You know, Madeline, there comes a time when you give your belly — thighs and calves too — a good squeeze, expecting to see the ravages of time, the telltale signs of old age. Fifty years old! Well, least I’d made it that far! Then I said to myself: Look, everything’s fine down there. What you need to be doing is giving what’s up on top a squeeze! Yes, your brain, Jane! You know, all that squishy stuff up there! But that was the only place I hadn’t been worrying about! No stretch marks and wrinkles up there — whew, that was a relief! But then I thought, it’s now or never! You’ve got to get out and do something! Pick a course and set sail, Gail. Brave the seas, Louise. There’s oceans to cross, wood to cut, other fish to fry! Take an oath before God and Mary! Get out your runners and strap on your backpack. You can do it! Just go, Mary Jo! With your feet in runners, there’s no end to what you can do! How about going down south from February 7 to 23? Why not? Anything’s possible if you put your mind to it! And don’t let anything stop you — not Mimi and her ski tournaments, not Arnie and his nights out, not Marion and her beating around the bush. Plane tickets: just buy them! Destination: just choose one! Freedom: just take it!
So I went off to Haiti for two weeks. All by myself. I slept, daydreamed, danced, slept, swam, talked, thought, slept, and slept some more! Made lots of friends! And there was nobody breathing down my neck, telling me: No, not like that. No, like this. No, that’s too much. No, that’s not enough. No, I wrote my own script.
When I got back it was like I had the keys to a brand new bicycle. Or like there was a big old rusty bike up there in my head and I’d started oiling its pedals. I just had to keep going! So I told everybody I was going on a solo trip up in the mountains. Are you crazy? they said. When I laughed, they got mad and called me selfish. But I didn’t believe them, no way, Ina May. No more than I believed it when they said they like to knock off tourists in Haiti. Or that I was supporting social injustice by going there. You know, I think it’s the opposite. What better way to help the poor Haitians out of their misery and isolation than by talking to them? By listening to what they have to say. By trying to understand them. And them me.
And the same is true for yours truly! So off I went up in the mountains. I was hiking up one of those vertical trails, laughing and crying all at the same time. I had to stop to wipe all the steam off my glasses. Suddenly I thought I saw a bear in the bushes, like when I was little and I’d see one in the swirly pattern of the curtain in my bedroom. Except now I was sitting on a rock three thousand feet above sea level! Then it came racing out of the bushes and right by me. It was terrified! Guess it thought it’d seen a bear too — a fifty-year old she-bear with a mouth full of teeth! Bet it never thought it’d see something like that! No siree, Wendy! But then again, never thought I’d see a bear in my myopic haze either! But I wasn’t scared because now I know that bear shops at the mall too! Yep, saw it in the paper yesterday: Bear wanders into shopping mall!
Nope, it was something else that scared the living daylights out of me: Mama Grouse. I was taking a little detour off the trail when she charged me, all puffed up, mad as hell! Flapping her wings like crazy. I ran for my life! There were little ones running all over the place. But hey, I understand, I had little ones myself once. Then came the rain. Rain like you’ve never seen, Mary Jean! Rain pouring down in buckets, filling my pockets like cups. It was like my feet were in two icy foot baths! But I kept going — slish-slosh, slish-slosh, slish-slosh — for three miles. Chin up, Buttercup, I kept saying to myself.
Finally I saw shelter. A wood stove and a mattress. Not a living soul around except for a mouse. He ate every last crumb of my sandwich and then curled up in my runner. Ah, a fire! My socks, trousers, T-shirt, bra, underwear — they were sobbing their little hearts out while I was all warm and toasty. I fell asleep on an old foam mat. It was pretty dodgy and God, it smelled like skunk! I wouldn’t have let my cat Gretel sleep on the thing! But that was before . . . For a clock, all I had was my stomach and my bladder. I know lots of people, who shall remain nameless, who would have just peed on the porch if they had to take a leak in the middle of the night. But not me, Valerie, I went all the way down the stairs!
Three days later, I was almost back in civilization. Happy because pee you, Betty Lou! Time to put my skirt and heels back on, Dawn. Except now my head was like a birdcage with the door flung wide open. Yep, wide open and flapping in the wind! But it didn’t bother me one bit. Nope, I chugged back a beer from the bottle and called home: messages, do this, do that. Bills to pay and everybody in a panic because Gretel had gotten out. I couldn’t have cared less! Well, almost . . . But the road was calling and there was still four more hours to go. And I would have bet my mother that I would pull into the driveway and there would be Gretel wiping her paws on the mat.
Two months later, it was a bike tour around Lake St. Jean. Yep, just me, myself and I! Helmet on the old coconut, eyes in googly glasses, neurons all fired up. Had to go up the first hill on foot, but hey, I told myself, there’s nobody here to impress, Jess! Then I pedalled for a bit and coasted down the other side. Stretched my fingers — not an easy thing considering they’re more used to the keyboard than handlebars! Stretched one of them even more when a guy passed me, hand heavy on the horn. Had to give him the finger. Jesus, what an idiot! Then I laughed — if my mother and kids could see me now! Well, you’ll never guess! Somebody did see me — one of my aunts! Can you believe it! She was right on the heels of that guy in the truck. She recognized me and pulled over. So much for going home and thinking you can blend right in! What on earth are you doing out here, Sandra? Get in the car and come on over to my house, dear. This is crazy! Did Arnie let you go off all alone like this? No, Aunt Victoria, I’m not getting in the car. I’m pedalling to St. Monique. Where I’ve got a B & B waiting for me. You poor thing! Do you want me to lend you my car? It’ll be a lot quicker. I’ll pay for the gas if you like. Thanks but no thanks, Aunt Victoria. Toodle-oo, Aunt Victoria! Pray for me and the wingnuts on my bike, that they don’t go flying off and me with them. Call Arnie if you like, he’ll be happy to hear from you!
Then I climbed back on my bike. Yvette was waiting for me at her B & B. She didn’t know me from her brother but she welcomed me like a sister. I liked her happy eyes. I listened to her stories and had a great time. Then another morning. Another day. The gears on my bike stopped shifting, and the ones in my brain too. But my knees kept going up and down without a creak. Then nighttime. I stopped to take a dip in a little bay. The water was turning black and I could see my reflection in it. I saw a marvellous slice of Neapolitan ice cream melting in the water. My shoulders and knees were red like raspberries and my hair was all chocolate, like meringue. Except for my bangs, which were foamy white. And my butt was white too, like creamy nougat!
Then off to a new B & B. A small place, lots of families with little ones. I just watched and listened. You know, I wasn’t the least bit lonely because the sheer pleasure of being at my own beck and call filled up all the space in my head. And sitting there, drinking my coffee, I started singing that old Paul Simon song to myself, except I changed a few words:
Hop on the trail, Gail / You don’t need to discuss much / Just drop off the key, Lee / And set yourself free . . .
This story was translated from its original French by Susan Lemprière
Original short story: “Partir toute seule en gang,” originally published in XYZ: La revue de la nouvelle, vol. 11 (fall 2012)