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I love my life as a bachelor (or, as one friend suggested, a "biatchelor"), but there are times – February stands out – when romantic love gets blown all out of proportion and even I feel the need to share with someone.
One such occasion arose right around Valentine's Day, with an invitation from a tourism bureau for a romantic weekend away in rural Ontario. Snowy vistas, roaring fires, wine-tasting and a spa were offered. For this, I'd need a girlfriend.
"There's a winery and massages," I e-mailed to a friend I'll call Beth, "and nighttime snowmobile riding!"
"I'm in!" she shot back. "How long have we been together, and where did we meet?"
One of the things I like most about Beth is that she's game. Take that time in Mexico. Beth and I had spent the day at the beach, and in the same way you can get a devastating sunburn under an overcast sky, we'd got irredeemably drunk on Coronitas. A woman approached selling massages, and the next thing I knew we were teetering behind her toward a concrete bunker. Inside, two cots creaked under layers of clammy towels; bougainvillea blossoms floated in a teacup on the floor. Beth and I stared at each other. My shorts were heavy with seawater. "Well," Beth said. She was wearing a one-piece bather and sandals. "Okay," I replied, and we turned our backs and stripped.
After that unintentional couple's massage, I was sold: fauxmance over romance.
We were anticipating our wintry adventure, but a day before our departure Beth caught the flu. I was disappointed but not crushed. I'd forgotten how the rest of the world thinks about couples.
It began when my guide Jen asked after Beth's health. "She must be so upset that you're away." Beth and I both live alone, on opposite sides of the city. I'm confident that like me she'd rather sweat and retch alone than have anyone hold back her hair. I said something about being home soon and let it drop.
As we pulled up to the bed and breakfast, the owners welcomed us from the porch, American Gothic style. Reflexively, I found myself offering regrets on behalf of my ersatz girlfriend. They'd saved us the best room, with a view of the train trestle from the window. On the bed, brightly coloured tissue paper poked out the tops of two gift bags tied together with ribbon. Someone had curled the ends against a scissor blade. "We made one for Beth, too," the innkeeper said, her voice trailing off.
I did feel a stab of remorse at these earnest, wasted efforts to welcome a queer “couple” in the heart of small-town Ontario, but I lost no sleep. Slumber came swiftly – country air and a nightcap beat Ambien every time – and I slept diagonally, mouth open.
After saying goodbye and promising to return (“Of course I’ll bring Beth!”), I was driven to a snowy cranberry farm, where I was plied with wine and snacks. I was pushing an artisanal cracker through a liverwurst-and-cranberry-marmalade smear when I noticed Jen staring at me. “I, uh … I need a to-go container,” I stammered, brushing crumbs from my sweater. “For Beth.” I knew it would be me scarfing down the remains later, but still, I felt a twinge of resentment.
When I checked into a hotel that afternoon, I found a tray of chocolate-covered strawberries on the counter. “Welcome to you both” was written in elaborate script across the front of an accompanying card. I parted the shades, peering out into the wildlife preserve that I’d been assured was lousy with white-tailed deer.
“It’s probably just as well you didn’t come,” I texted Beth, attaching a selfie of me eating a strawberry. “You’d have felt obligated to put out.”
:0<<< she texted back, which I could only assume meant her nausea had yet to pass.
At dinner, over the bread basket, I answered the standard questions about Beth’s health (leaving out her use of the emoti-vom), but took advantage of the main course’s arrival to steer the conversation toward my forthcoming journey to Moscow. “I’m going to report on what LGBT activists are doing during the Sochi Olympics.” I tore off a piece of crusty bread and sopped up a splodge of white-wine sauce.
“What does Beth think about this?” someone asked. “A month is a long time to be away. And it’s dangerous.”
It was a perfectly sensible question to ask someone with a partner, I suppose, but I could feel it sticking right in the back of my throat, in the spot I’ve always assumed was my craw. “She supports my work,” I said. “When is the snowmobiling?”
And so it went. The masseuse tsk-tsked, the hotel manager called with well wishes. It occurred to me while I was carving half-moons in the powder that Beth would love snowmobiling as much as I was discovering that I did, yet I was irritated when the instructor mentioned her. Only a weekend into our counterfeit coupledom and I wanted my autonomy back.
Finally home, I unzipped my bulging pack. I’d jettisoned half the stuff I’d been given – the Beth half – to make room for a few more bottles. I wrested a red from under the innkeeper’s gift bags, the ribbons now crushed flat. “Cheers,” I snapped a picture holding up the bottle. “<3 means never having to share your wine.”
Keph Senett lives in Toronto.
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