John’s previous publications include short fiction published in numerous North American literary journals, online & in print. Also, over a dozen of his short stories & some creative nonfiction was published in The Siren, then Centennial College’s student newspaper. Following journalism studies, his articles & features were published in various local news outlets in Toronto & East York, including community & trade newspapers such as the East York Times, the Beaches Town Crier & Hospital News, where he interned as an editorial assistant. He is also an avid photographer, and his work has been featured in The Writing Disorder and periodically on Flickr’s popular Explore.
Born & raised in Sioux Lookout, Ontario, John is the son of Portuguese immigrants from the Azores.
The patient lay in a coma in the emergency department.
“Isabella, will you volunteer to escort this patient on the air ambulance. I want to spend time with my kids—home for the March break. Besides, you’ll get a chance to fly with some good looking paramedics.”
The patient crashed his vintage sports car, as he sped to catch an international flight to a sunny tourist destination from the international airport in Winnipeg. The red Corvette skidded on glare ice on the provincial highway into the path of an oncoming transport truck for a brutal head-on collision. The motor vehicle accident victim was not expected to live. She thought his face, maybe the only part of his body spared cuts, lacerations, and fractures, looked familiar. When she saw his surname on the patient chart, her curiosity was piqued. After administering medication to patients, she walked over to his bed. When she asked the nursing supervisor, another lifelong resident of Beaverbrook, if the patient, Mark Andropov, was related to Yuri Andropov she asked Isabella how she happened to know Yuri.
“I knew him when I was a teenager.”
“But how did you get to know him?”
She needed to think of a quick, convenient, plausible lie, but then again why not half-truths: “I met him at the firemen’s social at the arena years and years ago, the summer of the 1976 Olympics in Montreal, and I flirted with him.”
“You flirted with Yuri?”
“And he flirted back.”
Sylvia laughed incredulously. “So I’m guessing he was about fifty and you were twenty.”
“Thereabouts. But what about our patient?”
“They’re waiting for the air ambulance to medivac him to Thunder Bay, but he has a DNR and isn’t expected to survive.”
“How is he related to Yuri?”
Her nursing supervisor was still skeptical. “If you really knew Yuri—my parents were friends with Yuri—you’d know this man is his son.”
“This man certainly looks like his son, but he never said anything about a son.”
“So you did get to know Yuri. Don’t worry. Yuri was a good man, but I don’t think his son knew his father, and vice versa.”
Isabella was genuinely surprised to hear Yuri had a son, since he never revealed the fact to her. She remembered how she first met Yuri, an older man, as a young woman, and their summer long relationship years ago. She thought she might give something to Yuri’s son, since, as she intended to retire noon as a nurse, she felt she needed a certain sense of closure. When the nursing supervisor told her they would pay her double overtime pay, she agreed to escort the patient on the air ambulance aircraft to Thunder Bay, once doctors in Sioux Lookout stabilized his condition with medications, epinephrine, plasma expanders, and blood transfusions.
Isabella realized she was missing the opening ceremonies, for the Summer Olympics, in Montreal, but she knew her Paul Newman came down to this beach after a jog. Sometimes he came and swam to cool off and rinse the sweat from his body after a run. Sometimes he came down to the beach to read a book. When she thought of him before she went to sleep she touched herself. This time, she thought, she came prepared and borrowed a condom from her father’s stash inside his bedroom medicine cabinet, which he usually kept locked.
Early that evening, wearing a bikini, she swan alone at the beach near the forest fighters’ base. She had turned nineteen years old and, although she was usually a teetotaler, she drank Canadian Club whiskey. She actually jogged to the beach in her high school track and field outfit, with a bottle of whisky in her backpack, along with her bikini. She took a the bottle of the Canadian whiskey, the best whiskey in the world, her Azorean father constantly assured his brothers at family get togethers, even though he was proud of his Portuguese heritage. The liquor was in her father’s medicine cabinet, where he stored his blood pressure pills and his condoms. To be on the safe side, in case he got carried away, she poured half the liquor into a thermos bottle.
She waded to shore and stepped on a broken beer bottle. The glass slashed a cut in her big toe. She actually felt relieved when she saw blood pour from the wound. She chewed a Valium, which the doctor prescribed for what he described as her depression and anxiety. The yellow five milligram tablets did indeed sooth her emotionally, but the relief was only short term. Then she took the bottle of Canadian Club, waded, and swam from shore again. Instead of celebrating with friends, of whom she no longer felt confident, she drifted in the deep cool water alone dozens of meters from the lake shoreline and abandoned beach, where her already dark skin tanned.
She thought she came prepared for love or for death; one or another, but it could not be both. If it was love, death would have to wait for another day. That summer evening a thunderstorm loomed on the horizon of lake and boreal forest. The orange setting sun peeked from behind the thick grey billowing clouds, but the heat was unrelenting.
Instead of being at home in the living room in front of the colour television, watching the opening ceremonies for the 1976 Montreal Olympics, Isabella read a paperback book, Man’s Quest for Meaning by Victor Frankl. Instead of contemplating a life ahead filled with youthful anticipation, she thought about how bleak and gloomy the future appeared. She brooded over the fact she missed the deadline for mailing her school grades and the letter of recommendation and reference for her college applications for the nursing program in the fall semester at Confederation College in Thunder Bay and Humber College in Toronto. She lost her deposit and applications fees and a seat in the nursing program. She worried about chest pains and palpitations and wondered whether she had a cardiac condition. Meanwhile, she wondered when she would find a boyfriend and lose her innocence.
What a way to celebrate her nineteenth birthday. She drank rye as she waded and swam, even though she had a puritanical attitude towards alcohol consumption, believing she was killing brain cells with every sip. Shivering in the cold fresh water, she swam far from the lakeshore. As she floated in the cool water, she thought she would drift until she was exhausted, too tired to keep her head above the lake surface. She figured within an hour she would succumb to some combination of exhaustion and hypothermia. She continued to drift with the waves and current further from the beach shoreline. Then the man whom she considered a doppelgänger for Paul Newman strolled down the beach from the path to the parking lot.
Yuri wore running shoes, short jogging shorts, and a t-shirt with the logo for the 1976 Montreal Olympics logo, and a faded silver necklace with a crucifix. The handsome man she considered a local version of Paul Newman unlaced his running shoes, peeled off his athletic socks, and waded into the water. He shouted at her, but she could barely hear him she was so far from shore.
“What are you doing swimming so far from shore?”
“I’m just swimming,” she replied.
“Come back to shore. You don’t look like you can swim well.”
“No. I’m having fun.”
“You don’t look happy.”
She drifted in the grey waters and waved her arms, gesturing. “You don’t know me and you can’t see me, anyway. I’m too far from shore.”
“You’re so far from shore you have me worried.”
He threw off his Montreal Olympics T-shirt, tossed aside his Montreal Expos baseball cap, and swam the long distance from shore. When he reached her, he paddled and drifted in her wake. When he saw the Canadian Club she carried, he took the whiskey from her hand and grunted as he threw the bottle towards the shore.
“What are you doing? That’s good whiskey.”
“Are you trying to drown yourself?”
“I’m just drifting, relaxing, doing my thing.”
“Let’s swim back to shore.”
She started to tread water alongside him.
“Swim freestyle—it’s faster and more efficient.”
“I can’t swim the breast stroke.”
“Then do the back stroke.”
“I can’t swim that way.”
“You can’t swim the basic strokes and you’re one hundred meters from shore in water forty feet deep.”
He urged her to cling to his back and swam to shore. When they reached the sandy beach, she asked him if he could bandage her big toe, which she gashed on a broken piece of brown glass from a stubby empty beer bottle, oozing watery sand. He sprinted to his red Corvette, returned with a First Aid Kit and a can of Coca Cola, and clutched her foot and taped and bandaged her big toe. Then, saying he wanted to put a smile on his face, he started tickling the soles of her feet, which caused her to giggle and poke her toes in his groin. Alone on the stretch of sandy beach, they observed nobody visited the lake despite the sun and heat.
They agreed, on this beautiful beach day, people were likely at home watching the opening ceremonies of the 1976 Montreal Olympics on CBC television. He noticed she was reading Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl. He said he considered the book remarkable, inspirational, and the author’s ideas relevant to modern times. Oozy from rye and disinhibited from diazepam, she tried to converse intelligently about literature, but she lost her train of thought. She wanted to touch and caress him with her hands, but she feared he would notice she bit and chewed her nails until they were frayed and even bloody. He offered her a can of Coke he carried, as he opened the first aid kit from his convertible sports car. He frowned when she took a swig from the thermos bottle into which she had poured half the bottle of Canadian Club and left on the shore in her backpack beside her bicycle. She offered him a shot of straight rye in an insulated bottle.
“I’ve just come from a five mile run and anyway I don’t drink. I’m a freight train engineer. Most hogheads I know drink, but I’ve made a conscious decision not to, mainly for health reasons. See, I’m diabetic and I have angina pectoris. I’ve been glucose intolerant since I was young and now the doctor thinks I have atherosclerosis. Anyway, are you even old enough to buy liquor?”
She poked the sand with her toes, hooked her fingers beneath the strings of her bikini, and adjusted and tightened her bottom, trying to show more flesh and cleavage on areas of her body she thought might attract his attention and even entice him. “I’m supposed to go to college in the fall, but I didn’t apply in time.” She felt pleased she finally was conversing with a man she frequently saw around town, a man she admired and desired, who, despite his Hollywood looks, seemed the epitome of a Northwestern Ontario bachelor: he constantly wore baseball caps, plaid shirts, and denim. She took the well-thumbed, dog-eared pocketbook from his hands and propped the folded pages on the sand. Trying to convey the impression she was in no ordinary mood, she asked him to have a seat on her towel. When he sat down beside her, she became more conscious and comfortable of his handsome appearance, bedazzled by how much he reminded her of the actor Paul Newman. He smelled fresh and something about his scent, a mixture of cologne and aftershave and sweat, aroused her. For some reason, they ended up talking about regrets. His major regret in life, at least so far, was he never married.
“You’ve never dated much?”
He looked at her as if she knew some personal secret. “I suppose you could say. Beaverbrook isn’t exactly the best town around to find a wife. You might say I’ve been too preoccupied with my books, music, and cars.”
“Is that something you tell all the girls?”
“No. I don’t even talk with many women. How can I? Beaverbrook is a small town and the majority of employees where I work are men. I wonder why I’m telling you. You must be somebody special, for me to open up.”
Isabella laughed uneasily, wondering if she should feel flattered. “Maybe you’re gay.”
He shook his head, frowned, and said men, especially when they acted like men, bored him, and he felt no sexual attraction.
“Are you for real?”
“Why would I lie to you?”
“Okay. Then can I tell you a secret?”
“Why not? I’m not a gossip.”
“I’ve never had a boyfriend.”
He shrugged. “Maybe that’s all for the better; maybe you’re a better person, a finer young woman for that very reason.”
She looked at him with a contorted brow. “I feel strange; I never had a boyfriend.”
“Could you be a lesbian?”
“Are you asking me because I asked if you’re gay?”
“Maybe you’re still trying to figure this gender business out.”
Until then she never heard that word used in conversation: gender.
“You’re tomboyish, but pretty, I think.”
“See that’s my problem. I have two things working against me. Because I’m Portuguese and dark skinned, people think I’m native. Some locals even ask me which reserve I’m from up north.”
“So how is that a problem?”
“So, tell me,” Isabella asked, “which reserve are you from?”
He shrugged and raised his brow. “You have exotic looks.”
“But I also look like a boy.”
“You do not look like a boy.”
“Face it: I may look like a girl but at the same time I look as if I might be a boy.”
“You’re a bit androgynous, but it sounds like you dwell on this and think it’s a problem, when I think your exotic appearance works in your favor.”
“My exotic appearance? What are you suggesting?”
“Nothing—except you’re beautiful. I’ve seen you around town, at the supermarket where you work. I always thought you’re one of the finer looking ladies in Beaverbrook; you possess striking Mediterranean looks.”
“You don’t know what it means to be born dark skinned and Portuguese in a small town in Northwestern Ontario.”
“Maybe not, but I think some local residents can relate—for instance, the indigenous people.”
That was the first time she heard anybody use the term indigenous in a conversation, at least in 1976. She couldn’t help thinking he had advanced degrees from university and couldn’t recall a teacher using the term in a high school classroom. Yuri said not to think much of his linguistic usage. After the war, he enrolled in The University of Manitoba, where he took a double major in philosophy and psychology, but dropped out of school only a few credits short of a degree. When he realized he earned more money and was happier as a freight train conductor and engineer, he decided a career in teaching wasn’t his ideal. When he took the pocketbook from her hand, she noticed the crucifix dangling from his tarnished silver necklace and a stainless steel medic alert bracelet with Diabetes around his wrist. He held the paperback book Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl as if it was an operating manual.
“The author was a concentration camp survivor, remarkable experience. I’m actually a combat veteran of the Second World War. I was only sixteen years old, and I lied about my age to enlist in 1944, but the recruiter accepted me with a wink and a nudge. I’m still grateful to him for the experience.”
“Of a soldier fighting for liberty, of liberating people, taking part in one of the great turning point in world history, D-Day.”
She was distracted—impressed with the fitness of his body and raised her brow.
“Wow. That’s amazing.”
When he noticed she continued drinking whiskey straight, he took the thermos bottle and threw the liquor out in a splash onto the beach sand. When she appeared disconsolate at the loss, he put his arm around her shoulder and patted her back. He said he thought she had enough liquor to drink. She touched his hand and medical bracelet, when he leaned back on the sand, and rested her head against his shoulder.
“You know what I think would be an interesting psychological exercise?”
“What?” she demanded.
“Imagine it’s the last day, the last month, or the last year of your life, depending on your timeline and frame of mind: what would you do or say differently?”
“That happens to me all the time,” she said.
“Panic attacks. Sometimes I have these anxiety attacks: I feel like I’m going to die, and it’s horrible. Imagine that happening to you once a day.”
“That must be a traumatic experience.”
She emitted a wicked laugh, thinking that was an understatement. She was tipsy from rye whiskey and oozy and carefree from diazepam. She just turned nineteen, but the future seemed bleak. They sat and sun tanned and talked on the hot beach as she lost track of the time. Then she waded into the lake and gestured at him to join her in the water. He tossed off his Olympics t-shirt and his Montreal Expos baseball cap and took a swim, rinsing the sweat from his hairy body. She threw off her bikini top, hurtled the skimpy swimwear towards the sandy beach and waded deeper into the lake. He made no effort to conceal his admiration for her breasts. His intense gaze seemed the most natural expression to her. She also became aggressive and later she blamed the fact that she drank rye with Coke and was naïve, inexperienced and only nineteen.
She pushed herself against him, as they waded deeper into the water from the shallows. When he didn’t push her way, she felt surprised: the local version of Paul Newman accepted her hug and her wet flesh and breasts pressed against his body. She embraced him and felt electrified and aroused as he grew hard against her. She reached beneath the surface of the lake for him and massaged his stomach. She wanted him to touch her where she caressed him. She stroked him until she heard him gasp, groan, and felt the seaweed clinging to her wrist.
But he gave her the impression he felt as if some line had been crossed. He donned his Montreal Olympics t-shirt and asked if she wanted a ride in his Corvette back to town.
“The top is down.”
She looked around the beach again and, seeing it was empty, pushed down her swimsuit top, so her breasts were bare.
“So is mine, but only for you.”
He tilted his head and tsk-tsked. “Are you sure you don’t want a ride? It’s a long walk into town and you’re not exactly sober.”
“I have my bicycle.”
She wanted to watch the sunset and claimed she was expecting a friend, but she felt the allure of being alone on a summer evening at the lake and nurtured romantic notions about walking along the boulevard trail back to town that evening. Yuri said he was worried about leaving her alone at the lake and insisted she join him in his car. “Besides, I’m anxious to meet your father,” he added.
“Are you serious? You have to be out of your mind.”
“Relax, I’m joking.”
She protested she had her bicycle, but he insisted she hide her bicycle in the bushes, and he would pick it up later with his truck. Then he drove her home into town. When her father saw his car parked on the street outside the house, he glared at both of them and slammed the door.
“I was hoping to meet your father to say what a fine daughter he has.”
She stared at him, aghast. “I don’t think my father—”
Meanwhile, her brother gestured at the Corvette excitedly in sign language.
She thought their encounter a memorable experience. In nineteen years of living in town, she encountered him in many venues, in church, the café, the restaurant, jogging along the highway, driving his Corvette along town streets, playing baseball at the diamonds, across from the golf course and curling rink, where she worked as a server. She literally bumped into him on the streets downtown. She barely knew who he was or what his business was, although she understood he was a freight train engineer or conductor because he had coffee in the Chinese-Canadian café downtown on Front Street with his books and fellow railroaders.
Even though she was smitten and filled with yearning and longing, up until then she never exchanged a word with him, but during the Games of the XXI Olympiad, she decided she needed to meet him again. She went jogging and met him down at the beach. They swam along the shoreline and swam around a point until they reached a flat rock. After they allowed the sun to warm their bodies, they made love on the rocks. Then, after they lay on the rock, chatting until the sun sank beneath the horizon of the lake and surrounding forest, they swam back around the point to the beach, where he had his Corvette parked.
During the 1976 Montreal Summer Olympics, they continued to meet at this beach and swam around the point, out of public view, since few swam the distance and the shoreline was too rocky and bushy to walk beyond the sand. They both continued to jog along the highway in the evenings, sometimes in pairs, sometimes separately.
One evening bore a sour expression on his face he even pulled out a waterproof pill bottle from the pocket of his swim shorts, after he, and set a pill underneath his tongue, where he allowed it to dissolve.
“Are you all right?”
“It’s just nitroglycerin.”
“For my unstable angina—chest pains.”
“Should you even be running?”
“My angina isn’t exercise induced, it’s unstable angina. Actually, the doctor said unstable angina is more worrisome, since it means I could be on the verge of a heart attack, but I figured jogging can only make my heart stronger. What doesn’t kill us can only make us strong,” he said.
They started jogging alongside each other in the evening on the highway out of town. She could never be certain if she was following him or if he was following her. He caught up to her when she reached the bottom of the hill on the provincial highway, several hundred metres before a turnoff where the thoroughfare split into two highways. She tossed her bra in a hiding spot along the trail she felt more comfortable without in the heat. She was the only girl she knew who didn’t mind sweating, who didn’t regard perspiration as a curse, and she thought classmates sometimes held body odour against her. As she jogged around a corner that took the life of many motorcyclists and motorists, she heard a pair of thumping footsteps approaching behind, above the noise of her own feet pounding the pavement. Relieved, she turned around and, as she expected, she stumbled into the local version of Paul Newman, running.
"What's a girl like you doing running out here? Out for some sun?"
She accelerated her pace to catch up with him. "I'm getting some exercise and fresh air." As they ran, he raised his hands to her head and removed the earplugs for her portable am radio.
“You’re the only person I see who wears a transistor radio while jogging. Why listen to the radio anyway?”
She pushed the power button for the am radio, tuned to CBC coverage of the final day of the Montreal Olympics, including the marathon. “To cut out the distraction and noise—and I’m a big radio fan.”
"That sounds a bit extreme—maybe a killer. You could run along the highway and a speeding motorist could strike you while you’re listening to rock music. Or you could push yourself past your physical limits because you’re pumped.”
As she jogged, she tried to listen to CBC coverage of the marathon, on the last day of the Olympics, on the transistor radio, as the runners passed Mount Royal and approached the entrance into Montreal’s Olympic stadium, but instead she only received metrological information, a thunderstorm watch for the Northwestern Ontario area and a tornado warning for Southern Manitoba. He saw how much she was sweating, with perspiration dripping down her straining, reddened face. He put his Montreal Expos baseball cap over her hot head and thick curly black hair.
“You need some shade from the sun, UV protection for your pretty face. That ravishing dark hair needs protection from the dust.”
"You’re laying it on thick, and anyway my skin doesn’t sunburn easily.”
He laughed until he coughed and hacked. “But what I say is true and what I find even funnier is the hat fits you like a charm. We’re going to turn you into a Montreal Expos fan yet.”
“I already am. Vive le Quebec Libre! Vive le Montreal Expos!”
They continued to jog at a fast pace along the highway. He clenched the hem of his blue T-shirt, with a red collar front and the 1976 Montreal Summer Olympics logo, twisting the sweat into droplets. Exhausted, Isabella wanted to ask him to slow down, but, when she saw he was not going to slow his pace alongside the shoulder of the highway, she continued running at the excruciating pace alongside him.
“I just want you to know I wasn’t acting normal the other night. I was drinking, when I normally abstain and I never drank like that before in my life.”
“There’s a first time for everything. Anyway, I know you’re not a drinker. I always see you in the café of Clarke’s Hotel and the Red Rooster restaurant drinking coffee, reading books. You remind me of myself, reading books in the coffee shop. Did you ever consider that the caffeine in coffee you drink might contribute to your panic attacks? You might spare yourself some anxiety and letdown jitters if you abstained from caffeine.”
“It’s a habit I can live with. Anyway, the best part of the other evening was being with you.”
“You’re not accusing me of taking advantage of you, are you?”
“No, please don’t say that because I took advantage of you. You saved my life, I think.”
“That sounds like a bit of hyperbole.” He coughed, cleared his throat, and spit on the roadside, as their feet pounded the pavement. “Seriously, I usually don’t see you running this far.”
“I like to run.”
“I know. I’ve seen you jogging many times along the highway.”
“I used to jog down the north road, but I decided to come this way for a change of scenery." I believed running and jogging was a heathy way to combat stress. “You know they’re running the marathon right now at the Olympics in Montreal. I’m trying to hear it on the radio.”
“Nice coincidence,” he laughed. “Don’t let me distract you.”
Isabella felt disappointed he didn’t share her enthusiasm for the summer Olympics. He tucked the silver crucifix jangling loosely around his neck back into his shirt. They continued running in silence past a farm dwelling, long abandoned, worn by weather and time, the fields surrounding the marsh and lake, whose shoreline, which ran for miles, was overgrown with shrubs and tall grass. When they reached the garage and filling station at Five Mile Corner, they crossed the highway and turned around, facing traffic on the shoulder, started running back towards town. Her lungs burned and her muscles ached as she tried keeping up with him, but she didn't want to slow down. An inexperienced runner, she wanted to keep pace with the man who reminded her of Paul Newman. "You have a younger brother that doesn't talk, right?"
Isabella gasped. “He doesn’t talk.” She felt a heaviness in her chest and sweat stream like drizzle down her body.
"Yeah, I see him in church with your father every Sunday."
She was disappointed since he appeared to have lost the passion of their previous intimacy. Besides, she didn't want to speak about her brother or church. Having decided she wanted to make her own decisions about religion and faith, she told him, “I stopped attending church every Sunday when I was a teenager.” Conservative and traditional in matters of belief and spirituality, her parents created a fuss and argued about religion. But she no longer believed that, if there was a God, he would have allowed so much suffering and inequality in the world.
“I’d actually like to meet your father. He sounds like a good man. I hear he even owns farmland in the Azores.”
“He’s just a regular Portuguese guy; he likes his gardening, wine making, church, and prayers.”
“I need to tell him he has a lovely daughter.”
She brooded and winced with a sense of dread.
Once, after they jogged together, he took off his silver necklace with a tarnished worn crucifix and placed the chain around her neck.
Blushing, she asked, “Is this my own Montreal Olympics medal in the marathon?”
"This is a silver crucifix I wore on D-Day. A woman in uniform on the streets of London gave it to me when she saw me in a Canadian uniform coming out of a theatre. She had tears in her eyes and couldn’t believe I was old enough to enlist. Even though loose lips sink ships, she said she worked in maps with SHAEF headquarters and knew the Allies were a month away from the largest seaborne invasion in history and there would be massive casualties. She thought if the Germans took me prisoner and saw the crucifix, they might spare me harm.” He gripped the crucifix and handed the necklace towards her. “You’re a fine young woman. I wish I’d met you when I was twenty years old.”
Isabella raised her hand, touched his arm, and protested, “It’ not too late.”
“And your father is a very good man. He's a devout, religious, and hardworking man. He supported your retarded brother when most parents would have shipped him off to a sanatorium.”
His admiration for her father felt awkward, and she mumbled, "Sometimes we argue a lot."
“I’d like to meet him, introduce myself to the father of an incredible young woman.”
That remark filled her with dread.
“You’re not ashamed of your father, are you?”
“You need to learn to show him more respect.”
Then Isabella worried, thinking about their mortality and felt an oppressiveness in her chest during one of their runs.
"Do you know cardiopulmonary resuscitation?"
"Sure. I relearn it every year during the railroad’s health and safety meetings. You worried about something?"
“No,” Isabella said, “but you never know when it could come in handy.”
Yuri and Isabella continued jogging up a steep hill approaching a campground, on their route back to town, neither slowing a fast pace. After she worked off the effects of the steep, uphill climb at a fast pace and settled into a breathing pattern that allowed her to talk and run, she asked her Paul Newman more about his military experience.
Yuri said he saw combat during World War Two; as a private with the Royal Winnipeg Rifles, he joined the first assault wave of Canadians at Juno Beach on D-Day. He fought in fierce hedgerow and street battles in Normandy and participated in the liberation of Holland. Having studied the war in high school history class, Isabella avidly read Second World War history and asked about the epic battles.
Imagine being sixteen years old, Yuri said, and you’re at the frontlines of one of the greatest battles in world history, D-Day, Normandy at H-Hour, an infantryman in the first wave of the largest amphibious assault ever. He said his battalion encountered strong resistance at Juno beach in the early hours, but the gunfire diminished against the Canadian onslaught. The infantry had plenty of naval and air support, with ships and landing craft crowding the ocean shore and tactical fighter planes bombing and strafing machinegun nests threatening their positions.
He carried a huge bandolier and his mission, when they first landed on the beach, was to attach explosives, a Bangalore torpedo, to the concertina wire and explode the barriers sky high. Impressed with his handling of the Bangalore torpedo, the lieutenant asked him where he learned his skills with the explosives. He said he merely studied and reread the battlefield manual closely. Over the roar of the bombardment, the lieutenant ordered him to take over the explosives for several platoons and set in place over a dozen Bangalore torpedoes in the early hours of the assault.
"When we reached Holland, I was pulled from the battlefield after they assigned me messenger duties. Running in combat boots gave me corns, calluses, and blisters that wouldn’t heal. Rescued by bad feet. If I didn’t have tender feet, I doubt I’d be alive today.” Yuri flashed a grin and laughed.
Yeah, tender feet, Isabella mused, thinking it was ironic, looking at the blur his sneakered feet made as he continued at the marathon contender's pace. As they coasted downhill towards Frog Rapids bridge he fumbled and faltered a bit but continued with his fast pace. She saw him wince in pain, but maybe it was her imagination, a projection of her own hurt. Meanwhile, she realized they were engaged in a full-fledged race. As they ran across Frog Rapids Bridge, and the heat shimmered from the pavement, several cars whizzed past them over the rapids that joined two lakes.
For the remainder of the distance, they ran at a fast pace, gasping, grunting, past the Second Sandy beach, the Ministry of Lands and Forests firefighting base with a helicopter landing pad, past the motel, the roads to lakeshore houses, towering white pine trees, the marina with boathouses and boats. Soon they were jogging past a few motels and restaurants along the main thoroughfare back into town. As they jogged past a stretch of houses, Yuri said, "I'm surprised you managed to keep pace with me. You're an excellent runner."
You're surprised, Isabella thought; I'm surprised. Her head felt like it would explode; her lungs felt as if they would burst; her arms felt as if they would fall off. Her feet ached and she was soaked in an itchy sweat, and dying of thirst. When they reached Jolly Jon’s, a motel with a restaurant and convenience store, he paused at the vending machine near the gasoline and diesel fuel pumps, and he doubled over to catch my breath.
He said he was going to rehydrate, get a drink, and asked if she wanted a Coke or ginger ale. She shook her head and followed him into the convenience store, where he nonetheless bought her a frosty can of Coke she quickly drank. Then she went into the washroom, and, leaning over the toilet, gripping the handles of the stall, she vomited into the toilet. She couldn't believe she had run for so long, so fast. After she regained her breath and strength and drank tepid tasting water from the bathroom sink, she wondered why her running partner took so long. She asked the server where Yuri disappeared. Slamming a ketchup bottle on the Formica table, she snapped he was still in the washroom. She waited and ordered a large glass of ginger ale, which he gulped in a minute, and sucked and chewed on the ice cubes. She even went to the washroom door and called to him.
“Are you sure he’s still in there?” she asked the server.
She remembered this server was my high school classmate, who freaked out when she refused to stand for the national anthem during the last day of her last year of high school in her homeroom, grade twelve French class, in some misguided attempt at solidarity with Quebecers, saying, “Vive Quebec Libre!” The classmate growled ominously and goaded her and tried to force him to stand and afterwards bullied, browbeat her, and pushed her in the corridors. Now she glared and scowled as she held a platter of French Fries and gravy with a huge cheeseburger with bacon.
Fifteen minutes later, she said impatiently, “We just ran half a marathon, and I think we better check up on him.”
“This isn’t a gym,” the server said.
“I can see this is a greasy spoon,” Isabella retorted.
Still, the former classmate handed her the bathroom key. She knocked on the door several times before unlocking and opening the door. She saw Yuri collapsed on the bathroom floor, with his fit and lean body soaked with chilling sweat. She checked his pulses—weak and thready, his breathing shallow and rapid. He appeared to her to be on the cusp of life and death.
“Are you having an attack of angina pectoris?”
“Don’t you have nitrogylcerin, one of those pills you can dissolve under your tongue and ease the pain.”
He grunted and shook his head weakly.
Isabella covered his face. “Please don’t tell anyone,” she said.
He had barely the strength to shake his head.
“Please don’t tell. I have a good character, and a reputation to protect.”
He nodded his head.
She pressed one hand against his nose and nostrils and then she covered his mouth with my other hand. “I don’t want anyone to know.” He appeared to gaze at her intently and nodded, as if he approved of her action. He coughed and wheezed as he struggled to breath, choking, struggling to breathe. She held her hands over his nasal passages and mouth as he gasped and heaved and then his eyes rolled, and those blue eyes, usually sparkling and so vibrant, looked vacant. He didn’t appear to breathe and he had no pulses. She thought any effort to try to save him was futile, but she tried to administer CPR, gave him several sets of chest compressions, pinched his nostrils, and blew into his mouth. He didn’t respond. Then she thought again: he had given the necklace to her, and she remembered the young English woman had given him the necklace on the cusp of the greatest seaborne invasion in history.
She had no coins for the pay phone, so she asked the server if she could use the phone. She barked at Isabella, protesting the restaurant wasn’t a recreation centre or daycare. Isabella barely resisted the urge to make a smarmy reply like, OK, I guess it’s a bad day for tips—no surprises there—but there’s a body in your washroom.
Instead, she simply walked across the street to the General Hospital, directly across the street, where she was born nineteen years ago. She stood in front of the admitting desk, uncertain of what she should say, and when finally a clerk came to the windowpane and asked her what she wanted, she turned away, and asked, “Do you have change for the vending machine?”
He shook his head and a caretaker offered her several quarters in exchange for her dollar. She went to the vending machine in the lobby, dropped a few coins in the slot, and got a can of Coca Cola. She stared at the tab and wondered if she should open the soft drink.
“There’s no loitering,” the front desk clerk said.
She stepped out of the lobby and foyer of the hospital and in the last of the summer heat she walked home along Wellington Street, pouring the Coca Cola in the sand and grass along the sidewalk boulevard until the can was empty. She tossed it into the bushes beside the locomotive, parked in front of the local museum, and sobbed and burst into tears.
“Please don’t tell anyone,” she muttered.
Older, more mature, in fact, on the verge of retiring as a nurse, Isabella’s opinions and views changed and evolved. When she was a teenager, she thought the obstacle to becoming a full-fledged woman was losing her innocence. In the early part of her young adult life, she became preoccupied with desire, over relationships she should have allowed to occur spontaneously. Now that time has worn its passage and her face was lined and furrowed with worry and concern, she became more relaxed in her attitudes. She was soothed by the knowledge she was free of youthful desire and accompanying worries.
In the summer of 1976, though, the time was different. Although she was not an elite athlete, she had a competitive spirit. She needed love, passion, and she was filled with longing and yearning and her own caresses could not satiate and sooth her. She was impatient to mature and become an adult, or more accurately, a woman. Now she was almost incredulous Yuri was the first and the only man she loved. She volunteered to escort him on the air ambulance to Thunder Bay. The last time she saw Mark Andropov alive was as he was admitted to the intensive care unit in the Thunder Bay Regional Hospital.
She needed to speak with the nursing supervisor, Sylvia, and called her from a pay telephone in the hospital lobby before she took a flight home. Sylvia was mystified she called, since usually Isabella was the most clinical and detached of professionals. “He suffered a cardiac arrest in mid-flight,” Isabella said.
“It’s all right, dear.”
“I placed the chain with the crucifix around Mark’s neck--the crucifix Yuri gave me in 1976, thirty years ago.”
“Mark was Yuri’s son?”
“Isabella, have you been drinking. I didn’t know you drank.”
“No, I haven’t been drinking.”
“Mark is just another patient, Isabella, forget about him—don’t become attached. You don’t need this shit anymore. You’re almost retired.”
“His prospects of survival--bleak.”
“Forget about it, Isabella. Why are you crying? You hardly knew the patient.”
“A young man, a fine, handsome young man.”
“Isabella, I don’t know what is going on with you. You’ve been through this hundred times before. The circle of life—it’s complete. There’s nothing you can do about it.”