunkered down to wait and watch.
She tossed and turned on the too firm bed. She stretched out to use its full width. Her mind tossed and turned also as she thought back over the last few days. Busy with the machinations of travel and organising her parents to stay with her children, they’d not fought or discussed their counselling session the previous week. She didn’t know if this was a promising sign or not.
Unable to easily drift into slumber land thanks to her active mind, she put on her snow boots by the door and threw a thick warm blanket around her. One step into the dry crunchy snow and despite her layers she feels too exposed.
‘Anything yet?’ she asks, knowing the answer would be negative. He shakes his head as he looks up at her. She sits on the edge of his chair, his arms not moving to make any more room for her. He fills his glass with more wine but offers her none. It’s that kind of quiet that is deafening in its heavy solid silence. She stays only a few minutes and turns to go inside the sanctuary of the lighted warm cabin when she can bear the frigidity no longer.
‘Too cold, too quiet, too still,’ she thinks.
Peeling off her layers and climbing back into bed, she thinks, ‘At least there shouldn’t be any tantrums tonight.’
Those nights they would return to his place after too many drinks at a club and he would start in. All she would want to do is sleep and all he would do is rage at her for her lack of attention. It seemed he would rather wait until things had gone too far before he said anything. She never knew when a night was going to turn on its head. She never saw any warning signs. At least with her children, she’d learnt to recognise the tells.
She only realises that she was asleep when he shouts from the open door.
Groggy, she puts on her thick puffy jacket, grabs a scarf and beanie and threads her feet into the boots just inside the door. Switching the light off, she steps away from the veranda to see more of the sky. Turning this way and that, she’s not sure exactly what she’s looking for. She’s seen photos of the Northern Lights and knows they’re large wispy green waves of light. Do they move? Do they only last momentarily like lightning? There are some stories she’d read about eerie noises accompanying the lights. She can’t see anything. She can’t hear anything. He puts down his glass and takes her shoulders in his hands. He turns her slightly and points low towards the horizon.
‘There,’ he says quietly. Leaning against him, he rests his cold chin on her bed-warmed hair. Without speaking, they watch the ribbons of pale green light dance languidly in the sky. In the morning he will excitedly show her the photos he took and all she will think is – sometimes the picture looks better than the reality.