My mother and my friend called me this weekend to wish me a happy birthday and a good trip to Tofino. Both of them expressed surprise that my 15-year old son was on the trip with me and my boyfriend. I guess birthday weekends in beautiful locations are supposed to be couples only. But we don’t really have that option. Not here, in Vancouver, where we’re living for only four months. He’s made a couple of friends at high school, but I don’t know their families enough to ask if he could stay with them for the weekend. And since we don’t know our neighbours, I wouldn’t feel comfortable leaving him alone in the house while we went hours away by ferry and car. Without our Toronto community of family and friends, we three are on our own, and take our trips together.
So early on Thursday morning we drove to the ferry, and waited in line to present our reservation. We were listening to music and my son and I got into a discussion about Alt-J’s lyrics in “Tesselate”. The chorus is, “Triangles are my favourite shape. Three points where two lines meet.” “What is he talking about? A triangle has three lines,” my son asked me, and we repeated a conversation that we’ve had before, where we work through what the song means, and realize that he’s talking about a triangle’s points, not its lines. It’s the connectors that matter, the way that one conjoins two, three times.
We were so engrossed in this geometry that we didn’t notice that the car wasn’t moving until my partner, who is usually very equanimous, got on a rant about the incompetence of the family in the maroon minivan who was holding up the entire line. He actually swore, which he rarely does. My son and I told him to chill out, but after another few minutes of waiting began to agree with him. When we finally pulled into our lane to wait to board, we drove past the minivan, and saw the mother standing there with her auburn helmet of hair and Keens shoes. We muttered imprecations at them (quietly, with our windows closed). I went to the Karma Café, the kiosk in the parking lot. As I stood in line, I made conversation with an adorable little terrier and his owner. The teenage boy in front of me in the line chimed in, a little too loudly, to answer my questions about the dog’s name and age and nature. My partner joined me just as I realized that the boy was with the red-headed woman from the minivan. She and her Leave it to Beaver son were very chatty, telling us about the cinnamon buns in an overly enthusastic and weirdly familiar way. She says, “in the interest of full disclosure” that they are delicious but that afterwards you regret eating them as they sit in your stomach. The boy smiled propietarily and patted her belly,“that’s just because Mom has a sensitive gut.” We smiled wanly. They then ordered the last three buns. I whispered “karma indeed” to my boyfriend and ordered the flax carrot muffin.
While we paid, we heard her yelling, “stop fighting with me,” but didn’t hear what the man or boy had said to instigate it. As they walked away, the father allowed the dog to pull him away from the mother and son, and my boyfriend and I both agreed that he was gay and unable to extricate himself from his role as husband. The three of them had irked us before, but now there was something so pitiful and awkward about the three of them that I did feel that it was our karma to encounter them twice.
Listening to the boy’s precocious ways of talking to adults, I almost say to my boyfriend, “he’s such an only child” but catch myself because his 18-year old is a single child. What am I, smug because I have two? What do I think that having an only child produces? It’s something about the ways in which the divide between adult and child gets blurred, where the child is too much with the parents in a way that doesn’t allow for him to be fully a child. He learns how to talk like them and can’t help but think like them, in ways that perhaps a child who is too busy wrestling with his brother may not. If he’s with them so much, he begins to feel the need to fill in the gaps that he sees one or the other producing in the relationship. Dad doesn’t want to walk with Mom or pay attention to her gastric distress? Mom doesn’t care about the dog and makes Dad always hold his leash? I can step in. Three points where two lines meet, and the child is always trying to make it an equilateral triangle.
My triangle has been, for a long time now, made up of me and my two boys. I guess the ideal would be an isosceles, with the lines between me and each boy of equal length. More often than not, it has been skewed, sometimes closer to one, sometimes to the other (it turns out that is called a scalene, but I’m not going to pretend I would have remembered that without wikipedia).But now, for the past two years, with the older one gone to university and my boyfriend living with me and the younger, we are a new triangle. In Tofino, a First Nations man in a shop found out we were on sabbatical and joked with us about how having two academics for parents were sure to ruin a boy. We seem like a family.
My boyfriend is immensely patient with the fact that my son is always with us, especially given that his own son has just gone to university. And my son is also surprisingly okay about having an almost stepfather, especially given that his father is back in Toronto. He has matured since he became our only child, and seems to flourish under our routines and expectations. For the first year, I wouldn’t have called the three of us a triangle, more of an angle with me as the vertex. Now though, they have begun to connect with each other, often teasing each other or joining together to tease me. And they have certainly agreed to give me a perfect birthday weekend.
On the morning of my birthday, we wake to the sun on the Tofino Harbour. The fishing boats and whale watching tours are bobbing in the clear water, a heron stands like a statue in the shallows, and the mountains are etched against the blue sky. We let my son sleep in and arrive just as the Tacofino truck is opening to eat the fish tacos that are the breakfast I have chosen for my birthday. A crow hops around us cawing for food. We poke around in little shops, and they don’t rush me as I try on handmade clothes and buy chocolates.
Our plan is to take a hike through the rainforest on boardwalks that meander through giant red trees and bright green moss-covered branches. My son takes photos, running ahead and then coming back, bored by our slower pace. He’s a bit ahead of us when the path emerges onto the wide beach, and we hear him whoop with surprise and delight. He declares that it is the most beautiful place he’s ever seen. I don’t think he’s just saying this for my birthday, especially when he says that it’s like Pirates of the Caribbean. We spend hours climbing rocks and looking in tidepools at anemones, barnacles, and hermit crabs. “Do you know that a starfish can lose one of its points and grow it back?” he asks about the orange and purple creatures that cling to the rocks. He climbs down close to the crashing rocks, and I yell to stop him from going out even further, so he stands for a long time mesmerized by the waves. When he comes back, he smiles when I ask him if the mermaids were enticing him to join them in the depths.
The next day, we think about going out on a boat with Jamie’s Whale Watching, the outfit near our airbnb. We would like to see sea lions and think it’s almost worth the expense. But our day walking through forest and scampering on the rocks was so perfect, that we decide to save our money and do another hike. The day is a bit more blustery and the sky is grey. This time, as we edge out into the tide on the black outcrop of rock, it feels dangerous. Both my boyfriend and I walk gingerly, clutching unsteadily at craggy bits of rock because we don’t trust the shine of the rock, because our knees ache from the day before. My son runs ahead and out of sight, and I keep calling to him, wanting him where I can see him. He appears on the rocks above me, saying that what he has just climbed was too dangerous, with the waves crashing in a cove below him. We all return to the sand of the beach relieved to be surrounded by flat expanse.
As we drive to the ferry in Nanaimo, I say that it will be our karma to be behind the minivan family again. But we’re not. Instead, as we settle in with science homework, novels, and unanswered emails, we hear the news of the whale watching boat accident. There is no karma here, there is no lesson to be learned. It is a deadly mishap that will be pondered and relived over and over by the people who try to make sense of its senseless tragedy. For us, it feels so proximate as we think how it could have been us out there on that boat. The water has both enticed us and scared us, and the idea of drowning in its frigid glittering waves feels more real because of the images that are still filling our minds.
Our friends and family write to ask if we’re okay. My older son and I text back and forth and I can tell he’s shaken by the thought that we could have been on that boat. The next day, back in Vancouver, I miss him dreadfully. I realize I’ve never gone this long without seeing him, and feel the need to have him close. I write again, and he texts back, “You guys literally almost died. I can’t wrap my head around it. I wouldn’t have remembered my last words to you. I love you.”
That night, I show first my boyfriend, then my son, the text, telling them how touched I am. They both tease me in the exact same way: “It was text messaging, so he could have just looked to see what his last words were to you.” Maybe the First Nations man was right: he’s got a cynical sharp wit just like his stepdad. And, um, his mother!
The university sons will come out here at Christmas. We’ll take them to the ocean, and the five of us will wander forests and coasts. My geometry isn’t sophisticated enough for these different vertices. Father and son, stepfather and son, mother and boyfriend, mother and son, mother and other son, stepmother and son, brother and brother and brother. We are not a triangle, we are a starfish with each of acting as connectors to each other’s lines of thought and lines of affection. As the waves wash up around us, sometimes ebbing and sometimes engulfing us, we cling onto the rocks and know that if need be, we can grow new angles, new points where lines meet. We’ve survived me getting another year older.