43. Mara

written 1 year and 27 days after

In September, I went to Mara Lake.

I’d never been before and I arrived in the dark, so the first thing I knew of the lake was the way the dock lights wavered upon the surface in short contrails of white and cream.

As soon as I arrived, the guys whooped and hollered. They were grouped around a picnic table beneath a weeping willow that was larger than any other I’d ever seen. One of the guys pressed a black-handled, serrated knife into my hand.

I looked at the knife in my palm and tried not to think about dying. Then, another one of the guys handed me a slim silver can. There was a logo on the can; it was some kind of vodka soda.

Shotgun, they chanted. Shotgun.

I set the can and the blade on the picnic table and hugged the guys instead.

How was the drive? they each asked me, and to each of them, I said: oh, easy.

Easy, because I didn’t drive. I was just a passenger. The person who drove me was one of Kurtis’ oldest friends — Kurtis first met him in kindergarten.

After hugging the guys, who have all known Kurtis since early grade school, I hauled my small suitcase and backpack and cooler to the rental unit that I was staying in. Inside, the unit was panelled entirely in wide planks of oak, though the walls of my particular room were thin, vertical slats of fake wood painted in mushroom brown. The room was big enough only for the double bed and one dresser. The door almost hit the bed when it opened into it. I liked the room as soon as I saw it.

I set my suitcase on the dresser and put my fitted sheet and cover sheet on the bed. I set my backpack on the raised shelf above the dresser and I plugged my phone charger into the outlet. I sat on the bed and stared at the wall opposite.

On the wall were two pictures, hung so slightly out alignment that there is no way that it was deliberate. One picture was of geese above a lake in fall. The aspen trees were bare and the other was of geese above a lake in winter.

I catalogued the pictures carefully because it was a way of keeping my mind from wandering to places that I couldn’t come back from.

Then, I stood up and took my cooler and filled the fridge with what food I had brought: bagels, cans of tuna, mayo, cheese, a carton of sparkling water, skewers of raw chicken. Later, I would buy food I should have brought: salty corn chips, iced danishes, spicy chicken lunch meat, Red Bull.

I took so long settling myself into the rental that one of the guys came looking for me.

Just checking on you, he said — a thoughtfulness that I appreciated, though I didn’t say it out loud.

Coming right now, I said, when his head poked through the sliding glass door of the unit. Just getting my stuff unpacked.

He smiled and then disappeared, walking back towards the picnic table and the shimmer of the lights and the faint burble of voices. I followed him and resisted the urge to leave the irregular square of light near the buildings and walk into the dark towards the lake. The water looked molten at night.

I was a little anxious. In any social situation, I always am, that’s just my social baseline, but I was especially anxious that weekend because I was keenly aware that I had been invited on the trip, which was titled The Kurtis Trip in the group chat, as a legacy invitation. I was there because Kurtis was not and could not and would not be there.

“I’m not as fun as him,” I said when I first settled into the truck of his oldest friend.

We had only been on the road for twenty minutes when I said it. He hesitated, which I thought was kind but he needn’t have. I wasn’t fishing for assurances. I was stating a fact.

“No one is as fun as him,” Kurtis’ oldest friend said.

“That’s true,” I said, but I couldn’t say more because my voice was catching. I dug my fingernails into the soft grey fabric of the truck seat and refused to cry.

For most of the first evening and into the early morning, I sat at the picnic table and watched a pyramid of Junior McChickens dwindle in direct correlation to the number of keg stands done by the guys. During one keg stand, I was commissioned to work the pump, which I’d never done before and so I held the mouthpiece the wrong way and forgot, at first, to press the latch down (this is a resounding testament to how studious I was in university). Though they asked, I knew they knew I was never going to do a keg stand myself. Kurtis would have, of course.

“I miss him,” one of the guys said to me, mid-way through the evening. I was eating a rainbow Chips Ahoy cookie that turned dry in my mouth. The yellowy light from the porch globe illuminated faint fingerprint smudges on the surface of Kurtis’ friend’s glasses.

“Me too,” I said, but not loudly enough.

Do not cry, I thought again. Do not cry.

By one in the morning, I had floated away from from the pod of people and was standing just on the edge between shadow and light, nodding, but honestly, not talking to anyone. I hesitated for a second when I realized this and then I just left.

I brushed my teeth in the wee bathroom connected to my room. The toilet almost touched the sink. I washed my face. I changed into my sleep shorts and sweatshirt. I settled onto the mattress and pulled the sheet and the light coverlet over top of my body. In the dark, my phone screen was so bright.

I opened my Saved voicemails and listened to the one from January 2019 where Kurtis tells me, “Hey babe, I got a new phone.. uhh, yeah, so I love you and I’ll see you soon.”

He says, “see you soon,” with spunky, exaggerated pauses between the words. It’s playful and staccato and endearing.

I must have listened to that voice mail hundreds of times. I listened again, fives times, before I had to stop because I was afraid I was crying too loudly… or at least loudly enough that I could be heard if someone came into the unit.

I set the phone on the charger, which used to be Kurtis’ charger because mine had broken and his hadn’t, but I didn’t lay back on the bed. I just sat there, bent forward, and stared at the door of the room.

“Please come back for me,” I said.

The last time Kurtis’ friends were there together at Mara Lake, it was 2018 and it was Kurtis’ surprise bachelor party, which I helped set up with his oldest friend.

“Kurtis,” I said, but the house was silent.

Echoing through the chambers of my body were the remembered sounds of his voice.

At night, I was too cold, and then I was too hot. A train ran through my restless sleep. All through my time at Mara, the quiet was broken by the faint but steady sound of a train chugging somewhere else, the lonely blare of the horn. Of course, I know it’s me that’s lonely, but still.

In the Bible, Naomi claimed the name Mara as an expression of grief after the deaths of her husband and sons. The root of the name Mara is the Hebrew word for bitter, which carries the implication of intensity, in the sense of bitter, black coffee grounds.

I remembered that Naomi’s husband and sons had died and she had taken a new name not long after I woke up and listened to the sounds of the train.

When I finally descended the stairs, I found the guys were awake in their separate units. They were all pan frying bacon and sausage and eggs — apparently the universal breakfast of these men on vacation. One of them made me a sausage and egg sandwich in a specialized sandwich maker. The sammie was hot and sharp with melty cheddar and decadent with the oily, slightly crispy tang of the sausage patty. I ate one and then I ate another one.

The lake, which I had only seen the lights upon the night previous, stretched out just beyond the rental units. The beach was white and very soft, when I dug my toes into it. There were dark red, wooden benches, and the mountains surrounding us were spiky with evergreen trees. On one side of the mountain surrounding the lake, the evergreens were brown and the ground charred. Small tendrils of smoke still wavered into the air.

All summer the fires burn, getting worse and more dangerous and more devastating every year as the destructive effects of global warming intensify. When Kurtis’ oldest friend and I drove out, we passed through a patch of the forest that was burning. Coals were red on the ground, the living, warmth of the smouldering fire a jolting sign of life amid the grey and black and brown of ash and dead bark and smoke.

After eating and the guys playing tennis, Kurtis’ oldest friend brought out the pontoon boat and we climbed on, our life jackets dangling from our hands. We shucked off our Birkenstocks and left them in a tangle on the dock.

The boat was wide and steady with saddle brown leather seats. It flew over the dark jade water and the wind picked up, making me grateful I had worn black sweatpants and a grey fleece overcoat. Music poured through the speakers. I was sitting beside a guy that had joined for only a day — he and his wife were on vacation nearby. He had gone to grade school with one of the guys in attendance, but he hadn’t gone to school with Kurtis. I had never met this person before.

“Do you live in Calgary?” this man who was only there for the day asked me.

“I am, was,” I said stumbling over the verb tense, “Kurtis’ wife.”

He told me he knew that I was Kurtis’ wife and I realized that what had seemed like a clear answer to me had not been clear to him at all.

“We lived in Calgary,” I said. “We were supposed to move to Vancouver last year, but we didn’t. So, I’m in Calgary still.”

The boat had slowed then, bobbing lazily in a quiet bay. Someone called for a Cheers! to Kurtis and I lifted my soda with everyone else.

“He would have loved this,” the guy across from me said.

I couldn’t get the Cheers! out of my throat, which had closed up. I blinked as rapidly as I could and looked away from the upwardly stretched arms of the guys.

Three years ago he would have been there on the lake for his bachelor party, which he loved so much. The night he came back, hungover, under slept, and reeking of alcohol, he skipped showering so he could sit in bed beside me and type up a list of everything he loved about the weekend. It was incredibly long, this list. He sent it to all the guys. He chortled as he did it, pulling out his phone and showing me all of the ridiculous videos he had of the guys puking into black garbage bags they looped around their ears.

I remember watching him type up all of his favourite moments and feeling a new dimension and depth of my endearment to him. It always felt incredible to me that I could love someone for years and still have him do things that surprised me in gentle, wonderful, sweet ways.

“How is it being here?” a few of the guys asked me, separately from each other, throughout the course of the weekend.

“It’s so good to be with his chosen family,” I would say, or some variant of this but I could never get all the way through it without my eyes welling up.

The second night, after chicken and salad and cribbage and more of the guys’ keg stands, I sat on the patio couch and watch them proverbially circle each other, each bating the other into stripping off their clothes and running down to the dock to skinny dip into the lake that had again gone wet and shimmering in the dark.

Eventually, they all surrendered. Pants and shirts were torn off and an array of black boxers was revealed.

Nice, they all said, pointing to each others’ Sax underwear.

Expensive, they all agreed, nodding with chagrin.

Then, they were all running pell mell out of the triangle of light and into the dark shadows beneath the weeping willows. I caught a glimpse of flashing skin, blurring down across the beach, and then all I could see was the stalks of their bodies beneath the dock lights, the flash of the water as it flew upwards, their bodies plunging downwards.

I could see the guys but they couldn’t see me, so I let myself cry.

Over the next few days, there would be more time in the boat, and a lot more male nudity, which they shielded me from, calling for me to not look. They would show me where Kurtis shit into the lake because he had diarrhea and tell me how he instigated walking across the hot coals of a dying campfire. I would jump off a fifteen foot cliff and as I sank into the water that was as green inside as it was from the outside, I would hold myself under for a moment, refusing to surface. I would cry in my room, waiting until my face was not pink and swollen anymore before I joined everyone again. I would also laugh and repeatedly be surprised and then delighted when the guys checked to make sure I was okay, gave me space when I disappeared, walked by and gave me a hug, just because.

“He would have wanted us to make sure you were okay,” the only other woman on the trip told me one afternoon. She was, according to the guys, one of the bros. It was clear they, as well as I, liked her a great deal. She had also gone to grade school with Kurtis. He and I had gone to her wedding a few years ago.

“You’re family, now,” another one of the guys told me.

We were sitting around a campfire then, the fire ban lifted just that morning.

“Have you had a good time?” the guy who told me I was family asked.

“Definitely,” I said.

I wanted to tell all of them: thank you for loving me. Thank you for making me a part of this family. I am so glad to be here. It is so good to be here.

To be included in the heart of the people that loved him, to be welcomed into relationship with them because of the relationship Kurtis had with them: what a beautiful gift. What a way to love another. I was so, immeasurably glad to have been included. That’s just how love goes sometimes, when there is death. I’ve said it before: it’s sad and it’s sustaining and it’s always all at once.

On the water, sound carries itself a long way. Even when I was far from the dock where all the guys were either cannonballing into the lake or standing around pushing at each other, I could still hear every word of their conversations.

Kurtis had such a symphonic laugh. I can never write enough about what it was like. He told me, after his bachelor party, that he wasn’t sure he’d ever laughed so much in his life.

One night, well into the early, wee hours of the morning, I turned from the guys who were still naked in the lake and I walked through the shadows back to my unit. When Kurtis was there, if he had been there with me, his laugh would have carried all the way down the length of the lake. You would have felt it in the narrows, in the deep, in every part of your body that you did and did not know could ache.

… In case you were wondering, no, I won’t be writing the letters every week like I did before, but I have decided to write a letter when I feel like I want to — I’m still formalizing how often I’ll feel like I want to and sorting out what it’ll look like, so if you’d like to receive these occasional missives from me, feel free to stay or become subscribed.

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