Her Final Nights
On my way to a first date, I found an unlabeled VHS sitting on a sidewalk. I stopped, straightened my skirt, and tried to remember how long it had been since I’d seen one, that bulky cartridge that meant Disney or cheap cartoons when I was a child. I didn’t mean to pick it up at first. I just wanted to touch it and remember what that grainy plastic felt like, the exterior of a long-ago world. But then I was holding it, and before I knew exactly how it happened, I tucked the tape into my purse and hurried along, hopeful that no one had seen. It felt like a good omen for a first date, and I fingered the new bulge in my purse as I entered the restaurant.
I’d chosen an Italian place in the trendy quarter of town, far from the low-class bars and strip clubs that had been erected, destroyed, and resurrected so many times as Fort McMurray boomed and burst and boomed again. I was on the older side for Tinder, close to forty, and knew better than to let potential partners suggest a date, lest I end up at chain restaurants. I found her at a table by the bar. Jenny Kwon. 25. On Tinder, I matched with men and women, and I’d long ago given up on trying to find partners exceedingly close to my own age. Twenty-something boys. Women in their fifties. I didn’t care. We knew how close last call was, and it didn’t make sense not to look for comfort wherever you might find it. Jenny stood and pumped my hand, and I knew immediately from her cheap, colorful clothing that she had nothing to do with the tar sands.
“Great to meet you,” Jenny said. “The food here looks incredible. I’m so excited.”
I peeled open the drink menu. “Have you been here before?” I asked knowingly.
“No way. I work a few blocks south from here, but I usually stick to Wolf Hollow, Quesada Libre, Modern Thai.”
The trash places for the young. I’d been on variations of this date so many times. “Should we order a bottle of wine?”
Jenny tilted her head. “I’m more into bourbon.”
“Bourbon it is.”
We ordered drinks, and although it usually took me two or three stiff pours to feel even remotely tipsy, this one hit me fast. Jenny’s cheeks were already red, and I knew by the way she tore into the bread that she felt buzzed too. “Bread is so good, right?” she asked, her mouth full.
Before I could reply, my phone buzzed in my purse. I held it to my face, pretended to listen for ten seconds, and said I’d take care of it in the morning. When you go on as many first dates as I do, it’s important to schedule escapes. I paid for a service that called me ten minutes into a date and then again at the hour mark. People don’t like to hear this, but you know if you’re going to sleep with them in the first ten minutes. Maybe they bring up their ex. Maybe they spend too much time talking about climate change. Ten minutes is all I need, and the second check-in is just in case I change my mind, if my mood’s soured and I’m suddenly craving a night alone in my apartment watching a documentary or messing around in VR. I looked at Jenny and felt certain we would sleep together. I’m sure we both wanted a momentary escape from the news.
I ordered the foie gras tortellini while Jenny opted for the pasta negra with sea urchin chili and mussels, an adventurous choice for someone who stuck to the young part of town. She handed the menu to the waiter and grinned. “So, what do you do exactly? What brought you to McMurray?”
I finished my drink and ordered a second. “I’m a chemist with Nalco Champion. Do you know Nalco?”
She shook her head.
“It’s an ecolab that provides research and best practices for the oil companies extracting the tar sands. ‘Drilling, cementing, fracturing, and stimulation,’” I quoted. “That’s our motto.”
She nodded, unsurprised and unimpressed. Almost everyone in Fort McMurray was either involved with the tar sands or worked in hospitality. She must have guessed from my clothes and the choice of restaurant, which side I was on and how much money I made. She ordered a second and asked if I liked my job.
“Of course not. Are you kidding? I absolutely hate it.” Maybe the bourbon freed me up a bit, but this was how I’d felt for years, maybe even since I first moved here after finishing my PhD. I buttered a piece of bread and asked, “What about you? My job is so boring, Jenny. What do you do?”
She blushed and looked at her sneakers. “My job is so fucking stupid.”
“You know that new pizza place a few blocks from here? Strada Dada?”
It was on my list of restaurants to investigate. Upscale, Neapolitan pizza helmed by a chef from Modena, one of the culinary capitals of Italy. But I hadn’t made the trip yet and I knew I never would. “I’ve been dying to try it.”
“Well, it’s really, really good. Like it’s the best pizza I’ve ever eaten in my life. Not that I really know. I grew up in Victoria before it went underwater. Only pizza we had growing up was Pizza Pizza, and even as a kid I thought it tasted like cardboard. Our head chef at Strada Dada? She gets everything fresh, imported straight from Italy. She has connections to some exporter that has the last remaining stock of Naples’ tomatoes from before it washed away. It’s so fucking good.”
We could literally hear our stomachs roaring under the table. “What do you do there? You cook?”
Jenny laughed. “No. They have this big brick oven, and the chef needs it to be so hot that the fire can never go out. If it goes out, it’d take days, maybe weeks to get back to the right temperature. So my job is to just come in at closing time and keep it going all night.”
I stared at her. “You’re kidding. You just keep the fire going?”
“I just keep the fire going.”
“What does that even mean?”
“I prod the embers. If things get really spicy, I toss in a fresh block of wood. Mostly, I just read magazines or watch SpaceX Idol on my phone. My body smells like smoke. Everything I own smells like smoke.”
“Are you in charge of acquiring the wood?”
She shook her head. “Nah. Chef has another guy for that.”
The waiter returned with our new drinks and Jenny quickly guzzled half. She was racing toward drunkenness, and that excited me. Alcohol was the short cut to getting to know someone, to making them comfortable enough to reveal the messy edges we all hid on first dates. Time was melting away, and that’s all I ever wanted from these encounters—a brief bubble where we temporarily escaped what was next. “So, you spend forty hours a week literally just watching a fire?”
“Yeah. Great way to spend my golden years, am I right? When everything comes crashing down, I can look back and say, ‘Well, Jenny, you sure kept that fire raging for those rich oil fucks.’ Oh, sorry, I didn’t mean you. I didn’t mean to imply you’re a rich oil fuck.”
I waved her off. If I wasn’t a rich oil fuck, who was?
“Hey.” Jenny leaned forward. “Let me ask you something. I always ask the tar sand people this on first dates. It’s really important to me.”
My body felt so warm. “Go on.”
“How much time do you think we have left? Really. Don’t sugar coat it like you assholes do on the news.”
This was the only thing people ever wanted to know—not how to stop it, but when it would end. “I can’t give you an accurate estimate…”
Her face hardened.
“But,” I said through a laugh, “my guess is ten years. Maybe twenty if we don’t hit any drilling breakthroughs over the next five.”
Jenny pointed her fork at me. “You pass the test.”
“Yeah? How so?”
“You gave it to me straight. You’re a realist just like me. I hate these oil people who claim we have fifty, a hundred years. Kill the earth. Don’t kill the earth. I don’t care. But be honest about it.”
“You’re the coolest pizza fire keeper I know, Jenny.”
I moved to Fort McMurray eight years ago with the same idea as everyone else—get rich off the tar sands and move to a beach within ten years. The problem is the beaches are moving. Miami, Hawaii, Barcelona, Cape Town, all gone, washed away. Oil people feared the government or UN would crack down, but they only deregulated us more, claiming they couldn’t sink the global economy during such a crisis. So in came the climate refugees, moving to places like McMurray and Oklahoma and Alaska and Saudi Arabia and all the other fracking operations left standing. They sped up the process and created more sunken cities, more climate refugees. The work for laborers in McMurray is dangerous, but it’s one of the last places on earth where the working-class can still get rich. Might as well enjoy the last decade or two before everything drowns.
Like most tar sand insiders, I worked seven days on, seven days off. That meant maintaining a “normal” relationship was pretty much impossible. Things started great—all that time together—but always cooled after a month of off-days not syncing up. That’s why I resorted to Tinder and quick flings on my first day off that would hopefully extend through the week. Nobody wants to face the end alone, but I’m not too keen on limiting my choice of dance partners if I’m going to die at 50. I date and fuck and ghost and repeat the process over and over again like everybody else in McMurray, like everybody else everywhere else. Jenny Kwon could make me forget the world just as well as Hector Amador or Jane Pawlowski or Doug Lawrence or any of my other recent dates. I just needed a body.
My phone went off at the hour mark. I reached into my purse, my hand brushing the VHS I’d grabbed from the street earlier. I’d forgotten about it and now felt the urge to share this strange discovery with Jenny. Instead, I clicked the Do Not Disturb button and came clean.
“No one’s really calling me. It’s just a service I use to get out of dates if they’re going badly.”
Jenny laughed. “You serious? That’s fucking great. You have to give me their website or something. I’d pay for that.”
We were drunk, and the restaurant felt like it had disappeared. It was just me and Jenny, and the small portions of pasta weren’t doing anything to sop up the alcohol in our bodies. In this new world, we opened up to each other in an artificial way I knew we wouldn’t have otherwise.
“My older brother died when I was thirteen,” Jenny said dramatically. “Motorcycle accident. Took his bike on the ferry to Seattle and died on some highway. I don’t even know why he was there. It felt like such a huge tragedy at the time. But now it’s like, hello, everybody’s going to die anyway. You wasted all those tears and all that therapy, dummy.”
I decided to be brave and reached out and held Jenny’s hand. “I know exactly what you mean. Every woman in my family died of breast cancer. We weren’t well off financially. It was difficult, and they all suffered. I spent so many years terrified I’d die the same way, that the cancer was already inside of me, and now it doesn’t even matter.”
“I wanted to be a professor,” Jenny said. “I wanted to teach Victorian novels.”
“Victorian novels! Why?”
“They gave me a fantasy world I could live inside for hours, days, weeks. I wanted to show that to others. I’m ready to apply to grad school, but it’ll take seven years minimum. Why even fucking bother?”
“So, you’re saying you’re better off watching a fire in Strada Dada?”
Jenny raised her glass. “Hell yeah. Better to watch it burn than be burnt up. ‘Better to get drunk, high, paid, laid if this is truly the end.’ You know that song? Nicki Minaj’s third act is fucking banging.”
“I loved her when I was a child. That Barbie stuff.” Jenny made me feel like the first day of sunshine after months of cold and snow. Remember this? What life used to be like? She looked in my eyes and really made me believe I could fix everything, even if I knew that was a lie, that by morning I’d compile her imperfections, counting down the days until I returned to work and never saw her again.
“The way I see it,” Jenny said, “is I have to experience all the happiness, all the excitement, all the joy I would have felt over the next fifty years in the next five. That means fuck impulse control and fuck plans.” She dug around in her purse and showed me the orange flash of a prescription bottle. “Do you want to go back to my place and snort Adderall?”
I hadn’t been asked to snort Adderall since college, when I was that dorky working-class girl from Uranium City trying desperately to fit in at the University of Saskatchewan, which might as well have been Toronto or Manhattan, might as well have been Mars. “Ok,” I said. “Ok.”
Normally, I would never have agreed to go back to someone’s apartment if they worked in hospitality and not the tar sands. Jenny Kwon lived in the shit part of McMurray, miles from the luxury apartments among rows and rows of cheap, brick tenements put up in a hurry when the first wave of climate refugees swarmed Canada. Her apartment felt like time travel, like she’d guided me back to my social life in grad school. Postcards of distant—and now sunken—cities taped to the walls. Gaudy Christmas lights still blinking in February. Ironic furniture lifted from thrift stores and even a genuine record player. I watched her locate Nicki Minaj’s Pink Friday in a milk crate and set it in the groove.
“Pink Friday! You probably weren’t even alive when this came out.”
Jenny grabbed a mortar and pestle off and shelf and unscrewed her prescription bottle. She joined me on the couch and put her hand on my thigh. “I like old things.”
I wanted to sigh in her face. I knew she thought of me that way—old—but it was such a turnoff to actually hear it, even if she was trying to shape those feelings into something sexy, something that proved her desire. I wanted to tell her that I felt permanently twenty-eight, that I doubted I’d learned anything or changed even remotely over the last decade, that in many ways, she felt more like a peer to me than my actual peers. Did everyone feel this way? Or was this just how people felt at the end? A permanent adolescence meant to keep doomsday at bay? I didn’t know and couldn’t explain any of this to Jenny, drunk as we were. I watched her crush up the pills and reassemble them into two neat lines on the Pink Friday album cover. There was Minaj disturbingly arranged like an armless, pink-haired Barbie. Jenny rolled up a dollar bill and said, “Bottoms up.”
Snorting Adderall always made me euphoric, and within minutes, my mouth was dry and all negative feelings about Jenny washed away. What did they matter? We would be dead soon, and here was this warm, flesh-and-blood human willing to spend one of her final nights with me. This was inherently good, and I wanted so badly to believe that. We danced to Minaj. This was all foreplay, all love, all resistance against the end, and when “Super Bass” came on, I shouted, “I danced to this in middle school!” and sang along to every single word until Jenny kissed me hard on the mouth during the first chorus. She really did smell like smoke.
“I fucking love you!” she lied.
“I love you too!” I lied back.
I’d experienced the kind of sex I had with Jenny before, increasingly so as we drifted toward the end. It was sweet and full of false promises—the I-love-you’s, and I’ll-marry-you’s, and the you’re-the-best-thing-that’s-ever-happened-to-me-honey even though we’d only just met. We wanted to briefly understand what marriage felt like, what true intimacy felt like, similar to how I’d linger in parks and watch the dwindling number of children funnel down slides or fly upon swings. What would it feel like to raise one? I’d never know, and I had to make peace with that.
When we finished, Jenny and I put on our underwear and returned to the couch. She played a contemporary record I didn’t recognize that made me feel old. Our euphoria died as did any idea that this night had been meaningful in the way we’d hoped for an hour earlier. We passed a PBR back-and-forth in silence. I was desperate to find anything to kill time, to make the clock run faster until it would be acceptable to slip out or suggest we sleep—I still didn’t know if I wanted Jenny again in the morning or if I should try another Tinder date the next evening. And that’s when I remembered the VHS.
“Hey,” I said, face bright again, “you’re never going to believe what happened on the way to the restaurant.”
“What’s that?” Jenny picked at her cuticles and looked disinterested, like she’d ordered something adventurous and was deeply unhappy with the results.
I lifted my purse from the floor and showed her the VHS. “Do you even know what this is?”
Jenny swiped it, excited again. “Of course I know what this is. I love these. How kitsch.”
“It was just sitting there on the street. Can you believe it? What’s a tape doing on the street decades after being replaced? I wish we could watch it.”
Jenny flashed me the same grin from when she suggested Adderall. “Guess what, bitch?”
She stood up. “I have a motherfucking VCR.”
She winked. “That’s right. Have it in a box of my parents’ stuff I never got rid of. They had the right cables to make it work on new TVs too. I tested it. But they only had Weekend at Bernie’s II. Funny flick though.”
Jenny disappeared into the bedroom and reappeared a moment later with a cardboard box labeled PARENTS. She hadn’t mentioned them, and I wondered what had happened, if their story was any different from the mundane tragedy I imagined in my head. She set the box down and dug out the dull gray machine I remembered from childhood, the one we clung to long after they went out of fashion.
“Are we sure we should do this?” I asked, suddenly afraid.
She crawled behind the TV and plugged in the wires. “Why not? You think it’s a home movie? Maybe a sex tape? What did they call those movies where people actually died?”
“Yeah. Wouldn’t that be awesome?”
Jenny emerged from behind the TV and fed the tape into the VCR. She returned to the couch with the old remote and asked if I was ready. She held my hand, and her body looked so young, so healthy. I could barely believe she’d be ash in just a few short years.
She pressed play. Static flashed across the screen. We leaned closer and closer, closer and closer, waiting for anything.
Photo courtesy of Kris Krüg; view more of his work on Flickr.