“What One Means” by Matthew C. Barron

Under the sweeping, high-ceilinged glass of Vancouver airport, a traveler seems to be grinning at me, breathlessly waving.

“Where you been hiding yourself, Lucas boy?” says the man, swinging around himself a gargantuan red suitcase.

Just inside the duty-free shop, I stand in an aisle of local wine and chocolate, trying to recall that familiar smile under those unfamiliar wrinkles, that skunk-grey lock of hair. Almost immediately he extends his half of a handshake, but I must have hesitated, because he looks away, scratching the cleft of his greying chin.

“It’s Anthony, bud,” he says, stepping aside to avoid the airport taxi-cart beeping past

“Come on. How could I forget?” Shaking his hand roughly, I laugh at myself but also sound a touch defensive as Anthony—right, his name is Anthony—returns to grinning form, even slaps the shoulder of my puffy parka, deflating it. As twenty-somethings we had worked as counsellors at Camp Ward, a Northern summer retreat. Night after night, after sending our kiddies to bed we would stare into the snapping campfire, our drunken laughter and shadows leaping across the forest. Already we embodied grumpy men, complaining about teenagers who refused to tidy up their pup tents or scour out their mess kits at the river. Or I would complain, prattling on about discipline while Anthony, balancing fir needles between his fingertips, stopped to crack open another beer.

“So, you flying back to Saskatchewan to visit the folks?” Anthony asks.

How has my former co-worker, after a decade and a half of no-contact, managed to remember my prairie origins? “No, I’m trying to fly to Montreal,” I say for some reason, pushing my boarding pass deeper into my breast pocket, for Anthony, as always, has guessed correctly: I am flying to the prairies, but not to visit. After a decade in Vancouver, I’ve decided to move back in with my elderly parents, back to the farm outside Biggar with their bright-yellow canola fields—or that was my intention until the expected blizzard this morning blinded, delayed, grounded, finally, most of the flights across the Pacific Northwest.

The cathedral-lofty windows continue to bluster with snow. Ski jackets and wet shoes swish and squeak in all directions, yet Anthony wears baggy camouflage shorts, as if summer was the only season of his life. “You wouldn’t believe it,” he says, tapping his raw red legs, “but this old boy went back to school. Law school.” In fact, he’s just attended a legal conference here on the West Coast, only the white-outs have iced up his plans to fly back to Toronto.

“Law? That’s interesting. Maybe I could’ve hired you recently,” I say, vowing not to mention my divorce, even as I proceed to mention it. “My lawyer fees, they could’ve paid for an indoor pool, and probably did.” Why I told him, I can’t say, because the legal advice actually didn’t exceed the free half-hour consultation. I hear myself telling Anthony, too, that this duty-free wine in my hands is for my Montreal friends, when it’s actually for my prairie parents. Maybe the indecision about whether to buy Syrah or Shiraz is actually indecision about whether to move back to the farm, but keeps me, too, from thinking about the institution of divorce—or Talia, who, after years of marriage, has understandably moved me out of our flat.

“Sorry to hear about your divorce. That can’t be easy.” Anthony rolls his suitcase back and forth as the smell of stir fry settles in from a distant food court. “I considered divorce law, but insurance law is more my sport. You wouldn’t believe all the failing businesses, the fire jobs, the fraud.”

“Oh no, divorce is nothing. Well, it’s something, but not the something everyone makes it out to be.”

The back and forth rolling of the suitcase clicks to a halt. “Remember your cross-Canada bike trip? The one you always talked about at Camp?” he asks. “Well, a few years back I did it too—cycled from one coast to the other. The whole continent.”

I find myself picking at the label of my parents’ bottle of wine again, because I haven’t a clue what Anthony’s talking about. Never have I cycled across North America and, at the risk of sounding prickly, even mean, one doesn’t forget spending three thousand, eight hundred and thirty-one miles on a bicycle. That said, Talia and I spent our honeymoon bike-touring through the heat-stroking Okanagan Valley. She’s always been a closet oenophile, a little embarrassed of it, so day after day we toured the wineries, pedaling past vineyards and signs with creaky names like Green Monk and Dark Vine while the heat dropped like a noontime blanket. Needless to say, our trip wasn’t a trip across a continent, but our bliss, new, matrimonial, did pull us up the worst of the paved climbs.

“That said, there were some tough days here,” I say. Smiling, I manage to meet his eye, to avoid averting his eyes.

“I probably blamed you the whole way.” Anthony laughs somewhat hesitantly. “Blamed you for every pedal stroke, every rainy-ass mile. Why did I follow your insanity?” If grunting the chain ring of a bike from Halifax to Trois-Rivière wasn’t grinding enough, outside Quebec City Anthony met—on the unfortunate forehead—the door of a parked Audi. He recovered, though, to push through the needless forests of Northern Ontario punctuated with mining and logging towns, past the local fire hall and the odd sunken grocery stores that emerged almost as quickly from the spruce-smelling forests as the towns were swallowed back up again.

“And how about you, you aging scoundrel?” Anthony asks. “How long did it take you to cycle the whole thing? You probably told me at Camp but I forget.” I stare at a display case glimmering with duty-free Hermes bags and overpriced wristwatches. It doesn’t seem to occur to Anthony that, when one is young, stupid and not fond of oneself, one might boast about accomplishments one has never actually, well, accomplished.

“The Vancouver conference you mentioned. Where in the city was it again?”

Anthony’s crinkles seem to be suppressing a grin. “Okay, the Rockies then. Which route did you take through the mountains? I don’t think you ever told me, bud.”

“Oh, one of those highways. I forget exactly.” But I don’t forget how much I loathe being called bud.

“You were always bragging about the Rockies, how no one could climb those hills.” As he gently laughs at my past gloating, a retail worker stacks expensive vodka nearby, the glass in the blue-lit merchandising pyramid chattering as though the bottles were speaking to one another. “It was weird, how hard you tried to talk everyone into doing that cross-country ride.”

 “Wait. I remember which route I took now. Jasper, I cycled through Jasper. What’s that highway up there called again?”

“The Yellow head’s pretty far north, isn’t it?”

My thumbnail picks at the edge of the wine label. “The Okanagan then. I forget.”

“Wouldn’t you remember, though?”

Who knows why I lied so much back then. Maybe I had to protect myself from this realization, from some perpetual shame of my own making. Maybe it was easier to tell a tall tale around the campfire, enjoying the glowing, smoke-squinting admiration of those faces for my fabrications, for my cross-continental hustle. Not that there’s anything admirable about dissembling, just as there’s nothing redeeming about divorce, but at least I never cheated on Talia. I lied, yes, lied plenty, but I never committed adultery; I was finished with that emotional racket by the time Talia graced my life.

Anthony has narrowed his eyes now on my incessant label-fiddling, which has grown more compulsive. “I remember you talking so much about the bike around Montreal, you seemed obsessed with Montreal, but me? The country around Thunder Bay was pretty memorable, and I just gave her.” The pavement had streamed under his wheels, he gloats, his lungs burning with each pedal thump. One morning he smelled chain-sawed pine and wood chips started flying. when he peered up from his quivering front wheel, a logging truck shuddered past, throwing up a wall of wind and sawdust. “Before I knew it, a log rolled right off the flatbed. The whole fucking tree. You wouldn’t believe the sound, the thunder it made on the highway. But I managed to swing around it—just.” Listening to my old forgotten friend, I too feel as though I’m traveling across that enormous distance, as if I had done that cross-country trip after all and hadn’t merely lied about it. Maybe I could even admit that this nervously peeled bottle isn’t actually for a relative or colleague in Montreal—or for my parents, for that matter—but for my ex. Yes, although Talia wants to move on and never hear from me again, I will send her this vintage bottle—or maybe a much grander gift. Call it foolish, call it a splendid gift; just don’t call it a pathetic attempt to win her back.

Listening to Anthony pedal his nostalgia down the sentimental North American highway, I explain that these coast-to-coast stories are all nationalistic stereotypes, even propaganda, maybe even like the Canadian railroad, but thankfully he’s too busy with his phone to hear me. Making his vertical screen horizontal, he thumbs an image of himself sitting astride his bike, with the blur of a three-lane highway behind. Freighted down by sleeping bag, saddle-bags and the hot sun, his aluminum bike shines like a Granny Smith apple. A green frame bitten and masticated by many miles.

“You didn’t see these pictures online?”

 “I shut down my account.” Unfortunately, I don’t get out much, in person or online.
 He slipped his phone back in his shorts pocket. “I’m doing all the talking here, aren’t I? Yapping away.”

“Makes sense, since you actually did all the pedaling.”

“What do you mean?” I would answer, but someone, another customer bumps past me, their elbow catching my arm. The bottle for Talia slips from my grip. My foot shoots out, unable to prevent the shatter. The entire airport seems to turn its head now as the scent of smashed grape pervades the aisle, a lake spreading round Anthony’s cycling shoe. When he kindly dustbins the glass into a pile with his insole, I get annoyed, even sharp with him and he backs off. Again it felt like the world was criticizing me; I have long been unable to endure the shame, the reminder of myself and my failures. For that same reason I lie, because one can then endure the long road of it, the shame of those lies, of oneself. One gets angry for being angry with oneself, lies to rectify more lies.

“Let me do it.” I reach for the worker’s mop, sounding gruff and disgusted with myself.

 “Please, sir. It’s under control,” says the unfortunate man, wringing the braids of wine into a bucket. Another set of hands, stained now, running red with another of my messes.

“At least let me pay for the bottle.” I flap open my wallet, only to remember the credit card isn’t mine but Talia’s.

“Same old Lucas,” says Anthony. “It’s just an accident there, bud. Let the man do his job.”

“Got it. Bud.”

Near the stack of stuffed polar bears and moose, the eyes of onlookers are jammed together into one curious, rubbernecking head. I stare back, as though it’s their fault until they self-consciously shuffle to other aisles, as though the balance of embarrassment has swung back to the crowd for continuing to stare. 

We both seem to follow our silence out of the shop into the greater airport, out under those vaulted glass ceilings where the snow continues to fall. A family of snowsuits swishes. A terrier yips groggily from a travel crate. Standing at the airport departure board, we say nothing to one another. Flight still run red with delay and some are cancelled, though not our respective flights, not yet.

“With all this snow, I might be shacking in at a hotel.” Anthony scratched at his forearm, clearly a sign he wants to leave.

“Maybe you should bike home.” My attempt at cleverness instead sounds snide and immediately I regret my comment.

Shaking his head he delivers a mock stretch, a yawn. “Alright, time to go.”

After shattering a bottle of wine in public, an accidental christening, there isn’t much to hide anymore. “I protect myself with sarcasm. I’m working on it.” Anthony feigns interest in the flight departures, the stranded travelers sprawled on the floor of a departure gate. “Come on,” I try again. “I’ll buy you some dinner.”

Without quite agreeing, he followed my suitcase and we rolled past stranded travelers sleeping upright in chairs and families and groups sprawled in corners, along the floors, we pass an airport restaurant encircled in blue screens and circling mirrored glass of a sports bar. Having rolled over that strange border between airport and restaurant, we find a table and hail the menus. Anthony, no longer silent, sweeps through images of Sasha and David piloting their apple-green trikes. His little heathens, he calls them.

“I take it not having heathens made the divorce easier.” He speaks without looking at me while I spin the delaminating menu on the wooden table, sweating and delaminating like its clammy plastic at the thought of having a drink, though I was the one who suggested the pub.

“Near the end of the marriage,” I tell him, “my ex would say things like, ‘We can’t be everything to each other.” Friends, family, partners. Or she’d coach me on being with other women, if we ever separated. ‘When you kiss her,’ she’d say, ‘don’t kiss her like that. Please.’”

“Might’ve been a sign there.”

Convinced I had found the perfect partner, I found I had no use for anyone but her, for friends, even family, Talia’s voice being the only one anyone needed to hear. Sometimes I even forgot I was speaking to her, would somehow complain about her to her, confiding in her about how unhappy I was in the marriage, as if she were two different people and it were possible to talk behind the back of the other. Everything seemed to be circling, especially when my partner discovered I hadn’t actually been attending a support group in the basement of St. James Presbyterian Church. For over a year, I instead sought treatment at a pub, reading novel after novel at a pace of one pint per chapter—two if they were sparingly short. Then, before heading home, a swish of cinnamon mouthwash.

The waiter looms over us. “Drinks, fellas?”

I hesitate as Anthony orders. On the screen above, a player replays some tournament-winning goal. Late in the game the hockey player, all icy exhaustion, skates towards the last net, becoming a loop of stamina, precision.

“My buddy here, he’ll have a shot of whiskey.”

“Just water, thanks.”

“Come on. We’re not hammering the highway here. I don’t see any water stations.”

“Ever been to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting?” There was a perverse sense of triumph in watching his face turn.

“You’ve got a drinking problem.”

“I said this to Talia and I’ll say it to you. AA is nothing but Christian doctrine masquerading as self-help.” As I deliver my sermon, two whiskeys on the rocks appear on an unsteady, clattering tray. I crave the kiss of that cold glass.

“I’m sorry, but please take these back and bring us two teas,” Anthony says to the waiter, but I scoop my hands around the drinks, as though hugging a smoky hearth.

“These can stay.” I push the second drink towards Anthony, but he slid it back and asked how long I’d been sober. “Everyone talks about the first drink like it’s the problem, like that’s the test. But refusing the second drink? That’s the real challenge. The first is easy, drink it without being compelled to drink the second, then you’re laughing. Off to the races.” I backhanded the glass back toward him. “See? I don’t need it.”

 “Again. How long have you been dry?” He pushed the drink to one side of the knotted wood table, on the other side of his elbow, as if protecting it.

Late in my marriage, fearful of Talia’s exit, my drinking had scared me sober, so sober I have refused the taste of alcohol for eight months, and endured the loss of its tender sting. And if over those long eight months I craved drink more than ever, I feared it more than ever too, but being with someone, a celebration with a long-lost friend, a drink seemed right. I congratulate itself on my admirable stretch of sobriety, an admirable distance that clearly earned me a single drink, if nothing else.

Recovering my composure, my chewed fingernail pinging the second glass and delivered a teasing smile. “Can’t handle one little shot?”

“This here is so juvenile.”

“By drinking with me, you’re actually helping me avoid that second glass of whiskey. If you drink yours, then I can only have one—”

“Now that is some manipulative shit.” Anthony stands up to leave, grabs at his suitcase. I am happy to see him go, actually, because now I am free to drink guilt-free. “Have a good one,” he says, half-waving over his shoulder as his suitcase whirrs around the liquored heart of the pub. Watching him head for moving walkway, the horizontal escalator shooting travelers off to no destination, I feel my fingers close around the first shot, the whiskey sweating conspicuously on the raw wood. Like so many, Anthony fails to comprehend the drunken bell curve, how, at the height of one’s cravings, the compulsion for that dry smoking aroma is bad, nearly maddening even, but as every drinker knows, if one waits long enough for them to pass, these cravings eventually lessen, dip and wind back down the hill. No longer will this tongue spark with anticipation.         

Hearing the familiar whirring sound, I pretend to not have noticed his return, his collapse back into his seat. Silent, he looks squarely at the still-full second glass. “Look, I understand you don’t want to be a participant in this, but I can hold myself to a single whisky. I have the stamina.” But Anthony’s stare—with its look of understanding, so cloying and immediate in its honesty—makes it difficult to believe my usual phrases. I almost hate him for puncturing them, and for a moment, fleeting as it is, his presence somehow left the booze smelling off, nauseating, already tasting of that chemical regret and even self-flagellation that always follows another relapse, regret that leaves me wondering if eight months of sobriety could have successfully extended to twelve months, 24, even a lifetime.

“Take it away,” I bark. “Both of them.”

Anthony leaps up from the booth and slops the shots back onto the bar. Breathing heavily, I follow Anthony toward the moving walkway, determined not to look back at those wasted drinks, those two perfectly good swallows when, gazing down, I notice two rings left on the wooden table. With a swipe of my elbow the two circles of perspiration disappear, only to bring to the surface of wood a number of drink rings—the indelible marks of other drinks, other drinkers. I force myself to leave then, unable to rub the rings away.

Matthew C. Barron lives in Vancouver, Canada and has worked as a communications writer and journalist for over a decade. He holds an MA and has attended Fiction workshops at the Banff Centre, Simon Fraser University and other Canadian institutions.