Going Home

Moving to Canada during the war.

By Trudy Carpenter

I spent most of my days alone in the white-walled apartment re-reading the novels I had carried over the border. The Sun Also Rises, As I Lay Dying, Herzog – all read the first time as coursework for my degree. In familiar books I traveled home, where couch was not chesterfield, french fry not chip, carpet not broadloom, the last letter z not zed. And no pink two-dollar bills.

Marty was already a landed immigrant working as a biologist at the Canada Centre for Inland Waters in Hamilton, Ontario. I had a shiny new teacher’s certificate, but couldn’t teach in Canada without another year of college we couldn’t afford. We had exactly $104.54 left over each month after rent and payment on our new ’69 Austin 1300, so he drove home for lunch every day, and we didn’t go out. We sat close together on the couch at night, his arm circling my back, but even with no space between us, there was a distance.

We could reach only one TV station from the States, so we watched the Albany news at 6 and 10 – the murders, the rapes, the ongoing war. Staring, I tried not to think. Weekly, we heard the toll of the dead, saw caskets unloaded.

I talked with my sister Patty back in Lansing twice a week, longer than Mom and Dad could afford. She asked if I’d been to Toronto, decorated the apartment, could see Lake Ontario from our patio, if I’d made any friends.

Neither of us mentioned my brother Sam, though he was as big as confusion.

Even without her questions, I knew I was not trying hard enough to fit in, make it work. A few days later, I carried a book to the concrete pool deck where some of the women met after lunch. I’d seen them sipping iced tea from clear plastic cups, rubbing sunscreen on each other’s backs, chatting in pairs. When I sat down, all faces turned, aluminum chair legs grated on cement, voices asked for more than I wanted to give.

“Do you like it here?” “Do you plan to become a citizen?” “How long have you and Marty been married?” “Do you have any siblings?” They were so intently polite, I thought they didn’t like me.

At 4 o’clock on a Thursday afternoon weeks later, Helen, the woman from the apartment next door, knocked, breathing hard, face pale. “There’s an ambulance in the parking lot. Can you see it from your window?”

By the time we ran down the hall and stepped outside, a uniformed man was loading a small, wrapped body into the ambulance. Someone said he wasn’t from our building, but his mother was already there, crying in the front seat of an old pickup. I felt myself shudder, and heard someone say, “He was playing on the rocks down by the lake.”

When the ambulance drifted slowly away, lights off, nobody moved. The women with children were holding them tight. Helen touched my arm, and I flinched.

She boiled water in an electric kettle, and brewed a brown pot of tea. My hands trembled too much to handle the mug, so Helen carried it to the living room. She sat, shook her head side to side, “That death was so senseless.”

Those had been Marty’s exact words. I blinked hard at the flash of Sam’s face in his picture. Then I saw him lying handsomely still, his expression arranged and made up into professional peace. I felt grief start its tsunami in the soles of my feet, felt the panic as it choked in the back of my throat, heard the sound I hadn’t intended. While our tea grew cold, I shook hot tears on Helen’s shoulder. “You’re just homesick,” she murmured, patting my back.

Marty drove me to the border, and I took the bus back to Lansing. Five and a half hours took me back to my world.

Mom, Dad, and Patty, faces tight, met me at the station. That night Patty and I put on our old flannel Christmas pajamas. My white iron bed still creaked when I sat on its edge, and pictures still hung like loose teeth from under the mirror frame of the dresser. Proms, cheerleading, all the events that waltzed up to the horror. Marty’s graduation photo curled slightly up at the edge, lifting the hem of his gown.

Patty squeezed my hand, “Marty can’t come back, even when it’s over. You know that, right?” Of course I knew, and she knew I did.

At 3 a.m., I crept out to the living room couch, and wrapped the scratchy orange-and-green afghan around my legs. A ray of the streetlight streamed through the dusty bay window, and the mantel clock ticked, as steady as Marty’s breathing in the dark room of our bed far away.

Sam’s bright picture, shrouded in glass, glowed on the wall, blue uniform with a blood-red patch on the sleeve, hat visor tipped low, lips pulled thin. I closed my eyes and saw the two uniforms at the open front door. Heard the soft knock. Braced for the shock of the words, the death of the normal.

That spring semester, Marty’s shiny brown hair hung longer than mine when he and I sat with his buddies at an MSU cafeteria table, sipping coffee while they brainstormed ways to avoid the draft – faked mental illness, addiction, sex change, self-mutilation. Canada.

Our wedding date moved up when Marty’s draft number did, and we made a plan.

But Sam walked out on classes and enlisted, just like my Dad and his Dad had done years before. Deployed right after basic to the dark jungles of Vietnam, Sam lasted five months, and came home in a box. At his funeral, Mom hugged the tightly wrapped flag, dropping tears on the stars.

The next afternoon, as I crossed the border back into Canada, the customs officer asked, “Anything to declare?” I smiled. “No, nothing.  Just going home.” He waved me forward.

 

Trudy CarpenterFormerly a college teacher and administrator, Trudy Carpenter lives on the rocky shore of Lake Michigan. Her short stories range in tone from Bambi to Deliverance.