I dream of walking without shoes on a beach with no end and no beginning, the sand rubbing my feet till they’re baby soft, till all the layers of protection wear away.
After seven years, we are finally returning to Maine, to the beach of my dreams. The first time, Ghis and I stumbled upon it by accident; we walked out from the parking lot, over the hill, and there it was, sand curving out to a peninsula. The tide was just right, so we walked our two dogs across the endless sand to the rocky island. On the far side of the island, the ocean stretched all the way to Europe. I drank the blue with my eyes until my soul felt calm. In the photograph, I am standing there in my red Gore-Tex jacket with a huge smile on my face and my arms stretched out as if I want to hug this ocean that I know and love, and have missed since moving to Montreal. I am sure that if I can get back, I can feel that way again: peaceful, free, alive.
We are four hours away. In South-eastern Quebec, the landscape is so large, I feel like we’re in a toy car. We drive straight up mountains and plummet down the backsides. Sometimes, I have to close my eyes. “Faster, Daddy,” shouts Morgane from her car seat.
“No, not faster,” I reply. It’s a relief to reach the deserted Quebec-Maine border. Ghis pulls up at the booth and I’m surprised to see it’s outside my window, not the driver’s. Ghis speaks over top of me. “We’re going to Southport Island,” he says.
“When was your last visit to the States?” the official asks.
“Last autumn,” says Ghis.
“Actually, wasn’t it this spring – you know, when we went to Vermont?”
Ghis’s eyes tell me shut up. I do what he says even though his inaccuracies bug me. He edits what he shares with the world in a way I can’t.
Road trip rules state that we can buy all the junk food we want. “Hurray,” shouts Morgane, who is still new to the rules. I eat a few chips and take a bite of my chocolate bar. “Are you going to finish that?” Ghis says, his fingers inching closer.
“When it’s a night in Africa, is it a day here?” asks Morgane. “What if it were never night, then what would people do because they wouldn’t sleep…” Her chattering is tiring me out; if I don’t say something, Ghis will.
“Our ears need a rest, honey.”
There is a moment of quiet, then her voice resumes, a conversation we are not a part of. “Hello Bear,” she says. “Hello Sally Rabbit.”
We snack our way through Maine until the turnoff to Boothbay Harbor where I spot water. “Is that the ocean?” I ask hopefully.
Ghis shrugs. “Maybe an inlet. We should call Meg and Harry.” We are on our way to these strangers’ house midway up the Maine coast. I don’t feel so well. Relax, I tell myself. We’re just CouchSurfing. It’s just a website to connect travellers with people offering a free bed or couch for the night. Ghis has already told Meg and Harry about us, our five-year-old daughter and our small husky. They wrote back to say: Yes, this weekend will work for us.
I need to see my beach so badly that I agreed to this. I should have recognized that adventurous glint in Ghis’s eyes, the same one I see each time he leads us off the trail and into the prickle bushes. It’s the glint I saw when we walked on top of that mountain ridge in British Columbia so many years ago and had to cross that vertical patch of snow, his impromptu lesson on self-arrests – “if you start to fall, spread your arms and legs wide, and try to dig into the snow with your hands and feet” – and my subsequent tears and questioning of my blind faith.
“How are you?” Ghis asks, in his loud cell-phone voice. I monitor the situation with my highly sensitive antennae. When his face drops and he says, “Oh, I’m sorry to hear that,” I think: We won’t be able to stay there after all. But he hangs up the phone and says, “Our host is sick, but not contagious.”
I open my window to get some air. “What are we going to do for dinner? Are we supposed to have dinner together?”
“I invited them to eat out with us,” Ghis says. “We’ll see what they decide.” I hope the gifts we brought will be enough and that they won’t see us as cheap opportunists. The web site forbids the exchange of money, but encourages surfers to bring their hosts gifts. I hope they are interesting people. They are both historians. As we turn into their driveway, I take a deep breath and remember: nobody ever died because of a socially awkward situation.
Our hosts meet us at the car. “Hello,” says Meg, a lady with thick brown hair, in her late forties. “Hello,” says Harry, a round-ish, balding teddy bear of a man. “How was your drive?” Their three dogs dance around our feet. Morgane sees them and wants to stay in the car. I carry her on my back up the slate steps to the house. She will be my shield, deflecting the attention off of me.
It looks like a traditional Maine house, two square buildings joined by a corridor. Wood shingles and green trim. Construction is underway on a third building – a barn with a beautiful half-moon window. This is where Meg is going to write her book on World War I Women. They show us our wing of the house. I walk past the framed New Yorker covers on the living room walls. I feel like I don’t belong here. Two nights free accommodation and a chance to revisit my beach; that’s why I agreed to couchsurf. I feel like a bug in their house. Or some dirt someone tracked in. I wonder why they said yes and if they’re sorry now. I want to tell them that we don’t have any expectations.
As a child, I learned not to expect too much. Although my step-brother and two step-sisters got orangeade in their lunches, I packed only water and peanut butter sandwiches. I feel small again. I trail behind as they walk us through the kitchen, the dining room, the living room. “Don’t worry – we have our own in the addition.” So, the second house is really an add-on. There are so many places to sit. I imagine myself in the screened-in patio, at the backyard picnic table, at the dining room table. The dogs follow us everywhere. They crowd Morgane and try to lick her face.
“Maybe the dogs could go outside,” Morgane says, purposefully within earshot of our hostess. “The cats can stay.”
Our hostess takes us up two flights of stairs, to her daughter’s bedroom where we will sleep. I slow down as I pass each shelf of books. I don’t touch a thing, but my eyes take in every detail. I am memorizing these people.
“These are our daughter’s American Girl dolls,” says Meg as she pulls out a box of tiny clothes. “It’s been a long time since anyone played with them.” Morgane plants herself in the middle of an explosion of party dresses and swimsuits, shiny black shoes and flippers. “The dolls are historically accurate,” says Meg. “My mother never knew what to buy, so I picked things from the catalogue.” I gaze at a picture of a soccer team on the wall and wonder which one is their daughter. Inside the dolls’ miniature school book, a child has written the following lines: I will not write on my desk. I will not write on my desk.
Downstairs, we present them with our initial gift: ice cider and apple butter. Approximate value: $20. They thank us and place the gift on a side table. Then they decline our dinner invitation. Harry is under the weather; he wants to retire and watch “the game.”
“Our beach,” says Meg, “is just a mile down the road.” Ghis tells her we’ll drive. I smile – both for the beach and my relief at leaving the house. Imposing on strangers bring me too close to my childhood. Every day, my stepmother made it clear that I wasn’t welcome. I didn’t want to be there, anyway. I dreamed of every second weekend when I would be with my mother. I made myself a fierce promise that when I grew up, I would never go anywhere where I wasn’t wanted. So what am I doing here?
Their beach is nothing like my beach. It’s a small, sandy stretch surrounded by rocks. The sand is too wet for sitting. As we arrive, the wind picks up and clouds drown the sun. Morgane wants us to stand in the water, so I do, but not for long. Some of the locals are swimming. It’s too cold, but I let her put her bathing suit on. I make her change behind the towel on the beach. “No, Mommy, in the car,” she says, shaking her head like a filly.
Ghis gazes at a couple of kayaks. He’d love to be out on the water. “Let’s just go have dinner,” I say, shivering. When I say I’m disappointed with the beach, it leads to an argument. After the argument, we drive across the swing bridge towards Boothbay Harbor, where we walk past an old-fashioned bowling alley, a salt water taffy factory, and a lady with a four-scoop ice cream cone. Her husband is taking her picture, and she looks embarrassed. She sees me looking and explains, “My sister was here and she had three scoops.”
Morgane and I are soon too hungry and tired to walk any farther. All the restaurants look the same, lobsters everywhere, but we don’t want any. We find a patio overlooking the harbour, and I order a strawberry margarita even though I don’t usually drink.
When we get back to the house, the door is open, but nobody is home. I stroll around, admiring a silver tea set and a framed poster from Italy. Then I kick back on the couch in the living room. “See, I’m CouchSurfing,” I tell Ghis. He’s busy on the laptop, but acknowledges my comment with a half-smile.
The dogs announce our hosts’ arrival. They look very sleepy. “What inspired you to get involved with CouchSurfing?” Ghis asks them.
“Our daughter signed us up,” says Harry. “She said we had too much room, so we needed to have people over. We didn’t even know she’d done it, until we got a message at this old email address that we haven’t used for ages.”
“She’s a CouchSurfing ambassador,” adds Meg. Their eyes fill with love.
“Where is she?” I ask.
“In Paris, training to be an opera singer,” says Meg. “She dropped out of the conservatory and left to study with a controversial teacher. She has lessons every day, even Sundays.” Morgane grabs a toy Mozart figurine from the coffee table. I watch her, afraid that she will drop it.
“She won’t be able to unlearn this technique if it doesn’t work,” says Meg, looking worried. “But her teacher thinks that within a year, she’ll be a star.”
“That’s great,” I say. “Wow. She’s really doing it.”
“What’s your background in music?” Ghis asks.
“I wanted to sing. But my mother said I had to be a lawyer. So, I studied history. And she didn’t even pay for graduate school.” She puts on a recording of her daughter, singing arias to accompany a friend on violin. We all close our eyes and listen.
I lean back into the couch and enjoy the stillness. A solitary voice breaks the silence, with only a cello in the background. Nobody feels the need to speak. The only movement is her voice tying and untying my heart. I don’t have to think about words; when it is over, I will tell Meg and Harry how beautiful it was.
The interlude ends with a click as Meg shuts off the recording.
“Is your voice similar?” Ghis asks.
“We have exactly the same voice,” she says. “But my daughter has the star quality.” Ghis turns on the laptop and pulls up their daughter’s CouchSurfing profile. I am eager to see what star quality looks like. We all stare at her photo, a close-up of a red-haired girl with flowers in her hair. The picture is taken at night and it looks like she’s on a boat, the Seine River in the background. “Oh my,” says Meg. “She’s gone and dyed her hair red!” Harry looks away. When he turns back, it is to ask what our plans for tomorrow are.
“We’re going to Popham Beach,” I respond without hesitation.
“I’ll wash your beach towels for you,” says Meg.
I rub my forehead. Doesn’t she realize I’m trying not to impose? All I can see is a price tag stamped on everything we touch. One bedroom suite. $150 per night. Laundry service. $8.95. I think we’re going to have to buy another gift. I sneak away to our room and dream of my beach.
In the morning, Morgane and I peek out the bathroom window and discover that we can see the kitchen below. I admire the square island in the middle of the room. On it are the bananas we bought for breakfast.
Later, we sit at the table and eat the homemade muffins our hostess made using wild blackberries from their property. I feel shy and slightly ashamed as I spill crumbs onto their red tablecloth.
My stepmother made homemade bread, but I could never slice it straight. The only time she noticed me was when I did something wrong. I sliced the bread crooked. My father would ask me to try harder. I’d get up early, so I could eat before my stepmother got up. Then I’d retreat to my room and open a fresh novel.
I bring myself back to the moment. This is not my father’s house. We are all consenting adults. It’s like eating with friends of friends. Or a long lost aunt and uncle. Except we are strangers connected through cyberspace.
We get in the car and head towards my beach. As we drive over the swing bridge, Morgane sings A Whole New World, the way one does when wearing headphones. I admire the well-kept, colourful heritage houses we pass, imagining myself living in each one. After crossing a long bridge, we look for a place to grab lunch in historical Bath. “What about there?” I ask.
“Too late, passed it,” Ghis says. “We’ll just stop at the general store.” If it’s not closed, I think.
It is, so we have to backtrack. There’s not much on this long peninsula. I frown as the miles between me and the beach increase. Going to the beach is supposed to be fun, but the intensity of my longing is getting in the way. It’s hard to keep my eagerness a secret from Ghis, but if I tell him, he’ll tell me: it’s just a beach.
It’s Ghis’s turn to choose lunch and he wants pizza, the greasy stuff. While he orders, I walk to a health food store and buy things I’ve never seen in Canada: Kashi granola bars, microwavable mac & cheese. I come back to eat and find that Ghis has eaten his way through all three bags of chips. I snatch back what’s left of mine and Morgane’s.
As we get closer to the beach, I feel lighter. I’m one kilometre away from freedom. I am going to run all over this beach. But we can’t find any American change to pay for the parking. The park ranger tells us it’s okay if we don’t pay. But someone has to stay with the dog in the car.
“Are you sure that can’t be ‘okay,’ too?” Ghis asks, with a much thicker French accent than necessary. The ranger is sure. Ghis offers to stay, since he’s in the middle of the last Harry Potter. He doesn’t mind at all, but I am grateful beyond words.
Morgane and I walk over the rise, and it’s still there, as beautiful as the first time I saw it. So much space. I can breathe here. She picks up white shells while I take pictures. She dodges a wave, then digs in the sand, bent over like a dog. For a moment I am happy just to be there, but I can see my rocky island, and it’s low tide.
“Let’s make a sandcastle!” Morgane shouts.
“Come with Mommy first.”
We cross the sandy expanse. It’s so far, and we travel at a slug’s pace. Finally, I take my daughter’s hand and we climb up onto the big, rocky island. She wants to bring a handful of sand. “You just can’t,” I say. “How will you climb?”
We reach the top, my daughter and I, and I am proud of her. I let go of her hand while I take in my surroundings.
It’s not quite what I remember. I forgot about Fox Island, with its lighthouse. True, after this there is nothing, not until Europe. But today there is no blue in the sky, and no blue in the sea. I swat my legs. I’m getting bitten all over. I don’t remember any mosquitoes here. I try to inhale the smell of the ocean. It smells like rotting sea life.
There’s nothing here for me, no wind to blow away my worries, no open space to clear my mind. Just a bunch of mosquitoes who won’t leave me alone. I might as well be back on the beach with Morgane. After we climb down, she draws a big heart in the sand. I cinch the hood of my red Gore-tex jacket to protect myself. She is oblivious to the mosquitoes, but will pay later. “C’mon,” I tell her. “There will be other beaches.”
My daughter is exhausted; she drags behind me, crying, “Mommy, don’t leave me here.”
I turn to her and say. “I won’t ever leave you.” But the mosquitoes are driving me crazy, and all I want is to get off this beach.
Back at the car, Ghis is sleeping in the driver’s seat. He looks so innocent. Don’t act too disappointed, I think, or he’ll never do another thing for you.
After that, my dreams lose their grand scale. All I want is no mosquitoes. We drive to nearby Fort Popham and my wish is granted. Morgane is excited; she wants me to climb the thirty-foot granite tower, look out the windows, go back down and do it again. I stay in the car while Ghis and Morgane walk on the beach with our dog. I listen to an old song I love while gazing out at where the Kennebec River meets the sea. The music makes me feel grounded, leading me to wonder: Did I come all this way to find a piece of myself in our car? For now, the car feels like the best of both worlds: home and away.
I think about our argument in the car, yesterday, after the first disappointing beach. Morgane kept complaining. “I don’t want to go to a restaurant. I don’t want this music. I don’t want the window open.”
Then I told Ghis, “After coming all this way, that was a bit of a let-down.”
His response came at me out of the blue. He exploded. His voice was louder than his cell-phone voice. “I can’t stand your complaining! Just… please… stop… complaining!”
It wasn’t the first time I’d been caught off guard, but this time I questioned whether I was responsible for his anger. It didn’t seem right. “If you can’t say anything good, don’t say anything,” snapped Ghis.
His comment felt like a spider creeping up my neck. I couldn’t ignore it. “Am I supposed to only have happy experiences? It’s not because I’m disappointed that you have to take it personally,” I told him.
“Are you saying…” he challenged, “it’s my fault if I’m angry?” His face was red, and he was shocked, his laughter sarcastic.
Ghis swerved off the road, stopped sharply, and yelled, “Get out!”
For a second, I considered it. Perhaps there was a time when I’d have done what he said, but this time I was struck by a vision.
I am seven years old and riding in my father’s brown Oldsmobile, heading home. This is the year my parents will break up. This is the year my mother will be forced to move out. Soon I will become a visitor in my own home. It’s 1978 and seatbelts are not yet compulsory. The passenger door opens and I simply fall out of the car. My father keeps driving; the car gets smaller and then disappears. I sit there in the middle of the street, wondering about the sudden change in perspective. I don’t even think to cry.
There, on Southport Island, in between the general store and the swing bridge, my childhood faded into the past. And I felt sure that this car, this space, was as much mine as his. I said, “No, I’m not getting out.” Nothing, no crow bar, no explosion of anger could make me.
Faced with a human brick, an unmoveable wall, he could do nothing but stare while his balloon of anger deflated. The more it did, the lighter I felt, until I had to stifle
a laugh. Pop – everything became normal again, Ghis became Ghis, and we crossed the swinging bridge in our family car. “I just want you to be happy,” he said. “But I can’t be responsible for everything, for all our decisions, for your happiness.
“It’s okay,” I said. “I don’t mind. I don’t need you to do that.”
A quiet voice spoke up from the back seat. “Mommy, can I tell you something?”
“Sure honey. What?”
“I love you.”
Here, by the Kennebec River and the Atlantic Ocean, my heart swells. I get out of the car and spot Ghis and Morgane, two specks far down the beach. When my daughter gets close enough to see me, she starts to run and doesn’t stop until she is in my arms. I hug Ghis, too. “Let’s make a sandwich,” says Morgane. “I’ll be the cheese!”
Back at the house, we all jostle around in the kitchen. Harry asks me to stir the risotto for a minute. Ghis is preparing our contribution, green beans with goat cheese and balsamic vinegar. At the table, we feast on pork tenderloin and homemade crisp, also made with local berries. We brought wine, and our hosts open a second bottle. I don’t drink.
After dinner, Harry gets up and moves to his comfy chair. My daughter follows him. She pats his belly and then climbs over it and settles into a comfortable perch on his lap. Like she’s always done this. Everyone sees this and understands that this is a gift of trust.
“I’ll read Morgane a story,” offers Meg. “The one my daughter loved about a mouse in a house.” They sit at the bottom of the stairs while I sit at the top, thinking about my father and how he read to me every night. Was that why my stepmother was so angry? We worked our way through The Hobbit and then The Lord of the Rings. And Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass.
Later, Meg, wearing a night-blue velvet housecoat, tells me about being the only child in her unhappy mother’s house. Then we talk about our daughters. “Morgane,” she says, “is obviously very intelligent. I see the same thing in her that I see in my daughter.” I am pleased by this, but I see the fear in Meg’s eyes that never goes away. She doesn’t know how her daughter’s life will turn out. We nurture and protect our girls, but we also want them to live, even if it’s hard to watch. This intimate understanding of Meg reassures me. Meg won’t ask for anything, won’t make me feel guilty, won’t punish me for accepting their hospitality.
Harry and Meg go to bed, but Ghis and I stay up late. We tiptoe outside to the hot tub. It feels good to submerge ourselves. The house lights shine warmly behind the windows. Ghis wants all the lights off, but it’s too dark for me. He finds a switch and the water lights up. I lean on him in the green, glowing warmth. It starts to rain, but we just laugh. We’re already wet.