Six months after Derek’s mother passed away, we stood in the yard looking up at her house. The fog had come in fast and the smell of salt water was heavy on the air. Blackflies swarmed around my head, jamming themselves into every available opening — my ears, nose, and mouth, a few down my top — inching me ever closer to insect-induced hysteria.
“I think we should live here,” Derek said.
“Why wouldn’t we?” I asked as I began sprinting in zig-zag formation. “I mean, you hardly notice the bugs once you get your speed up!”
Nature is a bit much if you ask me, but Derek was grieving so I felt the need to fake some outdoor enthusiasm.
Derek’s father, Gary, passed away in 2008 before I had the chance to meet him. We had only been dating a few weeks when Derek called to tell me his father had died. A day after getting the news he gave me the keys to his apartment so I could look after his cat, Ebony, while he went home for the funeral. Sitting next to me in his car he said, “I was really hoping my father would get to meet you, but I guess that can’t happen now.” Then he added, “If Ebony runs full force at the patio window stay out of her way. She’s trying to kill her reflection.”
Eight years later we found ourselves driving to the funeral home to make arrangements for Jackie. Derek stared straight ahead at the highway and said, “I guess I’m an orphan now.”
I suddenly felt guilty for still having both of my parents, which is why I suggested that he might like to take them off my hands.
Both sides of Derek’s family come from Queens County here in Nova Scotia. Highway 3 connects their homes like thread on a quilt. Jackie and Gary’s house is part of what is essentially a family compound, located close to Summerville Beach. A set of four family homes perched on a hill overlooking the sea, steeped in the traditions of fishing and a bunch of other stuff I know nothing about.
Jackie’s house was built by Derek’s great-grandparents. It shares a driveway with the home that his grandparents, Helen and Wink, built next door. Wink was a lobster fisherman and carpenter. If you continue up the hill you’ll find Derek’s uncle, also a lobster fisherman. At the bottom of the hill sits Great-Aunt Ruth’s house (Wink’s sister). In a six month period, three of the four houses would lose their matriarchs; first Ruth, then Jackie, and finally Helen.
When Jackie died, Derek felt strongly about keeping her house. His sister, Kim, lives just up the road in Hunts Point with her husband and daughter. He figured it would be a great opportunity to keep the homestead in the family and move closer to an ever-shrinking pool of relatives. We’d tackle some repairs and make the house ours, enjoying weekends by the sea during renovations.
This might be a good time to mention that home restoration makes me very uneasy. There’s the expense, of course, but more pressing is the long list of home-related disaster scenarios I store in my brain. Jackie’s house must be about 150 years old. What did they even know about building things back then? Sure, vintage homes are charming, but they are riddled with safety issues: sagging floors, corroded pipes, faulty wiring. You don’t hear a lot of people talking about how many ghosts are typically released during a large scale renovation, but you can bet it’s happening.
Derek is forever saying “A house needs people.” Because we both work in the city, we continued to live in Halifax while Jackie’s house sat empty. Two years of vacancy took their toll; the renovation list grew, becoming more extensive and expensive. Mice made themselves at home, spiders decorated the windows, and for a short time a raccoon tried to live its best life in the chimney. Now the house is hollow and musty, and when I think of it I miss Jackie so much that my throat gets tight and my eyes start to burn. It makes me miss Gary even though I didn’t ever meet him.
One evening as I stood in our Halifax kitchen I heard Derek telling a colleague on the phone that we would be tearing Jackie’s house down and rebuilding. “In the next year or so,” I heard him say.
It was the first I’d heard of this plan. This happens all the time with Derek — I’m guessing that he thinks his thoughts and then assumes I’ll use my skills as a mental telepathist to stay caught up. To be honest, I wasn’t insulted that he was telling someone else about his plans before me. I was insulted because he was telling someone who wears a shark-tooth necklace before me.
When he hung up the phone I waited for twenty minutes, assuming he would discuss his announcement with me, but when he didn’t I asked, “Are we tearing your mother’s house down?”
“Looks like it.”
“Maybe we should sit down and make some plans. Think about what we want to do?”
“I have thought about it,” he said. “I’m moving there. With or without you.”
Derek is not the sort of person to give ultimatums or get ugly with me. Sure, he’ll say he ate an entire bag of Doritos without saving any for me, but he’s almost always lying. He doesn’t remember threatening to move without the light of his life, but I have a very good memory and I’m happy to remind him of it whenever I can.
“With or without me,” I’ll laugh. “I mean, who would buy your underpants, honey?”
Derek’s defiance was a call to arms, an invitation I should have declined but didn’t.
“Well, it would be nice to be asked,” I hissed, throwing my hands onto my hips. “Not simply told that I am going to be moving my entire life to the middle of nowhere. They don’t even have a liquor store there!”
For someone who only drinks three glasses of wine a year, this was an interesting stand to take. And that’s when I realized, unfortunately, that I like Derek far more than anything else. That somehow an hour without him can be a misery, while an entire day with him glued to my side is never too long.
A few months later, we found ourselves back in Jackie’s yard looking up at the house. “Think you could get used to the bugs?” Derek kicked the grass, sending a thousand more pests up into the air.
“I’ll go wherever you go,” I said. “I just want to be where you are.”
“Hey,” I asked, “how much do you think a full-body mosquito suit would cost?”
Derek turned and walked toward the car as I swatted wildly at a blackfly cloud.
“If you kill one, fifty more come to his funeral,” he shouted over his shoulder.
“What the hell kind of backwoods talk is that?” I hollered.
Derek grinned at me through the driver’s side window as he locked me out of the car.