“A friggin flat-screen TV! Unbelievable,” Ben muttered to himself as he stood staring at the modern device attached to the stylishly grey wall at the far end of the rented cottage. Below the tv stood an Ikea shelving unit bearing a satellite tv receiver, Blu-ray player and stacks of movie DVDs and Blu-rays. All the necessities for long, quiet evenings in the northern woods in the year 2017. Whatever happened to playing board games on the kitchen table or talking with your companions around a burning fireplace? Too old-school Ben supposed. The garish cover art of action films glaring up at him from the Ikea shelf silently rebuked him for being out of sync with today’s cottagers’ idea of relaxation.
Moments before he had opened the door and dumped his duffel bag and Foodland grocery bags on the kitchen table as he’d entered and surveyed his temporary home for the coming week. The TV entertainment centre and tasteful decoration weren’t the only changes Ben noticed. The grey-painted wall he stood before was now several feet further from the entrance than he remembered it being so many years before when the MacRaes owned the place. In fact, any colour on the wall besides that of 2 by 4 studs was a change. A later owner must have extended and dry-walled the main room, almost doubling the size of the earlier building. I suppose that made it a “cottage” versus the “cabin” that Ben remembered.
Ben sat down on the leather sofa and looked around the open- concept cottage. There was an east-coast theme in the room with prints of sea-birds and maritime fishing boats; while touristy mini-lobster traps sat on end tables. What had this got to do with a lakeside cottage in Ontario? It felt cold and sterile to Ben. He missed the rustic warmth of the open wood frame construction the MacRaes had been satisfied with. He missed the pleasant aroma of exposed lumber that had hit you when you entered the cabin. It had made the point to Ben that you were a temporary resident of the forest surrounding you, not a conqueror from somewhere else.
A long-forgotten moment came back to Ben has he looked out the picture windows in front of him. He couldn’t have been more than nine or ten and he was sitting on the narrow bench at the very front of a small aluminum boat, clutching the curving gunwales as it bounced across the waves. Behind him sat his parents and behind them sat Mr. MacRae operating the 6 hp Johnson motor. This was the last stage of the long trip up from Toronto to visit his parents’ friends the MacRaes at their cabin. There was no road to the cabin. Instead you parked your car near the government dock, got into your boat left there for the purpose, and headed across the narrow inlet to the peninsula that held the cabin. Ben remembered the thrill of being in front of the bouncing boat, the wind in his face and the occasional organic taste of the water spray. It was the perfect preliminary step into the other world of the cabin. By leaving your car behind and taking a water voyage to your destination, one left the last trappings of city life behind. But today’s owners would never experience that sense of separation, now that the long-promised county road had been built up the peninsula, so you could drive right to the cottage. Not for the first time today, Ben felt a pang in his stomach.
Ben got up and wandered toward the back of the cottage. He entered the first room next to the kitchen. Before him was a jumble of fold up lawn-chairs, badminton sets, canoe paddles, life-jackets and other tools for summer fun. He laid down on a blow-up floating turtle and stared up at the ceiling above. At least recent owners had left it uncovered and open to the rafters as it had been so long ago. This had been a child’s bedroom when Ben was last here. It was here, on a narrow single bed, that he and Josie had made love and then stared up at this same ceiling some 3 and a half decades before. How important it had made Ben feel to be able to take his high-school sweetheart across the bay in the family motorboat and into a private sanctum where they could be alone. No more fumbling in the back of cars like their friends from school.
Ben knew where the MacRaes had hidden their key. How foolishly naïve they thought those old folks hiding their key on a nail driven into a support beam under the deck. Now that he was closer to the age the MacRaes must have been, Ben reflected that he’d probably do the same in their situation.
His family had moved from Toronto to the small town across the bay from the cabin when Ben was just about to enter high-school. The proximity to the MacRae’s cabin and a shiny new motorboat had been small solace against the culture-shock Ben experienced with the move. It took him a couple of years to realize the opportunities they presented.
Ben got up. “Fuck it!” he exclaimed. What an idiot he was coming back here after so many years away building a life in the city. Don’t you know “you can’t go back again”? What a joke he was. Wandering around the Foodland in town, buying goods for his stay. You were really hoping to catch a glimpse of Josie weren’t you, Ben accused himself. You could have bought groceries back in the city – probably cheaper. Wandering around town hoping for a Josie sighting like a love-struck teenager instead of the middle-aged man you are! Grow up!
This was a mistake. Ben jumped to his feet and grabbed his duffel and grocery bags and ran out to his car, and stuffed his goods into the back seat. He quickly grabbed his fishing pole and other lakeside necessities he had brought and crammed them carelessly into the car. On his third trip back, carrying his cooler filled with ice and beer, he stopped. He took a deep breath of fresh, clean country air. He stood silently and listened to the rustle of the leaves as wind blew across trees tops high above him. He felt the warm sunshine that reached through the mottled shade to gently touch his bare face and arms. These things were unchanged from 37 years ago. These things were what he had come for.
“It’s not going back,” Ben said out loud. “It’s just checking in on the path not taken.”
Ben put the cooler down. “I’ve already paid for the place and I’m not getting my money back”, he said out loud as he grabbed a beer can from the cooler and slowly headed to the deck in front of the cottage. The condensation on the cold can felt good against his warm hands. The screech of tearing aluminum as he opened the beer can shattered the silence around him. He sat on a Muskoka chair and took the first refreshing quench of the cool liquid while looking out on the beckoning lake.
As he felt calm restored to him, Ben thought: “Maybe tomorrow I’ll head into town and see if the lookout tower is still there.”
2017 © Quentin Andrews