Save for rare Saturdays and Sundays, we are separated every day. Mom and Dad go to work. The girls are off at school, or sports camps for Stephanie and a summer job for Amber. We are almost never without our phones, which we once claimed were for keeping in touch with each other. Dad has his in the middle drawer of his desk, resting on a piece of hard foam that had come packaged with some piece of computer equipment, probably his mouse. What the foam does is prevent the phone from making a noise so amplified and terrible that Dad and everyone within a ten cubical radius thinks it is some death groan coming up the I-beams from deep inside the building. Dad’s set up lets enough vibrations into the desk that he can feel his keyboard buzz and no one touches his or her pocket to see if it is them buzzing, never mind running for the emergency stairwell or taking cover under their desks. Mom has hers with her all the time, in purses and clutches, blue jeans and slacks, on the bathroom counter and bedside table. Once, when she was explaining to a wincing Stephanie one or two of the finer points of “sucking the bag,” an outdated phrase Stephanie had picked up somewhere without understanding to what she was actually referring, Mom’s phone started buzzing and she held up a finger to Stephanie and said, “I have to get this,” which was so much what she always said that Stephanie didn’t even really hear her say it and just got out her own phone anyway to check her scores on the FIFA site. The last time we had taken a road trip as a family, to a soccer tournament in Erie, PA, Stephanie had gone over on her data minutes watching videos of Christine Sinclair and Diana Matheson. The bill had been $1500 and Dad had protested it with the cellular service provider because, he said, they told him he had unlimited roaming, which they claimed they hadn’t said, but that if they had said it they might have meant that we could roam anywhere, not that we had an unlimited amount of data. They didn’t make him pay, but we have put limits on how long Stephanie can spend using data, which she is still unhappy about because after a practice or a game that is part of how she likes to unwind. Amber is an active Snapchatter, Tweeter, and Instagrammer. She posts all her poetry on her blog, feelingsfixedinamber98.blogspot.ca, which got, on average, 1000 views a week. When Jack, this handsome and charming guy at work this summer came in after his smoke breaks, she would go sit outside and check how many page views she’d had since she arrived at work. Sometimes at lunch at school she will write a few stanzas and post them while she's eating last night’s leftovers.
Right before we left, Jack gave Amber 12 roses and asked her to go to the movies whenever she had a chance. She was texting with him and explaining about why she couldn’t go when she noticed, “I have no bars,” and shook her phone.
Stephanie, who was listening to Robyn on iTunes as a way to help her ration out her allotted half hour of streaming, took out one ear-bud and said, “What?”
Amber held her phone up to her sister’s face. “No service.”
Stephanie’s left eyebrow slide-tackled her right eyebrow. She checked her own phone. “Me neither.”
“Hunh,” Mom said, staring at the five empty circles in the top corner of her screen. “Just a patch of bad service, I guess.”
Dad had been enjoying the unending bush, the mixed forest, the swamps, even the dust kicked up by the dump truck he was determined to keep 500 yards in front of us. His gut kicked up some burning, noxious fluid. He should have said something to the rest of us about what Aunty Max had told him about the new cottage she and her partner Al had bought up by Loring, “It’s beautiful up there. And the best part is, I don’t even get cell phone service.” She is a midwife and a buzzing pager or cell phone means a question from a client or even a birth, which she loves attending, she loves her job, but that ringing could mean 12-18 hours of intense physical and emotional work. Dad hadn’t said anything to the rest of us because, well, because he knew that we probably wouldn’t want to go, maybe even would have decided not to.
“They’ll have wi-fi,” Amber said.
“Of course,” Stephanie said.
Mom seemed satisfied by that, too, but Dad wasn’t sure they were right.
We bounced down the uneven gravel drive, between blue spruce and white pine and silver birch. Al and Max watched through a window, waving as we pulled to a stop beside Al’s old Mercedes with the vintage roof rack.
“Still no service,” Stephanie said.
“And no wi-fi signal,” Amber said.
From the dining room table you could see through the screen door a wooded island and evening sunlight winking off the surface of the lake. Everybody, but Stephanie thought the fish was delicious. Stephanie ate hers anyway, knowing how good those Omega-3s, or whatever, were for her. Al, who’d been a competitive golfer, asked Stephanie about her soccer team; Max and Amber talked about women’s reproductive rights and honouring some of the more spiritual aspects of birth and parenthood. Mom asked about “the market up here.” Then Dad and Aunty Max talked about Grandpa’s family’s old place one lake over, while Stephanie found two wi-fi signals. “Which one are you guys?” she asked.
“Which what?” Aunty Max asked.
“Femme underscore fatale or fish net, all one word?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Max told her.
Mom and Amber had their phones out ready to punch in a password.
Max didn’t know what to say, not in the angry sense, she just hadn’t thought out her response.
Al said, “We decided we didn’t need internet up here.”
“But you’ll stay here,” Mom said. “For, like, a while at a time.”
“That’s right,” Max said.
After dinner, Dad asked if any of us wanted to go for a paddle around the lake. It seemed like a ploy to get us to, you know, just be happy with nature, et cetera, but he paddled with his cell phone on his lap and went in search of signal. He found it by a tiny island of Shield rock, lichen and jack pine. From behind the island, he texted us the good news, but of course, we didn’t get the message. Max, who was watching Dad carefully, asked Al, “You haven’t seen Tom Jr. out there, have you? He paddled around the back side of that island a few minutes ago.”
“He’s fine,” Al assured Aunty Max.
As dusk fell, Mom was wandering around on a flat, raised area that we found out later was the septic bed, her cell cradled in her hands like a baby bird, its bright screen under-lighting her face like maybe she was about to tell a ghost story. She’d left the Ledgers contemplating purchasing a 1200 square foot semi-detached on Symington for $812,000. Cintia would handle all the details, but Cintia was supposed to text Mom and let her know the Ledgers’ decision.
When Dad looked up from his emails, he couldn’t decide if his eyes were just having trouble adjusting or if it was really nearly dark.
Aunty Max was hurrying down to the dock when she saw a shape that looked like Dad in the canoe. She called his name across the lake and he waved. Max went back inside.
Stephanie was in the basement with Al looking at a box of VHS cassettes and DVDs. There were compilations of Premier League highlights. The pictures on the boxes were of players Stephanie didn’t recognize with haircuts she didn’t approve of. Amber was sitting on the couch typing something into her phone.
“What are you doing?” Aunty Max asked.
“Writing,” Amber said, smiling.
“What are you writing?”
The bedrooms all looked out onto the lake. When Dad arrived, Aunty Max said she had been worried about him, but he was distracted. He asked Mom if he could have a minute to speak to her privately. Mom followed him, her eyes on the phone, watching to see if she got reception anywhere, hoping that Cintia’s text would buzz through. As soon as the door was closed, Mom started in quietly about how this was a gorgeous cottage, but how was there even a place without reception these days? and what kind of decision was that? to not have internet? I mean didn’t Maxine say she was going to spend her month off here every year? What if something went wrong?
“Come here,” Dad said.
“I feel like a hostage.”
Dad pointed to the island. “I got signal right there.”
They decided not to tell the girls about it. “I mean if it gets bad, we can.”
“Might be good for them.”
Stephanie woke to the sound of Al’s muffin tin and mixing bowls. Max was drinking coffee. “Good morning,” she said.
Stephanie rubbed her eyes. “What time is it?”
She looked out onto the lake. “What’s that?”
“In a canoe?” She couldn’t remember seeing them exercise anywhere but on the stationary bike at home.
“They just left.”
“How come they’re acting like they’re doing something wrong?” They were looking back at the cottage, as if someone was trying to catch them at whatever it was they were up to.
“I don’t know,” Max said. She laughed a little. “It’s almost cartoonish.”
Stephanie just nodded.
While Mom checked her messages and her email, Dad found a spot to land the canoe. He stepped out into the cold water. With Mom still sitting on the front bench, Dad pulled the canoe up onto a soft patch of sand and pine needles. Dad looked around the lake at the cottages. Some children shouted from the narrow beach out front of a row of simple, insubstantial cabins. The person watching them sat sipping coffee.
“The Ledgers made an offer,” Mom said.
“Why don’t you come and sit,” Dad suggested. Mom stepped out of the canoe and, looking up from her screen only when safety demanded it of her, came and sat beside him.
When the muffins were ready, Al asked Stephanie to take a plateful next door. Stephanie didn’t want to, claiming shyness, but eventually agreed. She walked through a tangle of cedar hedge and into a yard of sand and grass. A cat watched her from under the cottage. Stephanie knocked. The girl, woman maybe, who answered, had braided pigtails and freckles. “My aunt’s partner asked me to bring these over.”
“You’re Max’s niece?”
“How do you like it here? So far?”
“It’s okay, I guess.”
“I guess you just got here.”
“If you and your sister want to go water skiing or anything like that, you let me know, okay?”
Dad lay back on a patch of rock and moss. He took a deep breath. “What?” Mom asked.
“It’s lovely out here.”
She looked around. “Nice lake. Too bad it’s so far away. Look.” She showed him a listing on MLS.
“Nice,” Dad said.
“It’s right over there,” she pointed.
“Lie down,” Dad said.
“I’m not having sex with you.”
Dad nodded. “Sure,” he said. “Fine.”
“Don’t sulk,” Mom said. “I’ll fuck you later.”
“It’s so beautiful here.”
“We should get back.”
Amber was up when Stephanie returned to the house. Stephanie told her about the girl next door and her offer. “I don’t want to go water skiing,” Amber said.
“You might.” Stephanie said.
“What’s that even mean?”
Later, when we were sitting out on the dock with coffees and glasses of orange juice, and Max and Al’s neighbour came out to clean the upholstery on her sparkling blue speedboat, Amber knew exactly what Stephanie had been talking about. The neighbour was wearing a poodle skirt and a bikini top. We were all distracted by her, Stephanie because of how athletic the neighbour’s legs were, Dad because of the glimpses he could catch of the bikini bottoms, Amber because she was in love, and Mom because the skin on the bottom of the neighbour’s upper arms was taut and muscular and Mom didn’t know when her arm skin had started to sag, but it had.
The neighbour asked Amber and Stephanie if they wanted to water ski, and they declined. The neighbour said, Okay, they could just go for a ride, and they declined again. The neighbour said, You know where to find me if you change your mind. Max and Al offered coffee and the neighbour declined and headed back to her cabin.
Mom took Stephanie and Amber out in the canoe after lunch. They complained about being forced into the vessel until, 100 meters from the dock, Mom explained why they were going to the picturesque island on the lake. Amber posted her new poem, Stephanie looked up the scores from the day’s Premier League games, and Mom texted Cintia about the Ledgers’ offer. Back at the cottage, Dad excused himself and masturbated while imagining making love to Mom, then the neighbour, then Mom again on the island.
In the evening, Amber and Stephanie kicked a soccer ball back and forth on the lawn, Amber trying to catch a glimpse of the neighbour, whose cat was clattering against the latticework around the deck as she hunted chipmunks.
Mom and Dad rowed out to the island once more after cleaning up dinner. Once more Mom declined Dad’s advances.
That night they played Clue using Dad and Max’s parents’ board. Al was the first to figure out that Colonel Mustard did it with the candlestick in the lounge. We all went to bed.
Amber was up at sunrise. She sat outside with her phone, typing a poem about touching and being touched. She went down to the water. The canoe was upside-down on the slope above the dock and she was contemplating solo paddling out the island to post her new piece. She heard footsteps. It was the neighbour coming down to her dock. Amber said, Hi, and the neighbour smiled as she dropped her towel. “Morning swim,” she told Amber. “I normally do it nude, but since your Aunts moved in, I’ve been trying to observe the rules of common decency.”
“They probably wouldn’t mind,” Amber said.
“No, I guess not.” The neighbour smiled, her teeth a brilliant mess. Amber thought of the two painful years of braces she’d just finished. The cat appeared and cried to the neighbour. To her cat, the neighbour said, “Go play with her,” meaning Amber. The neighbour did the breaststroke along the shoreline and disappeared behind a rocky peninsula. The cat did come over and nudge Amber, who scratched the cat’s cheeks. Dad joined Amber by the water before the neighbour butterfly-stroked back into view. Dad and the neighbour said good morning and the neighbour and her cat went back up to the house. When Dad finished his coffee, he and Amber took their phones out to the island.
Stephanie wanted to go water skiing, and eventually convinced Amber to go with her. When they knocked on the neighbour’s door, the cat cried against the screen of an open window, but the neighbour didn’t answer. Al told them that the neighbour sometimes went on long Sunday bike rides with the woman who ran the organic market in town.
Mom and Dad decided that we would leave right after lunch. Their thinking, at least when they explained it to Al and Max, was that this way they might beat the traffic back into the city. Amber packed her things and sat on the front step so she could see the neighbour’s place. Of course, the neighbour hadn’t returned by the time we left.
We were on the road twenty minutes before we had reliable coverage. Stephanie watched the highlights from yesterday’s games, then went on Facebook. Mom texted her colleagues again and, while she waited for replies, went through more MLS listing around Al and Max’s place. The Ledgers’ offer had been accepted. Amber posted her latest poem, which she titled “In Touch,” then also went on Facebook and searched her Aunt’s and Al’s profiles for any friend who looked like, who might be, the neighbour whose name we never thought to ask.
Toronto and Port Loring, ON, September 2015
Emoji sequence: Dorothy Gilbert, doula
Story: Lee Sheppard