I love flying.
It’s glamorous, almost make-believe, even. You take a seat and then float through the clouds, arriving in a few short hours at a destination that would take days to travel by car, weeks by bike, months or even years by foot.
“Look,” I say, leaning past my sister Paige to point out the window. “There’s Toronto.”
Halifax is already a distant memory, although we’ve only been in the air for a couple of hours. I’m not sure when I started to get annoyed at how small Halifax is, but my feelings were confirmed when we took off this morning, the entire peninsula visible through the window before we were even at half altitude. I don’t care if it is the biggest city on the East Coast. If you can walk around the entire thing in an afternoon, that counts as tiny by my standards.
Toronto, on the other hand . . .
“See,” I say, moving my finger from landmark to landmark, “that’s the CN Tower, where Drake is sitting on the cover of that album. The building next to it that looks like a giant boob is Rogers Centre, where Beyoncé plays when she comes to town.”
I say all this as if they’re places I visit on a regular basis, when the truth is I haven’t been to Toronto since I was ten.
“It’s big,” she says.
“No kidding. It’s easily Canada’s biggest city. Over two and a half million people. Everything is bigger in Toronto. Every kind of restaurant you can imagine, unbelievable shopping, the biggest film festival in North America.”
“You should write for the city tourism board,” she says.
“Maybe I will,” I say. “I’m totally moving here after high school. It’ll be epic. In the meantime, I’ll settle for being in town for Pride. It’s the—”
“Let me guess,” she says. “It’s the biggest Pride festival in Canada.”
“You’re pretty sarcastic for a ten-year-old,” I say.
“I can’t help the way I am,” she says. “So you’re going to try to make it to Pride? Have you run this past Mom yet?”
We both glance briefly at our mother, who is sitting in the aisle seat. Her earbuds are in, and she’s engrossed in some boring dramatic movie about serious people during some serious war. On the tiny screen, Kate Winslet, in the frumpiest overcoat ever, is running alongside a train in a snowy landscape, tears streaming down her face. Save your breath, I think, there’s bound to be another one in a few hours.
“I haven’t mentioned it yet,” I say, “but she has no problem with me going to Pride in Halifax, so why should she have a problem with me going here? Especially since we’re lucky enough to be on this trip in the first place.”
“Lucky?” asks Paige. “Do you even remember why we’re here?”
“Of course I do,” I say, although I can feel myself blushing.
“Obviously, that’s not what I mean by lucky. Don’t get me wrong, it’s super sad, it’s just that until last week we didn’t know we were going to be in Toronto, and now here we are. Funeral is priority number one, obvs, but after that we’re sticking around, so I don’t see why we shouldn’t take advantage of it.”
A couple of days ago, we got a call from a neighbor of our grandparents, informing us that our grandfather—Mom’s father—had died. This was a shock because Grandpa was in great health. When he and Grandma visited us at Christmas, he was as fun and energetic as he was when I was a little kid. Grandma, on the other hand, was in really rough shape physically, and she found the traveling difficult. After they left, Mom and Dad had a lot of serious conversations about Grandma and what was going to happen next.
Nobody expected that something would happen to Grandpa first.
Anyway, it’s very sad, and Mom’s been a bit of a mess. Plans came together quickly, though: a flight to Toronto for Grandpa’s funeral, and then we are going to spend a couple of weeks with my grandmother at the condo.
Even though Dad couldn’t get the time off work, Mom has been passing it off as a “family vacation by necessity”—making the best out of a sad situation. She’s been saying for years that we should come up and spend some time with my grandparents before one of them is gone. Too late, I guess, and although she has been trying to act positive about the trip, I know she feels kind of guilty.
“What’s their house like, anyway?” Paige asks.
“They don’t live in a house,” I tell her. “They moved to a condo a few years ago. I was in their old house a couple of times, the one Mom grew up in, but I don’t really remember it. We were usually at the cottage when we came to Ontario.”
“Are we going there?” she asks. “To the cottage?”
“No,” I tell her. “There’s too much going on in the city. Mom is going to be helping Grandma with paperwork and stuff like that. We’ll do lots of cool stuff in the city, you’ll see. The cottage is kind of boring anyway. You’re too young to remember.”
I don’t know what made me say that. I don’t remember it that way at all, to be honest. We travelled to the cottage in Muskoka for two weeks every summer from the time I was a baby until I was ten, and none of those memories are boring.
I’m not sure why we stopped going to the cottage. I started playing soccer seriously, which meant summers got really busy and scheduled. Mom started her own practice, and Dad began working at home to help take care of us. I guess I never really thought about it. One summer came and went without the annual trip to Ontario, and then that was just the way things were.
I remember Grandpa taking us out in the canoe to the far corners of the lake, where we might glide silently past herons or a family of deer. Once we saw a bear and its cubs eating berries from a bush. If I took a ride like that today, my phone would be in constant action, shot after shot, Instagram lighting up with new hearts faster than I could post photos. Back then, though, it was good enough to just look at the animals, and I find that I’m able to conjure the images up in my mind as clearly as if it were last summer.
Of course, I was really sad to hear that Grandpa had died, but now, thinking about how much he used to love spending time with us at the lake, I get a hard lump in my throat.
“Forget I said that,” I tell Paige, a sudden burst of regret that I’ve mischaracterized the cottage. “It wasn’t boring. It was great. We spent a lot of time in the water, and at night we would have campfires and make s’mores. Sometimes Talia and I would walk along the dirt road to the canteen to get ice cream.”
“Who’s Talia?” she asks.
“Our cousin,” I say, surprised. “Don’t you remember her?”
She shakes her head.
“She’s Uncle Gary’s daughter. They were always at the cottage when we visited, but I guess we haven’t seen her in years.”
Her face screws up, trying to remember. “Uncle Gary is Mom’s brother, right?”
I stare at her, trying to figure out if she’s joking, but it’s a genuine question.
“Yeah,” I tell her. “He’s her older brother. Her only sibling, like me and you.”
How can she not know for sure about Uncle Gary or Talia? I know she was only a toddler when we were last at the cottage, but still, they’re Mom’s closest family, after Grandma and Grandpa. Even as I’m recognizing how weird this is, I start to wonder when Mom last mentioned anything about Gary or Talia, and I draw a blank. I mentally scan the family pictures on the wall in the den: Grandma and Grandpa; Dad’s parents, Nanna and Pops; his brothers and their families; and of course loads of me and Paige at all ages. But none of Uncle Gary and Talia. How have I never noticed this?
“Mom,” I say, poking her in the arm.
She presses the screen on the back of the seat in front of her, pausing her movie, and pulls out her earbuds. “What’s up, Marky Mark?”
I hate that nickname. I don’t think she realizes how much it dates her. “Are Uncle Gary and Talia going to be at the funeral?”
A strange look flickers across her face and is gone as quickly as it appears. “Yes,” she says. “Your grandmother tells me that they’ll be staying at a hotel close to the condo.”
“Haven’t you spoken to Uncle Gary since Grandpa died?”
She smiles at me, but something about her expression is false. “No. I haven’t had the chance. Things have been so busy. We’ll see them at the memorial service this afternoon.”
The pilot comes on the intercom. “Hi, there, folks. We’ll be starting our descent to Pearson International in just a few minutes. Weather in Toronto is sunny and clear, with an average temperature of twenty-five degrees.”
It could be cool, I think to myself, to see Talia again. I wonder what she’s been up to since we were kids. I make a mental note to look her up online. I wonder if she likes to party. Maybe she’ll want to come out and hang at Pride with me. Talia is a year ahead of me in school, so she’ll have just graduated. If both of us go, maybe Mom will see it as safer somehow. Maybe Talia will count as a chaperone, not that I need one.
I smile to myself. By tomorrow, the stress and sadness of the funeral will be over, and I’ll have more than a week to spend in Toronto. I checked the weather forecast before leaving, and the nice weather is supposed to last right through the weekend; perfect for Pride.
I close my eyes and imagine the excitement of Pride in an honest-to-god big city; music, dancing, good vibes, and cute boys everywhere, the perfect conditions for a summer romance.
But my smile fades as my thoughts drift uncomfortably to Jareth, and I wonder for the hundredth time whether I’ve been clear enough with him about where we stand. I mean, we never officially started dating, so that should mean there’s no need to officially call things off, right?
Jareth is a great guy: good-looking, funny, and nice. Too nice, to be honest. We’ve been seeing each other for a few months, ever since a friend introduced us at a party. There was a spark there, for sure, but lately I’ve found myself ignoring more and more of his texts and looking for excuses not to hang out. The problem is, he hasn’t gotten the hint, and I’ve been too much of a chickenshit to tell him how I really feel.
I tell myself that out of sight is out of mind, and that a bit of distance will be good for Jareth. A couple of weeks on his own, without contact, and he’s bound to get the idea and move on. With some luck, by the time I return to Halifax, I’ll have a bunch of stories for my friends, and Jareth will be nothing more than a thing from the past, fuzzier in my mind than those childhood memories of bears and herons.
Old age is terrifying. It’s only been three years, but I barely recognize my grandmother. She’s bent over and looks so frail. I swear she must’ve shrunk six inches since I was last in Toronto. “Talia,” she says, gazing up at me. “You look so like Gary. That lovely thick hair.”
I smile because she’s being kind and because it’s her husband’s funeral, so she can say whatever she likes. But really? My father is almost bald.
She turns away to greet someone else, and my father and I slide into one of the narrow wooden pews.
We’re at Greenhaven Funeral Home, but there’s nothing green about it: It’s a small, windowless, airless room, and it couldn’t be more generic or more depressing. When I die, I want people to gather in the woods or at a beach or something. Scatter my ashes, share a bottle of wine, tell some stories.
Dad nudges me. “You okay?”
I nod. “I guess. You?”
“Still can’t quite believe it,” he says. “But yes, I’m fine. Worried about my mother, mostly.”
“She looks really old,” I whisper, twisting in my seat to look back at her. “Hey, who’s that talking to her? Is that Mark and Paige? And my . . . Aunt . . . Janet?” I wonder if she’ll expect me to call her Aunt Janet. It sounds too weird. And it’s not like she’s going to call me Niece Talia. It’s one of those weird hierarchical things that I try to avoid.
He glances over. “Yes.” He doesn’t get up to greet them or anything, which seems kind of rude. I don’t even know when he last saw his sister. I think they had a fight years ago, or some kind of falling out or something. Anyway, they don’t ever talk.
Last time I saw my cousins, we were all just kids. I haven’t been to my grandparents’ cottage since the summer before grade seven. I remember that summer so vividly—swimming in the cold lake, eating ice cream, pretending that the abandoned cottage down the road was haunted, trying to catch a fish and freaking out when we succeeded and didn’t know how to get the hook out of the poor creature’s mouth. It died, and I cried my eyes out. Mark thought we should cook it for dinner but I talked him into a fish funeral. There’s probably still a cross in the woods: R.I.P. FISH.
I think that summer at the cottage stands out in my memory because those were my last weeks of really being a kid. Grade seven was when everything got complicated: I got my period the first week of school, and it was all downhill from there.
My memory of Mark is of a wiry, sun-tanned boy in shorts and not much else—all ribs and knees and elbows. Now he’s six feet tall and good-looking. Actually, he’s not just good-looking: more like could-be-a-model gorgeous.
To be honest, I have a bit of an automatic negative reaction to people who are that good-looking. I know this is totally not fair, and, in general, I think it’s a really bad idea to assume anything based on something as superficial as looks . . . but in my experience, people who are really good-looking often know it and are actually jerks. Or at best, they are used to everyone treating them a certain way and they just think the world is like that for everyone. But it’s not.
As I’m watching, Paige leans against Mark and he puts an arm around her and gives her a really sweet smile, and she grins up at him. I can’t help smiling, too. She’s super cute, and seeing Mark being all affectionate to her makes me feel more warmly toward him. Also more curious. I wonder what he’s like now. I pull out my phone and start searching MARK DAWSON HALIFAX.
Dad elbows me. “Talia. Put that away.”
I sigh and slip my phone back into my jacket pocket. “What’s going to happen with the cottage? Will Grandma keep it?”
He shakes his head. “That’s something I need to talk to her about. I hate to bring it up, but I can’t see her managing it on her own. All the upkeep. How would she even get there? She doesn’t drive anymore. And I can’t help her as much as I’d like to. Victoria is just too far away.”
Tell me about it. Erin said exactly that just two weeks ago, during what I guess you’d call our big breakup. We were supposed to have the whole summer together—our post-highschool grad summer, our last summer before university—and we had a million plans. We were even planning this fund-raising event for our school’s GSA—Gender and Sexuality Alliance.
Erin and I were the cofounders and had been leading the group for three years, so this was supposed to be a kind of parting gift for the younger students who’d be taking over from us. Then Erin got offered a job in Toronto, in their older brother’s coffee shop right at Church and Wellesley, which is the beating rainbow heart of Toronto’s gay village, and decided to dump me and all our plans.
“I’m not saying we should break up,” Erin whispered. We’d been in my bed all afternoon, alternately fighting and cuddling and making out, which is just all kinds of messed up. “I just think that Victoria and Toronto are so far apart, and we should both be free to do what we want. Long-distance relationships are hard. And we’ve talked about having a more open relationship, right? So maybe this is a good time to try that. See how it goes.”
“Yeah. While I’m stuck here in Victoria with the same people we’ve known forever, and you’re working in a queer cafe in Canada’s queer epicenter.” I pulled away from them. “That sounds like a great time to try it.”
“Don’t be like that.”
“Like what? You’re the one who’s leaving.”
“Leaving Victoria. Not leaving you.”
“Well, since I’m staying in Victoria, it’s kind of the same thing, isn’t it?”
Erin looked at me. “I was going anyway in the fall, for school.”
“Which is why spending this summer together was so important!”
Erin had gotten into the University of Toronto. Dad said we couldn’t afford for me to live away from home, so I was going all the way to (drumroll please) the University of Victoria, a twenty-minute bike ride from the house I’d lived in for my entire life. “At least it was to me. Apparently not so much to you.”
Erin was blinking away tears and their face was flushed.
“Do you want to break up? Is that what you’re saying?”
“It’s not what I’m saying. It’s what you’re doing.”
“Talia?” Dad puts his hand on my knee and squeezes it. “Are you okay?”
I brush away a tear. “Fine.”
“I know it’s sad. Just keep in mind, he had a really good life. And I know this was a shock, but I think he would’ve chosen to go quickly. He always said that—that he hoped when the time came, it’d be—”
“It’s not that,” I say. “I mean, yeah, it is sad, but—”
“Is it what I said about the cottage?” He frowns. “I didn’t realize it was that important to you. I guess you have a lot of memories from those summers.”
“Not really. I mean, yes, I remember it, but I don’t care if it gets sold or whatever.” I feel a bit shallow, given where we are, but I never lie to my dad. Almost never, anyway. “I was just thinking about Erin.”
“Oh.” His face softens. Dad loves Erin; we were together for almost three years. I haven’t actually told him we have sort of maybe broken up, but he may have guessed. “Will you see her? While we’re here?”
“Them,” I remind him. “Will I see them. And, no, probably not.”
“Sorry. Them,” he says. He hesitates, like he wants to ask what’s going on with us but doesn’t want to pry. “Well, if you change your mind . . . We have two weeks in Toronto.”
Steady streams of people are still flowing into the room, the pews filling up. Mark and Paige and Janet slide into a pew on the opposite side of the room, and I see Janet glance our way and then quickly avert her gaze. She’s wearing a short skirt and boots, and she has the same unruly red-brown hair as I do. Mark and Paige both have straight dark hair and look nothing like their mom.
Dad looks over at his sister and his forehead wrinkles deepen. “Actually,” he says, “maybe we won’t spend the whole time in Toronto. I wonder if you and I should go up to the cottage. I bet it needs a lot of cleaning up before it can be sold, and I can’t see my mother being able to manage that on her own.”
We just got into Toronto late last night. Checked into our hotel, got room service, and watched a movie. Slept in. Had a late lunch. Came here. We haven’t even been to my grandmother’s condo yet and he’s already planning to leave? And I know I just told him that I wasn’t planning to see Erin, but I was still kind of hoping that I might. I sent a text this morning: Surprise. In Toronto for two weeks. I check my phone again: still no reply.
“What’s the plan for this evening?” I ask. “Are we having dinner with Grandma?”
He nods. “She wants us all there. Janet, me, you kids.”
I sneak another glance at my cousins and catch Mark looking right at me. He gives a wave and a grin, and I wave back, feeling awkward. “Dad?” I whisper. “What’s up with you and Janet, anyway?”
“What do you mean?”
“You know. How come you never talk to her? Or, like, talk about her?”
He tugs on his tie—he never wears ties, normally—and it makes him look like he’s wearing a costume. “We’re not close.”
“Duh, obviously. Did something happen? You had a fight?”
“Siblings don’t always get along, you know.” He doesn’t look at me. “Only children always seem to imagine that having a brother or sister would be this wonderful thing, but there’s no guarantee that you’ll see eye to eye, Talia.”
“Uh, this isn’t about me being an only child, Dad. I just wondered why you and Janet don’t get along.”
“I don’t really want to get into it.”
“Get into what?” Now I am curious. “Like, do you just not like her? Or . . .” But I can remember them at the cottage together, my dad and Janet and my grandparents, all four of them sitting on the deck, drinking wine and playing card games. “Why did we stop going to the cottage anyway?” I don’t know why I’ve never questioned this before. The first year we didn’t go, Dad said Grandma was having hip replacement surgery, and then . . . we just never went back.
“Talia.” Dad swivels to face me. “This is my father’s memorial service. My father. And this is not something I want to discuss.”
I swallow. “Sorry.”
Could I be any more insensitive, seriously? Obviously, this isn’t the time to ask him. Sometimes I really suck.
A middle-aged man in one of those minister’s collar things walks to the front of the room, taps on the mic, clears his throat. The voices gradually die down and the room falls silent.
I steal another glance at Mark. I wonder if he knows what the deal with our parents is.