Last night I stopped in at Bruni Bruni’s 80th birthday party. I had groceries in the back of the cart, including two trays of thawing ground pork, and the cougar was still on the loose, the small and almost inconsequential signs were posted at the trailheads of the park. There was a larger sign down by the dock. I’d seen the cougar. I’d been exercising in front of YouTube and I paused after finishing the arm routine. The routine was a flow, like sped up tai chi. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go on to the second part, the legs part, so I turned and looked out the window and that’s when I saw the cougar pad across the deck, waist high, lithe and uninterested in anything going on in the house. I motioned to M, who was standing in her workout gear looking at me, and she turned quickly enough to see its pale body, lit by moonlight and not the porch light, and then she spent a few minutes pawing at my arm and saying: Holy fuck, do you know what we just saw, and because of this moment on the deck I felt a tingle when I left all that pork, frozen but thawing pork, out in the golf cart and walked through Naomi’s gate and into their house. It’s a funny house – there’s a doghouse out front and sometimes a plush dog keeps watch from inside until the rains come and the dog goes soggy.
M and Amanda were already at the potluck, which was otherwise full of islanders I only tangentially knew, or didn’t know at all, and maybe we weren’t the only ones to come because of a general obsession, or at least interest, with Bruni Bruni. She was difficult to miss at her own 80th birthday party. I recognized her long grey dreadlocks from the all-candidates photos, and other photos of her over the years, as she’d run in every single election since I’d been back and because she didn’t have a large budget for signs like the other candidates, she’d chosen location instead, including one homemade banner that stretched across the fencing across the giant hole in the ground downtown, were a fire had torn through a restaurant and sex shop years ago, and the Bruni Bruni poster said Immediate Housing for the Homeless, and how we needed rooftop gardens, and because it was winter and dark and rainy enough to soak the little stuffed dog outside in the doghouse, Bruni’s white skin was whiter than usual – any time I’d seen her before she’d been tanned chestnut, aggressively tanned from laying out stoned on her sailboat, but I’d never actually spoken to the woman, so after a slice of the birthday cake, and after Adrian and I saved Amanda and M from the relentless storytelling of Britney’s dad, I called Bruni over and asked if I could hear about he most recent election and how she got started, how she’d become interested in politics and the politics of this little part of the coast. She stepped towards me – she still had a flirtatious aura, she knew I was going to listen, cake in hand, she knew a couple others would listen too, and she talked about the first campaign up in Parksville, and while she was telling me about the campaign, she leaned in and I watched as she fingered the black buttons on my London Fog overcoat – not so much waterproof, or was I wearing my homemade blue coat? I stayed in the moment but I could see in the periphery that M and A were watching her hand on my button. She told the boat story, her origin story, she’d never been on a sailboat but this one called to her and she described the rocking of the ocean, the way it just made sense, the life of the ocean, because she said more than once, I’d been selling real estate. She said the word with such disdain. Seeing Bruni made me think of the poet Tim, who’d disappeared. His battered sailboat was no longer given a free berth down in the harbour. I never saw him in it with his little dog at the prow. Maybe it was the cold but I didn’t see him downtown in the overhang next to the library, playing his pennywhistle, maybe tunelessly , maybe to a tune in his head, or in the ether around him. He usually told me about his stroke, that’s why he wasn’t producing any further poetry, but he had something, an old pamphlet, these were strange and wonderful coastal people. They were being replaced by retirees, their spots on the street were being replaced by drug casualties. I told Bruni Bruni I’d love to hear a song, and she peeled back into the room. I wish I could remember her flowing outfit and instead of asking for the accompaniment of guitar, she sand what sounded Brechtian, big-voiced, operatic, she’d come from Germany when she was five but some of the old songs had come with her when she’d shown up in her polite skirt as a refugee.
Bruni: Do you like the way I look? / I don’t do dishes / And I don’t cook. ‘ I just like to lay around and be your cutie pie / and love you, love you / Till someone else catches my eye / I just like to lay ain the sun / Smoke a little doobie with friends / And have a bit of fun / Do you reckon you could have someone / Who doesn’t live by anybody’s rules / And if you miss out on my loving, honey / You’re a foooool’ She wore purplish magenta sweater, layers, a striped skirt and some sort of black or green sash with a knife attached, behind her, out of the way, as this was a party.
Yesterday I walked along the sea wall to Bruni Bruni’s boat. I made it to Newcastle Marina at 12 noon, right on the dot. We’d been gifted a clear blue January day. I passed condos. Pass old broken down properties, a tour company gone out of business, scythed by covid. I could see the Newcastle Marina boat lift, and I thought of my own boat sitting in the harbour, unlifted. Bruni was at the gate. She wanted to haul an old wet-wood sawhorse out to the garbage so I held the gate open – marina gates were never light – and then I followed her down the ramp. The marina housed the last of the live-aboards. Up in Ketchikan, she said, it was a whole harbour of live-aboards ringed with laundromats. No such luck here. There were a few left, including a podiatrist who just didn’t want to live on land. I followed Bruni’s swinging swatch of dreadlock tendril. She got the first when she was still selling real estate, years ago, and she was so self-concscious about the dreadlock she kept it tucked away behind her ear, but that job, that industry, and the life that came with it, just even the way of experiencing property, were all gone and what remained was the sea and the sea air and the view of the arbutus on Saysutshun, and even though she’s not completely moved into her new sailboat it held most of her belongings, except for the pair of weights she kept out on the dock, because the dock was, in a way, an extension of her living room, that’s what didn’t didn’t remember about space, it extended, boat walls couldn’t hold it in, and while I admired her skiff and her kayak, Bruni ducked under the tarp and made arrangements for where I was going to sit. I could see, under the tarp, a cooking pot and some of the firewood Bruni kept, she was ready for at least a few months at sea at any given time, and when she walked nearby beaches she was always good at sniffing out dry wood, even on a wet day, even in a downpour. I took off my drybag. (I’d later leave it on the boat like a chump). And then I took off my shoes and Bruni said Are those new? And I told her they were just well-preserved. She has a very light, girlish laugh, something from Heidi, and when she speaks about the mystical, the powerful, the revelatory, her voice thickens like she’s about to sing-whisper about the universe. She’s younger, she says, from the back. She wakes up and thinks: Who is this person? Where’s the cute young woman with the hair? But she’s still got grey curls, a mischievous face. She smiles to hide a bad front tooth. Skin that’s been treated by salt air, and so many people I know have said I saw her, she was on her boat, she was sunbathing naked, and if you catch up with her late in the summer, rather than the dead of winter, she’s more leathery. She’s got a tiny living space on wha tused to be a party boat until she extracted the sink that used to hold ice and been and champagne and now her stove sits there, though nothing is finalized. She’s got a curve of yew she’s going to make into a handle and she’s already lifted the hatch and inserted a wooden spacer bored with a few holes so she can look out; and more important there’s room for her to stand, that’s essential in a space like this, as is a notebook for her automatic writing and a weed vaporizer, which makes the process easier. She made me a cup of coffee, no dairy or anything, just drink the coffee. I wasn’t about to tell her about my adventures in the world of decaf. THe interior of the boat smelled of damp, a little, and maybe sleep and coffee, of close life. She’d taken out the separators so that I could see where she slept, the rumpbed sheets where her dog now lag, which was just enough room, and if she had a lover, she said, she’d just go and stay at his house and I smiled uneasily and sipped my coffee and thought about that Roger Angell story about being old and how it never really ended, nothing ends. Bruni said she wanted one more love affair, just for that rush that came up your sternum and exploded in your mind, and she wanted about five more years, just for sailing around here, now that she knew how, and she knew the water, and had no urge to leave the coast. I could reach out and hold onto the wooden pole in front of me. I placed my phone over on the table near her and it was covered at times while she talked by wet weather gear. I was back interviewing. I remembered how tiring it could be, especially when speaking to a person who careened out into a conversational bulge, who took different routes, and sometimes, because she’d run for office again and again, she’d been a fixture for years in the local political scene, sometimes she spoke about political issues, homesllesness at length, and I had to steer her back towards a life story that at some times sounded like a myth. The coffee at the bottom of the iron mug was strong – she ate whatever she could, her stores on the boat included a lot of rice, pasta for months. I’ve got wood here, wood here, wood here. Everything in the boat has to have three purposes. I tried to compare it to the shack but this space was so much smaller. I could see a photo of her German mother hanging from above the bed, another photo of herself, aged five. Brunhilde, after her first day of school Look at the ringlets, Bruni said. She smiled and then curved her lip to mask her bad tooth. I liked her, I admired her, and although she was known as an eccentric in town nothing she said sounded conspiratorial, although during a fourteen day fast she’d been advised by her voices to prepare for the end. But beyond that (!) it was about living simply, staying free, self-reliance, this flickering water, this flickering life.