During my summer break from the Master of Fine Arts program at Columbia University in New York, I found myself amid my first adult crisis. I had been teaching writing at a summer camp for high schoolers, but when it was over, I was unemployed for the first time since I was 16. My husband had gone to an extended business training session in Texas, and while away had discovered a penchant for sleeping with men.
I moved out – first to a shared room in Washington Heights with two mattresses on the floor, where I slept opposite a Russian woman who stayed up staring at me through the dark, then to a sweltering fifth-floor walk-up in East Harlem, an improvement by all accounts, but still dark, moldy and depressing. Broke, heartbroken and profoundly sweaty, I had taken to pacing the apartment sans pants in a diagonal across the sloping faux-parquet floor. When that didn’t work I returned, as I always had, to books.
Reading had given me solace since I was a child. Novels, even ones in which bad things happened, provided a structure for suffering – a narrative arc, growth, closure and, if you were lucky, a beautiful or insightful description, a lesson learned. In real life, I could extract nothing astute or even coherent from my current state of upheaval. So I went to the library and trawled the stacks until I came upon “The Shipping News.”
I had read Annie Proulx’s short stories the previous semester, and Alan – my MFA colleague and then love interest in the postmarriage fallout – had recommended the novel, about a man named Quoyle rebuilding his broken life in Newfoundland. Among Alan’s charms was an unbridled passion for the giant dogs native to the province; his childhood pet was an obese Labrador he anthropomorphized so keenly in stories I envisioned him more like a brother. Sometimes Alan would email me stock photos of a Newfie having a swim, and we would joke about a fantasy trip to Newfoundland, home of the nicest dogs around.
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I brought the book back across Morningside Park and allowed myself to steep in it the way I hadn’t really had a chance to since beginning graduate school. Quoyle’s Newfoundland was a balm for my wounds: in each chapter a glimpse beyond the New York heat and the search for another job and a divorce lawyer. Quoyle had made a clean escape from his past; Quoyle lived in a house near the ocean; in Newfoundland there was always a breeze. Newfoundland, a name with the promise of a fresh start built into its very syllables.
I’m not sure, exactly, how Newfoundland went from novel setting and daydream to a plan that propelled me to the Port Authority. Having family in Croatia and South Jersey, I spent most of my summers either along the Adriatic coast or down by the Jersey Shore; though neither were without their benefits or even adventures, both were exclusively family affairs, large gatherings of relatives, in which I could drift and feel safe. But fate had aligned in such a way that even my risk-averse and very sad self was willing to take a chance. Alan was already in Canada, in Montreal visiting friends. I could meet him there, and we could rent a car. We could go somewhere neither of us, and no one I knew, had ever been before.
I bought a Greyhound ticket for a predictably hellish journey to Montreal that featured five bonus hours at the border when a fellow passenger was taken in by the police for extended questioning. I reunited with Alan, spent the dredges of my money on my half of the ferry passage and a rental car; a driving atlas of Atlantic Canada; bread, tomatoes and tins of anchovies; and tried to push the fears of financial ruin from my head as best I could. Then we drove through New Brunswick and across Nova Scotia, watching the familiarity of storefronts and landscapes dissipate in the rear view. We slept in the car in a Tim Hortons parking lot, the last bastion of brand recognition for the remainder of the trip. In the morning we woke and swam in the frigid North Atlantic along a beach of auburn sand. We hadn’t left the mainland yet, but already I had never been to a place so empty – not deserted, just never quite settled in the first place.
We reached the North Sydney port at midnight, put the car in the bowels of the ferry and climbed up to the deck for the six-hour passage across Cabot Strait. I promptly began to panic; I was prone to seasickness. Why had I chosen to take myself on an extended boat ride? Perhaps some cheap wine and an overpriced cupcake would have been a better analgesic for my particular troubles. I downed a dose of Duane Reade-brand sleeping pills from the bottom of Alan’s knapsack and sat on a bench waiting for stomach pains to overtake me. I woke in the morning with a stiff neck, and Newfoundland on the horizon.
I was still very stoned from the medication and took a series of ill-framed photos from the side of the boat – gray crags on which the first lighthouses and trap sheds were perched. All around, the shimmering navy blue water marked the real distance I had come, so different from the beryl Adriatic or the brown churn of the South Jersey Atlantic.
At our first stop, we learned, among other things, that we were pronouncing Newfoundland wrong. We had driven those first hours with no plan, sticking to the main road on which the ferry dropped us, stopping only when we came to what looked like a traveling carnival. A young couple who had marked us as strangers from across the field were patient through our bungled explanation of what exactly we were doing in Newfoundland and offered us some fast facts: It was NEW-fin-land – the “new” stressed, the “found” compressed, the “land” wide and stretched at the “a”; this was the Deer Lake strawberry festival and baking competition; and that was the mayor over there in the tent, judging the cakes.
Was there a good local beer we should try? we asked. The two conferred for a moment, then said, decisively, “Coors Light.”
We slept on the beach, woke at dawn, rigid with cold, and resolved to choose our next destination based solely on the attractiveness of its name. The map was full of promises of the undiscovered, coves and lookout points, brooks and bights each harboring a secret second chance.
One name in particular drew me in each time I looked at the map: Twillingate. A word so full of twinkle and twilight it felt as if it was getting away with something. It was out of the way, far from everything, but that seemed fitting. “Let’s go to Twillingate,” I said. And because he was gracious, or maybe because he was thinking the same thing, Alan agreed.
We drove northeast and climbed the Tablelands, a desaturated Martian landscape with mountain peaks inverted into snow-filled craters. We abandoned the plastic knife we’d been using to cut the tomatoes and, instead, bit into them and ate them whole like apples. We stopped for gas in Wiltondale and found in the station’s cooler, the kind in which one encounters ice cream in a bodega, a pair of frozen rabbits.
In the town bar the server looked at us with incredulity when we said we were from New York. Was I living just like they did on “Sex and the City?” she wanted to know. I thought of the heat and my room share and my former husband. “Not exactly,” I said. We forewent the house special (canned moose and onions) in favor of mooseburgers. Was there a good local beer we should try? we asked. She nodded and brought us Coors Light.
In the morning we ate tomatoes and strawberries on the hood of the car, then drove all day, passing through Summerford and New World Island, and arriving at Twillingate before sunset. I was both giddy and apprehensive about whether the place could live up to its name, and pulled over so we could go by foot. Here was the lighthouse, red and white just as I had imagined it; here were the jagged cliffs lush with wild grass. I stood on a decaying picnic bench at the edge of an overhang to study the horizon. Icebergs thrust up from the glassy water, their tips tapered to points by the summer sun.
We ate cod and scallops with baked apple and local berries in the town’s restaurant. No one much lived here anymore, the waitress said (she went to school in St. John’s), but they all came back for the summer. We slept in the car in a bank parking lot that overlooked the ocean; in the moments before sleep, I conjured plans for an ordinary life in Newfoundland, one made slightly better by grassy cliffs and salty air.
In the morning, we pressed on toward St. John’s. The towns on the way were smaller, the accents more pronounced. In Fredericton we slipped (undetected, we thought) into the back pew of a weatherboard church, where the congregants were singing hymns a cappella and by heart in what was approaching an Irish brogue. The pastor gathered the children in front of the altar and snapped his fingers in their faces when they failed to pay attention, then commanded them to sing the “welcome song” and give us bags of hard candy.
We passed through Lumberton and Newtown, stopped to roam among endless mazes of lobster traps on the docks. And in Gambo I ate the biggest portion of soft-serve ice cream I’ve had to date. The closer we got to St. John’s the colder it became – the east coast unbuffered from the ocean winds’ true power. At night it was so cold in the car I woke and buried myself beneath a heap of our dirty clothes to keep from shivering.
Then, finally, we dipped south to the Avalon Peninsula, and reached St. John’s the next afternoon. While most of the province was dark blues and greens, St. John’s was brazen in telegraphing its presence, the downtown lined with row houses in fuchsia, yellow and orange. Here there were stores and signs catering to tourists and plaques denoting historical achievements: Some considered St. John’s the oldest English-founded city on the continent; Signal Hill was the site of the first trans-Atlantic wireless communication. But I wondered then and now about the history of those smaller places we had passed through with no plaques to speak of.
At night there was music in the streets and crowds filled the pubs even though it was a Tuesday. I felt something inside me switch on again, the excitement of my very first days in New York City, the thrill of a new place alight and alive through the dark. We went to a bar on George Street, said yes to the house dinner special; it was called Brewis, which, in the server’s best description, contained “codfish and wet bread.” We ordered the beer ourselves.
I don’t remember where we slept that night, or the feverish drive back to the ferry port in the days that followed. I don’t remember the boat or bus rides home. New York was still hot and full of the problems I’d left there, and I spent the rest of the summer earning minimum wage by correcting the faulty geocode of Google Maps listings. I never came across any listings for Newfoundland, but sometimes I would type in Twillingate and watch the map zoom northward, allow myself to stand for a moment on the cliff where I could craft an adventure based solely on the mystery of a place’s name, and the promise of the beauty it might hold.
Sara Novic is the author of the novel “Girl at War” She teaches writing at Columbia University and with the nonprofit Words After War.