September 22, 1978
Grace let Sophia hold her hand as they walked down Clifton Street toward the hotel. A few tourists wrinkled their noses, but under the glint of the sun, and the haze of inebriation wafting from the bars and beer gardens, their spectacle seemed almost placid, a thin slice of sentimentality in a tight corridor of make-believe. At the bottom of the hill, Grace could see the dim outline of Niagara’s Horseshoe Falls. She could see the suspended rainbow hanging in the afternoon sky and she could feel the hint of spray as it traveled in the breeze.
“You’re gonna love this place,” Sophia promised, reaching down to squeeze Grace’s knee.
They ducked into the Honeymoon City Motel and Sophia leaned up against the front desk, stabbing the countertop with her elbows. “Reservation for Masters,” she said in a low, husky voice. Grace looked around the lobby trying to gain her bearings. She had only met Sophia three days earlier in Montreal, and the sound of her voice on the ride down to Niagara Falls had been obscured by the psilocybic haze that Grace enjoyed in the passenger seat of Sophia’s mustard-colored Triumph convertible. Now, the dizzying shades of pink and raspberry swirled around her head. In front of her face, Sophia dangled the thick metal key from its plastic chain. “Room 134, our lucky number,” she laughed.
For Grace, getting to know Sophia had the sensation of getting to know water as it runs down the drain. She was familiar and elusive, mentioning things like “lucky numbers” and “our song”. She had a way of smiling at Grace coyly as though she was speaking a language in which both of them were completely fluent. The evocation extended to her body, pressing herself against Grace as soon as they entered the room, letting her fingers intertwine with Grace’s, craning her neck to explore Grace’s mouth. Crumpling the bedspread on the heart-shaped bed, the sound of revelers from the street below drew Grace’s attention away from the tangle of arms and legs. On the wall behind the bed was a large mirror and she caught herself smiling into it, protecting the image to make it a permanent snapshot in her mind. Her own nude, thirty-two-year-old body delighted her in its casual deficiencies: sagging here and there, a slight sunburn line from the straps that were on her shoulders, and a series of blemishes that looked from the reflection like a road map. She thrust herself against Sophia’s shoulders, mouthing her neck and back. Their lovemaking over the past three days had an odd trajectory to Grace. She had been with a couple of women in the past, but none with such a rabid drive toward the experience, toward devouring every fleeting emotion in the room. Sophia had skill, directing traffic firmly with her hands and a soft whisper in Grace’s ear. Sophia’s careful instinct spread shivers through Grace’s body with a temperance that left her in awe, and ferocity that left her feeling pleasantly debased.
The drugs helped. The casual amphetamine binge of the previous month had turned into a blur of travel and the surprising suspension of consequence. It’s all who you know, someone had told her along the way, from Minneapolis to Detroit and Hamilton to Montreal, and the fact that she had no idea who had uttered the words only served to reinforce their meaning. It must have been a privilege to be chosen to deliver packages across the border and back again. Unemployed and alone, she was living in a desperate daydream, immune to any fear of customs agents and their flashlights or patrolmen that passed by her motel room at night; nights that inevitably marched toward get-togethers more outrageous than Grace could have imagined, parties that seemed designed to challenge even her most absurd fantasies. On a houseboat on the St. Lawrence River, music rang out from the hi-fi. At one point, a group of men dangled their flaccid penises off the stern in a pissing contest. One of the men was a provincial minister’s aide, Grace had heard. She had also heard a rumor that Margaret Trudeau was in the cabin below snorting lines of coke from the naked backside of her mistress. By early morning the chaise set-ups on deck would be filled with a maze of unshaven, naked and near-naked bodies. That’s when Sophia appeared in the moonlight like a succubus, slithering into Grace’s inebriated dreams. Helplessness came in the form of a mantra: It’s all who you know. It’s all who you know. Now, at a cheap Niagara Falls motel, she reached back with her hands and gripped the bedspread tightly, stretched her feet flat on Sophia’s back and forgot how hunger felt, forgot what boredom was like, forgot about the callous machinations of the big, bankrupt land-grab to the south, about the vile and oblique history of her own life.
Grace knew that there was no petulance in the Goddess Hedone. As the daughter of Eros and Psyche, she was born to a life of pleasure, uninhibited in the pursuit of pleasure save for the unfortunate impact of so many subversive influences: propagation, security, mortality, and potentially, love. But she had come to know the right people, the ones with a gift of seeing through the milieu of ennui and joie de vivre. Montreal parties droned on until the still of the night, after the seventy-eights had stopped playing, and the solemn skyline of Montreal glimmered on the horizon. There, before them, sat Montreal in its Catholicism, in its reverence to the ornate pages of time. There was always a way to see Jesus there on the water in the pre-dawn darkness. There was a path to the man and his humanity as the church bells shared their divinity with the world. Arms extended in perpetuity, he is a cripple, unaware that they were even watching him, stealing his power without regret. The twin spires of the Basilica de Notre Dame stretched into the sky as if to show him up with their magnificence. With a few lines of verse somebody recited as an echo, and Sophia’s hot breath on her neck, Grace knew that nobody had to say or do anything else. Before the sun would burst over the horizon, the whole of time was within her grasp. And this grasp held her as much as she held it. So she rode Sophia’s trail of joyful experience across the quaint little gingerbread villages of Quebec and Ontario. She didn’t question their destination, knowing every mile was a destination. Exhausted, they laid side by side on the motel bed and Grace could feel a cool drip of sweat travel down her temple. She was blissfully prostrate to it, devoted to its fleeting will.
She awoke from a brief nap to see Sophia getting dressed in front of the sliding patio door. She wore a dark blazer and posed toward the street, intermittently flashing her bare chest to the screams of drinkers outside the bar next door. She turned and flashed Grace a smile, wearing eyeliner in a thinly formed mustache above her lip.
“I’m going to be your Clark Gable tonight, honey,” she vamped. “Come on, get dressed. We need to hit the town.”
“You’re really going to wear that?” Grace grumbled.
“Why? Are you embarrassed? Does this upset your sweet, Midwestern sensibilities?” Sophia admired herself in the mirror, shaping the firm mold of black hair above her eyebrows.
“I already have,” Sophia sneered. She turned again to the window and provided the revelers with one final flash.
Grace threw some lipstick on and allowed Sophia to plant a sloppy kiss, blending her ruby lipstick with Sophia’s mustache. “Better like that,” Grace laughed.
Down Clifton Street, the summer’s last gasp of tourists cheered at Sophia’s costume. They walked into Madame Toussaud’s Wax Museum and posed with Marie Antoinette and The Marquis de Sade. They walked through the bar at the Crowne Plaza arm and arm, nodding and smiling at passersby. At a nightclub called Rouge, double-time disco music reverberated in syncopation with the flashing strobe lights that lit the otherwise pitch-black room. Grace watched Sophia spring immediately to the dance floor and vamp, pretending to stroke the imaginary mustache on her lip. Then, she was off to the bathroom with a group of men that she’d just met. When she returned, Grace could now see the comical blend of powder mixed with smudged lipstick and eyeliner. Laughing aloud, they began to kiss as the music tore through every chamber of their hearts while their bodies pressed together. When a slower song began to play, Sophia mocked a dancing lead, strutting Grace and her dress across the floor. In the sea of bodies, Sophia momentarily appeared as another face in the costumed crowd. The dollop of gel that once lifted her bangs now made them droop in front of her eyes, not so much wild to Grace now as eerily distant. Then Sophia would sashay across the floor and wrap her arms around Grace’s waist, straddling her as she danced, and Grace felt the strong desire to be possessed. To maintain the feeling Grace went back to the bathroom, opened her make-up case, and inhaled three long lines that Sophia had cut up for her. “Hurry up,” Sophia cried, “I wanna go to the falls. I wanna go to the falls.”
At the falls, they stood silently for several minutes, the world around them, the slowly eroding rocks beneath the water still engaged in a tremulous fit. A few other couples walked in the cool evening air as the spray filled the air. “Let’s be here,” Sophia said, “Let’s bathe and drink and be baptized by this and only this.” Grace nodded, unable to move her jaw to form words. “First, you must propose,” Sophia continued, “There, by the rose garden. You must pledge your undying devotion to these falls.”
“And what if I won’t?” Grace asked.
“Then, the falls will take you anyway.”
They went to the rose garden after buying a bottle of whiskey. Sophia toted it ceremoniously in its brown wrapper, swinging it wildly with one arm as she played with the button on her coat. Grace threw some change in a fountain and closed her eyes tightly.
“Whatever you do,” Sophia said, “don’t tell me your wish. No matter what I do to you, even in the midst of the most cruel interrogation you can think of, never ever tell me.”
“Okay, I’ll tell you,” Grace giggled. “The truth is, I have no wishes. But the fountain looked so empty and I thought about how some little girl was going to come out here and not know, not know that this is a wish-granting fountain.”
“I see. I see that I’m going to have to try other tactics to get you to talk.” Sophia straddled Grace on the bench, placing her hands on either side of her and letting the lapels on her coat blouse. Grace began to wonder whether or not Sophia was truly feigning masculinity. She stared intently into the dark brown intensity of Sophia’s eyes. She watched the edges of Sophia’s lip curl defiantly and firmly upward, shifting what was left of her mustache into a sinister sneer. She felt like a helpless damsel in a melodrama, tied to the tracks. But she already knew that Sophia was both villain and hero. She rubbed her hands against Sophia’s ribcage underneath her coat. She felt her diaphragm cautiously heave while her heartbeat gained a new velocity.
“Wishes are for fools,” Sophia said in a pronounced accent as she stood up, “fools and Americans.” She grabbed her crotch and spit on the ground. Then she laughed madly, throwing her head back to reveal several distant stars shine in the late summer sky.
Grace could feel an almost palpable shift, grabbing onto the railing on the bench as though she might topple over. She suddenly felt like the subject of an experiment, some preposterous exhibition into the unchartered flip side of the world that she thought she lived in. She looked at her hand on the railing and wondered what she was really reaching for.
“Let’s go ho–, let’s go back to the room,” Sophia said in an unaccented voice, the unfamiliar voice of resignation. “I’m getting an awful headache.” She took out a handkerchief from her pocket and started wiping the eyeliner, lipstick, and cocaine from her upper lip.
“Are you alright?” Grace asked.
“Yeah, just a little drunk, I guess.” Sophia stumbled back a few steps and then sat down on the cement beside the roses.
Grace put her arm around her and helped her walk back up the hill toward the motel. The crowds on Clifton Street were beginning to thin out, and what had earlier been an excited, curious response from the tourists as they walked by, now became shame and avoidance. As they walked past the wax museum, Grace saw Sophia’s reflection in the mirror. Clark Gable had left the building. Behind the reflection in the darkened museum, she noticed her more appropriate resemblance in the sagging jowls of Humphrey Bogart. With a drink in one hand and a cigarette permanently affixed to his bottom lip, he leaned over a piano to say something to Sam who was gleefully prepared to hammer the keys of a silent piano. The fateful decisions had all been made. The flight had taken off at sunrise. There was really nothing to be said between them.
Grace tucked Sophia into bed and sat up on the edge of the bed, too wired to sleep. She found an old movie on the television when every other channel had signed off for the night. She realized how long it had been since she’d watched television, and she’d never seen the Canadian version of programming that flashed before her. She wondered whether or not she’d end up seeing the unfurling maple leaf flag with “O’ Canada” playing triumphantly behind it. She caressed Sophia’s leg as she watched, feeling oddly protective of her companion.
Grace wondered where Sophia’s convertible would take them from here. It was late September and she knew that within a few months this entire scene would be covered in ice just like her hometown. Could this thing, this bond, this companionship, survive the winter? For a few moments, she thought about Sophia as her destiny. She thought about living out the years with her in a lakeside cabin somewhere in the backwoods of Minnesota. She thought about throwing on a flannel shirt to chop wood, drinking a strong cup of coffee as she watched the leaves turn to gold, satisfied wholly by the thought of a loving woman’s arms wrapped around her. She thought about growing fat and defiantly lazy, gathering a cadre of likeminded friends who’d get together to talk about their dogs or the new knitting secrets they’d learned. With tall white pines sheltering them from their outside world, they could experience oblivion in its purest form, a complete dismissal of prevailing mores and fashionable trends in a world that really was of their own making.
She laid back and began to stroke Sophia’s hair, thinking about a poem she remembered by Sappho. But she thinks of the fate, an evil thing/ That the years fast-fleeting to fair maids bring./ When the roses are faded, the gold turns grey. She whispered the words several times as Sophia snored. She searched her memory for other lines of poetry, the kind that might bring Jesus’s outstretched arms, the kind that could please the goddesses, make the world that they lived in become illuminated and electrified, the way it was built to be. It didn’t matter that she fell short of this goal, her impulse was simply to want the world to be different, to be kinder, to be wiser, to be bolder, to be more loving, and that was more than enough for her now. She could only then identify how every type of love she had ever felt boiled down in a funnel to what she was feeling right now, not love for another soul, but love for every soul directed toward the blanketed form beside her. In this sense, she was truly in love. In this sense, nothing else mattered much.
The late morning was overcast and the memory of rainfall lingered in Grace’s mind. Grace awoke to the sound of someone pounding on the motel room door. Her head spun as she tried to pry the hair stuck in the saliva and sweat on her face. Sophia was gone. The thought seemed trivial at first. She was not encumbered by any sense of ownership. She tried to ignore the knocking for several minutes, but it wouldn’t cease. She got up to look through the peephole. The squat, uncomfortable front desk clerk stood in the hallway with his head bowed. “Excuse me, hello. Are you in there?” he began to repeat. Grace opened the door and stared blankly at him, dressed only in an oversized t-shirt. “Miss, uh, there’s some mounties down in the lobby, and they need to talk to you.”
“Police officers, Miss. There’s some officers downstairs and they need to talk to you.”
Grace got dressed and went down to the lobby. The sound of CB radios and the sight of red flashers outside jarred her into a sensibility she’d avoided for several months.
“Good morning, Miss,” a handsome young officer began, “do you know a Miss Sophia Masters?” Grace followed his eyes and hands more than his words. Next to him on the front desk was a large plastic bag with wet fabric inside. Grace nodded after he asked the question again. “Can you tell me whether or not you are a relative, or do you know if she has any relatives that we can reach?” Grace shook her head. Her jaw ached as her mouth sat agape. “I’m sorry to inform you that we suspect, that is, we found, Miss Masters in the waterway early this morning. It looks like, it appears as though she jumped from the overlook. We found some of her things, and we have some witnesses. Miss, can you describe the nature of your relationship?”
“Some witnesses?” Grace blurted.
“Miss, would you like to sit down? I’m sorry to upset you.”
“How long have you known Miss Masters?”
“Three days.” The words fell coldly from Grace’s throat. She wanted to reach out and pull them back inside. She wanted to get in the yellow Triumph, throw the gear into reverse and speed back over weeks and months. She thought about her old apartment in Minneapolis, estranged family and friends whose proximal absence attacked her with a pressure she could no longer bear, led her to flee without notice, to drive across the hillsides of another country with a virtual stranger, simply to throw the years behind her in the dust. Now, what had she done? The officer stared blankly at Grace after jotting down his notes. She stared at the landscape behind him hoping for a centering position on the landscape and finding only the faded pink and raspberry wallpaper.
“We know Miss Masters is from Ottawa, but can you tell me where you ladies were headed? Do you know if she has any relatives we can call?” Through the officer’s words Grace pictured an aging, gentle Canadian couple sitting in their armchairs watching Audubon Wildlife Theatre in their neat little gingerbread house. Sophia with parents, maybe some brothers and sisters off selling insurance or real estate in Toronto or Winnipeg, the thought left Grace caught in a prolapse, an undoing that made her feel like she needed to excuse herself and retrieve all of the scattered pieces of herself that littered the carpet. Instead, she gathered herself and politely answered the officer’s questions. He thanked her and told her to enjoy her stay in Canada.
Grace retreated to the motel room and began to sort out the crumpled clothes, random vials, and pill bottles. She held Sophia’s wrinkled black sport coat in her arms. Holding it toward the dim light from the window, it looked like a scarecrow, innocuously planted by the roadside. She thought about embracing the coat, soaking in its smells and feeling the fabric against her skin, but then, she let it drop on the bed, arms tossed in contortion, and Grace realized that she wanted to get as far away from it as possible. Through the window, as she watched the police car pull away, she developed the momentum to revise every answer to his questions and she began to mouth them to herself. “Do I know Miss Masters? Knowing is a fallacy and a trap the universe designs for us to discover love as a replacement. What is the nature of our relationship? We are connected like you and I are connected, and we are still connected like the surf that churns beneath the falls, trapped by circumstance but forever liquid and forever in motion, pulling inward and pushing outward simultaneously. We are falling but never landing and our force eats away at the earth a little bit by little bit. Where were we headed? Here. Always here.”
Grace gathered up her things and checked out of the motel, leaving the crumpled sport coat on the bed. She walked down Clifton Street in the misty rain and joined the large crowd of tourists collecting by the overlook of Horseshoe Falls. The ambulances were gone. The spectacle was short-lived. Now, these neophytes were simply watching the Maid of the Mist skirt the bottom of the falls by only an arm’s length. They cheered and waved as the boat drifted closer to the platform. “Here Ma’am, take this,” a stranger’s voice offered as he handed Grace a yellow poncho. Rain and mist dripped down her face and smeared what was left of her makeup from the night before. She put the poncho on and turned to her left and right to see masses of people wearing the same yellow poncho. As the rain continued to fall, they huddled together watching the waterway spill over the cliff and crash into a violent thrash of surf beneath. Despite her expectations, they all stayed dry and warm.
Eric Erickson’s fiction has appeared in Curbside Splendor, Page & Spine, and Vol. 1 Brooklyn Sunday Stories, among other literary spaces. He resides in Denver, Colorado and teaches writing at Pikes Peak Community College and Colorado Free University.