Vancouver
4 min

Into the woods

A Campus Chronicles finale

Credit: Ken Boesem illustration

Bud had been sitting in the parked car for nearly five minutes now, waiting until it was appropriate to get out, cross the lot, and meet her grandson.

Will was waiting with his friends inside the gate. It had been kind of him to invite her, as she had no one else to come with and had longed to ride the Christmas train in Stanley Park. All the other grandchildren had grown too old to enjoy the miniature ride through the woods, the actors dancing on stilts, the canopy of coloured lights. But Will, at 22, still wanted to go.

Not with her alone, of course. His friends would be there, too. But she had been invited.

Bud applied lipstick in the rearview mirror. She tucked her hair behind her ears, and straightened her hat. Should she wear gloves? It would be cold, yes, she should wear gloves. Did she have enough money? Damn, why didn’t she bring enough to pay for Will? Just stupid.

She sighed into the mirror again, and blinked.

It seemed important to be presentable. It was Christmas. But what was it that made her so worried about seeing a grown grandson? What hidden anxiety now gave her the trembling anticipation of a blind date? It was ridiculous, but there it was.

Outside, the air made her face crack and she held her hands to her cheeks, high-stepping through the brown, broken patches of ice.

Firemen greeted her at the gates, asking for donations to the Burn Fund. She gave a dollar to each of them-they laughed-it was childish, perhaps, to parcel her charity up in this way; to drop a loonie in this bucket, and a loonie in the next. But she had only a few to give, and this way it felt like more.

Where was Will? Everywhere people shouted, and children ran like dervishes across Bud’s path, making her feel tired. She scanned the crowd-he was nowhere to be seen.

Had she got the wrong night? Her eyes welled, and then she said “Stupid,” out loud, to no one, or to herself. Was it Friday or Saturday?

She found a pay phone and called her daughter.

“Marilyn? Hi! I’m at the Christmas train.” She continued to search while she spoke. “Do you know if tonight is the right night? I can’t remember, and I think maybe I got it wrong.”

Marilyn didn’t know. Bud could hear the television in the background, and Bob was calling Marilyn back, asking a question. “That’s alright,” said Bud. “I’ll figure it out. Okay. See you at dinner on Sunday.”

She decided to wait on a bench. Always stay in one place if you’re lost.

But how long was it appropriate to wait? A half-hour? An hour? Perhaps they were only caught in traffic. Perhaps they were in an accident!

And then an uncomfortable thought came to her: they had forgotten. Will had forgotten.

There had been a party, or they were hung over and tired. Who knows? But this little date had fallen away. She should have called to confirm. She hadn’t confirmed anything. They had made the arrangement a week ago, and she hadn’t thought she was meant to confirm, but perhaps she was.

“You look frozen,” said Will, coming up to her.

There he was! All wrapped in scarf and toque and red-cheeked with the cold (or maybe with booze, it didn’t matter). He handed her a coffee.

“Here, have mine. I’ll go and get another.” She laughed a little and waved at him as he ran off, then turned to his two friends. She paid very close attention as they told her their names.

“Ryan.”

“Lucy.”

“I thought I’d got it wrong-that this was the wrong day,” said Bud. And she stood up straight, fixed her hat. “Or maybe that you’d all decided to do something else.”

“Of course not,” said Ryan, who was wearing a bold yellow scarf. Bud pulled off her glove to feel it. “Cashmere cotton blend,” he said. “Do you want to try it?”

Bud laughed again and returned her hand to its glove. “No, dear, I don’t think so.”

Turning to Lucy, she was startled to discover a baby in her arms. She had it wrapped in a sling that went over her shoulder. One of those ethnic slings, thought Bud. She knew it was racist to say “ethnic” out loud, so she refrained from comment. “Who is this?” she smiled.

“This would be Jane,” said Lucy, who seemed pleased with herself for having such a conservative thing as a baby to share with the old woman.

Bud did not ask about the father. Knew better than that. “And you’re the one Will is living with now? Is that right?”

Lucy nodded. “We’re a little family.”

And something caught in Bud’s throat. She found herself wishing that Lucy’s joke were true. Wishing desperately, in that moment, that Will really did love women-that he would be married, would have children of his own. That all the terrible heartache she foresaw could be averted.

Think of all the boys who died, she thought. Think how lonely they must have been in the end. He was such a good boy. And she knew he would argue otherwise, but this gay life of his could never quite be whole, could it?

Her mind did wander down that path sometimes. But she would pull it back, as she did now. To the modern sensibility she had worked so hard to adopt. She had rented Queer as Folk from the giggling, acne-riddled boy at the video store. She had worked her way, on Will’s suggestion, through Tales of the City. She was learning. Anyway, she was trying.

And here came Will now. Another cup of coffee in hand, and a crazy grin on his face. “Let’s go! Let’s go!” He ushered them all into line. He handed Bud a ticket, and one for Lucy, one for Ryan.

And as he told his grandmother what he’d been up to, as he described his excited plans for the future, she felt herself turning more and more away from that darker, bigoted path. It was easier, the more he spoke. What a smart boy. What a good boy.

He still loved men; that much was obvious. But something had switched over in Will, these past few years. It started as a button-sized insinuation, a mere suggestion of change. Then it became more obvious-it was in the way he spoke, the way he smiled (so openly). He was watching his friends-watching her!-with such an intent gaze. He seemed to care enormously. It was empathy; that was the word for it.

They boarded the train. Will sat beside his grandmother.

Bud felt an enormous sense of relief as the train jolted forward and a hundred children shouted. It was the sense of having accomplished an impossible task.

Under the veil of the dark, and under the muffled cheer of piped-in carols, she leaned into her grandson. The train pulled into the forest, which glowed with thousands of strange but wonderful lights.