Creative Nonfiction Prize
Icarus by Terri Favro
This week we're publishing the five stories on the shortlist for the CBC Creative Nonfiction Prize. In this story, author Terri Favro looks back at a youthful love affair...
Skylab was falling. Weakened by sunspots, the space station would take weeks to reach Earth, losing orbit like an old man rolling out of bed. A sign at the bar set the odds of debris reaching Hamilton at seven to one.
A boy in black leather muscled his way onto the stool beside me. “Canadian,” he ordered, adding: “NASA should send me up. I’d fix the son-of-a-bitch.”
In the mirror behind the whisky bottles, I watched his gaze move from my eyes, to my mouth, to the soft indentation at the base of my throat. He rapped the bar next to my empty glass with his knuckles. “I’m buying.”
He was an apprentice millwright: shorter than I liked, but durable looking, big in the chest as if his heart needed extra room. Shaggy blonde hair fell across his forehead. One finger was a stump—chewed off in a machine, he said.
We danced under a disco ball that turned the floor into a prism of body parts. Fists stirred the air. Denim crotches bumped one another. A ponytail swung like a rope. I clung to the boy’s shoulders.
“I finished university today,” I shouted. It seemed important to let him know that he was punching above his weight.
He steadied me by pulling me to his chest. “What’d you study?”
“English. I’m going to Toronto to be a writer.”
“Jesus! Better buy you another drink before you get too famous for me.”
After another Singapore Sling, I agreed to go outside to see his motorcycle.
“A Kawasaki? Not a Harley?” I teased, standing in front of a brandy-coloured bike.
“Harleys are trouble.” Borrowing a helmet for me from a guy he called his buddy, he straddled the bike and jumped on the starter. “Hop on.”
Tucking my skirt under my thighs, I snugged myself up against his butt, wrapped my arms around his waist, pressed my face into his back, redolent of sweaty animal hide and tobacco, and allowed myself to be obliterated by vibration and speed.
We battled a head wind over Burlington Bay Bridge. My eyes teared up as I gazed at the flaring stacks of steel mills. I felt demolished. Overthrown. Falling into bed with him back at my flat was like part of the ride, his body pistoning me into the wall, the floor, the mattress.
I assumed he would vanish overnight. Not that I minded. He was too much like the boys in the sad, rusty town where I grew up. Ending up as a tradesman’s girl would be like falling back to where I came from.
I opened my eyes the next morning to the boy tugging on his leathers. I asked to snap a picture of him. To remember him by.
“You are one weird chick.” He posed for the picture and left.
I had my memento of our one-night stand. But the boy didn’t let it stand. He roared back unannounced the next day on the Kawasaki, saddlebags stuffed with pumpernickel, pickled herring and Brie.
Flattered, I opened the door.
We picnicked on the floor. I talked about my last exam, a critique of a W.H. Auden poem. He said he couldn't understand how anyone could spend hours analyzing one poem, and call it work.
“You might change your mind if you read it. It’s deep.” I explained that the poem was about a painting, Brueghel’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus. Peasants go about their ploughing while far in the background a boy falls into the sea. His wings have melted off from flying too close to the sun. But no one really notices, or cares.
“Because shit happens,” shrugged the boy.
“That’s right,” I said, surprised. “Maybe you do get poetry.”
He shook his head. “I’m into science fiction.”
He started showing up every weekend. We’d have sex, share delicatessen food, and roll around Hamilton on his motorcycle. He’d talk about politics—his were painfully, simplistically right wing. He’d talk about getting an Engineering degree—trying to impress me, I thought. He’d talk about guns, volunteering to show me how to handle a twenty-two. He’d even talk about novels, his favourite being the post-apocalyptic A Boy and His Dog. The book ends with the boy letting the dog eat his girlfriend.
I hurled it across the room at the boy’s head. “You asshole!”
“What the hell’s the matter?” he laughed, dodging the paperback. “It’s just a book.”
I decided to break up with him when I left for enlightened Toronto. We would end like a T.S. Eliot poem. Not with a bang but a whimper.
Weeks passed, waiting for real life to begin. I worked temporary jobs and sold an article for fifteen dollars. When a letter arrived from the Toronto arts organization that had offered to hire me, I expected to read that their grant money had finally come through.
It was an apology. Reduced government funding, it mourned, closing with: Best wishes for your future.
Expecting the boy, I waited and waited. He had said he would come, but didn’t show.
I knew it had to end some time. But no one should lose their job and lover in one day.
I scraped together enough change for a bottle of Blue Nun. At the liquor store, a mustached Serpico frowned at my ID and slipped my shameful lonely-girl purchase into a bag.
By the time I returned to my flat, the sun was a smoggy ball over Burlington Bay. I killed the Blue Nun and woke on the floor in headachy darkness to a ringing phone. I didn’t recognize the voice of the boy’s brother.
“There’s been an accident,” he said.
I caught a bus to the university medical centre, a space ship of a hospital with candy-coloured walls. You would never suspect the cheery interior hid so many broken bodies. At Intensive Care, a nurse asked if I was family.
“Girlfriend,” I answered, the word catching in my throat.
I recognized him by his blonde hair. He lay facedown on a stretcher inside a steel wheel. The skin I had tasted so many times was thicketed with wires. Bolts in his skull connected him to a halo immobilizing his head, turning him into part of the machinery.
An older version of the boy sat in a chair, flipping through OMNI -- his brother.
“Thanks for coming,” he said, standing to shake my hand.
“How is he?”
“Broke his neck.”
I knew this from the phone call. Going around a curve too fast, the front wheel of the Kawasaki hit the curb, turning the boy into a projectile.
The boy slurred something. His brother said: “He’s trying to tell you he’s not paralyzed. He’s lucky. Different story, if the break was lower. My folks’ll tell you. They want to meet you.”
“They know about me?”
“Sure. When he started talking about going back to finish Engineering, we thought it was cause of you.”
The boy had been to university?
“S’okay babe, everything works,” he slurred, groping for my hand. His fingers felt cold.
A sour wine taste seeped into my mouth. “I have to step outside. OK? Can I bring you something?”
“Smokes,” slurred the boy.
“Come on now,” said the brother.
“Can’t go cold turkey,” mumbled the boy.
The brother looked at me apologetically. “They flip him over in the Stryker frame every two hours. Two hours facing up, two down. It’s bad. But I don’t know if they’re gonna let him smoke.”
“I’ll buy him some anyway.” I released the boy’s hand and backed out of the room.
A volunteer sleepily directed me to the hospital chapel. No candles, no Stations of the Cross: the sanctuary was one-size-fits-all, like pantyhose.
For the first time the boy wasn’t just a body with a bike and bad taste in books.
In traction, he reminded me of a martyr broken on a wheel. But he was no martyr: the accident had been his own damn fault. And I could easily have been on the bike too. I’d rather be dead than pinned to a Stryker frame.
Reckless, stupid asshole. Also, brave. He hadn’t asked me to stick by him. He knew I’d be scared. He’d tried to reassure me that he would be okay. He wasn’t paralyzed but who knew what he’d be like, later. What he’d need.
Would I be a bad person if I didn’t go back? He had a family, after all. I could tell his brother loved the boy. I wondered if the boy could tell that I did not -- at least, not enough.
I left the hospital for a corner store. A man at the cash was watching a black-and-white TV. Skylab had finally crashed in Australia, killing a cow.
I put down a bill, hoping it was enough. “Export A.”
The man gave me the cigarettes. “Miss? Your change?”
I stared at the pack.
I couldn’t move forward. I didn’t know how to go back.