The Real Lesbian Housewives of Northwestern Ontario
By Joelle Barron
When Heather inevitably dumps me, I drive out to Minaki with my three garbage bags of stuff and move into Jia and Luke’s eco resort. It’s the first week of January and they’re booked up with Americans who come north to live out their pioneer fantasies on pre-stolen land. Forty below plus wind chill and they stick me in the worst yurt, a two-kilometre hike in from the parking lot with a woodstove for heat and no internet. It sits at the centre of the resort’s trail system; tourists walk by all day, peering in the windows and rattling the doorknob, thinking they’ve come across some sort of Canadian history museum.
“I’ve been pissing on the trail in the mornings,” I tell Jia while I pretend to help her load firewood into the quad trailer. “It’s so funny, Ji. All these men explaining to their wives how a fox or a wolf or a muskrat must have just been here. And the wives get all scared, like, ‘Gerald!’ Ha!”
“You’re fucking stupid,” Jia says. She straddles the green pleather seat and gestures over her shoulder with her thumb.
I climb onto the machine and shove my mittened hands through the metal bars of the rack behind me. Jia revs the engine and we take off towards the trail at the edge of the lake.
I met Jia six years ago when she showed up at one of Heather’s Pride Kenora committee meetings. She pulled up in front of Knox United in her brown Subaru wagon with the Coexist sticker and sidled into the church basement looking charmingly nervous.
“Did you just leave your husband?” I asked her, handing her a cup of watered-down orange McDonald’s liquid from a plastic drum. Heather was busy accosting the mayor over by the cheese tray, surrounded by her usual crowd of adoring hangers-on.
“I’m Jia,” she said. “And no. Is that a requirement?”
She was wearing the dowdiest mom-outfit I had ever seen on someone in their late-twenties: thrifted brown puffer coat, snow pants from the little boys’ section, and a purple felted hat with a huge flower on it that hovered over her pale forehead like a quivering bird.
“I’m Riley,” I said. “Where did you come from?”
“I just moved here with my husband,” she said, sipping her drink. It left a slick of orange that spilled over the tender edge of her top lip. “From Kelowna. We bought Eco Green Adventures? Up in Minaki?”
“Are you queer?”
She laughed—or rather, she made a loud sound that was trying to be laughter—then slammed the rest of her mystery liquid, tossing her little paper cup into the trash. “No,” she said, “just new and looking to make some friends. And help a good cause.”
Heather had realized that I was likely putting off a possible new recruit and swooped in to fawn over Jia and introduce her to the cabal of northern lesbians. I assumed that would be the last I would see of Jia; Heather was the one with the friends, while I was generally considered to be off-putting and bitter. But when the evening came to a close and the folding chairs were being stacked and the floor was being swept with the huge, ancient broom that seems to lurk in all church basements, it was me who Jia approached with her phone number and Instagram handle.
Jia’s husband turned out to be Luke, who I had vaguely known in high school. He was a local boy from one of those big Kenora families. He had moved to Kelowna to study trees. Jia had never even been to Ontario when she followed Luke back to Treaty 3 territory six months after their first meeting. I once asked what made her so sure about him.
“Well besides being in love,” she said. “He can give me an orgasm just by massaging my head.”
“Hot,” I said.
Now here he is, coming up off the frozen lake with a stringer of fish in his leather mitt, while Jia loads firewood into a rack in front of one of the rented yurts and I pretend to be dead face-down in the snow.
“Riley,” he says. He dangles the stringer over me, making the fish dance on my back.
“Leave her alone,” Jia says. “She’s wallowing.”
“Your wife is better than me in every way,” I say, sitting up on my knees and enjoying the sting of snow turning to liquid on my cheeks. “And look how I treat her. I’m not even helping unload the wood.”
“Your problem,” says Luke, leaning back onto the seat of the quad and looking down at me, his red hair wobbling under his toque, “is that you let yourself become a kept woman. You sacrificed your dignity for a McMansion. In Kenora. Do you hear what I’m saying?”
I nod, knowing I sacrificed my dignity long before that. “And now I’m Jia’s kept woman,” I say. “And she could do so much better.”
Jia rolls her eyes and kisses her husband before gently nudging him off the quad. I feel panic rise up in my chest watching them; I want Mommy and Daddy to stop. Or I want to sandwich myself between them and ride off into the sunset on the Rubicon 520.
“Get on,” Jia says to me. “If I drag you up and down this property enough times you’ll snap out of it.”
As we drive off up the hill that winds its way over the railroad tracks and around the water, I can sense that Luke is watching us. The back of Jia’s purple hat tickles my nose.
I’m not sure if I ever loved Heather. She was a lawyer fifteen years my senior who I met at a lesbian bar in Seattle when I was twenty-two. We had both travelled down from Vancouver for Pride; I was studying Literature at UBC, she was hoping to make partner, which I thought was something that only happened on TV procedurals. By the following year I had dropped out of school and was living with her in a high-rise downtown.
I couldn’t tell you what I thought or how I felt. I was good at letting go; Heather told me this was because I was a masochist, a bottom, a sub looking for her domme. She told me that this was my fetish, and I couldn’t think of any reason that she might be wrong.
One morning we went for trad caps on Main Street. Heather ran into a client and introduced me as her friend. They chatted and I stared out the window as a man emerged through the rain; for half a second, I thought he was my older brother, Aaron, who I hadn’t seen since he left our father’s house when I was fourteen.
Of course, it wasn’t him. My pussy throbbed for a hot, intense second, like a scream. I whipped my body away from the window.
That night, I told Heather what happened.
“You got turned on by thinking about your brother?” she said.
“No,” I said. “It was after I realized he wasn’t my brother. Am I bi or something?”
She told me to shut up. Then she fucked me.
The first five years of our relationship passed in much the same way, a kind of lesbian Eyes Wide Shut. I didn’t see any of my friends from school. I was in Heather’s world, and I liked not having to think. Whatever she asked of me seemed like a small price to pay to live in a luxurious apartment with no more student loans and eat a Whole Foods-exclusive diet. Heather bought eleven dollar pints of raspberries like it was nothing.
Eventually, work stopped going the way she wanted it to, and my life before Vancouver started creeping into her fantasies.
“Where are you from again?” she asked me one night as I rubbed arnica onto my bruised ass. Heather knew I was from a small town “out east,” which could have been anywhere between Thunder Bay and Moncton.
Unfortunately, I didn’t lie to her.
“Kenora,” I said.
“Like North Bay?”
“No, it’s northwestern Ontario. Like two hours from Winnipeg.”
“Christ,” she said. “What’s the industry up there?”
“Tourism, I guess.”
She had picked up her laptop and was Googling.
“Lakes,” she said.
“Yep. Lakes, trees, rocks.”
“Look at this. From the Kenora Miner: ‘Council Unveils Plan to Attract Young Professionals.’ Sounds up and coming.”
I snorted; she looked pissed off.
“It’s cold,” I said. “Really fucking cold.”
“I don’t mind the cold,” she said.
Jia and Luke live in the main yurt that sits right by the parking lot. It’s a huge, two-story thing with a full kitchen and a composting toilet. That night, Jia and I sit around the fire drinking wine from cans and watching Luke carve a fish out of a piece of pine.
“I think I’ll go back to men,” I say. I can sense my lips purpling from the merlot. “Heather made me homophobic.”
“I don’t think you can say that,” Jia says. She’s taken off her many layers of hand-me-downs from her mother-in-law and is left in a white tank top and long johns.
“Would you actually want to have sex with a man?” Luke asks, looking up from his wooden trout.
“It would be fine,” I say.
“Why do it if it’s only fine?”
“Who knows?” I lift my feet and rest them on the arm of Jia’s chair. “Compulsory heterosexuality? Daddy issues? I’m attracted to men sometimes.”
“Then aren’t you bisexual?” Jia asks. I’m nearly convinced that Jia wants to have sex with women, just not me, which I don’t want to have a problem with but of course I do.
“I could never live with a man,” I say. “A man couldn’t ultimately make me happy.”
“What’s the difference?” Luke asks.
“It’s like when you’re really thirsty for water but all you have is Coke,” I say. “The Coke is fine, maybe really good even. But eventually you need water.”
We all stare into the woodstove as if I just said something profound and not idiotic.
“You need another,” Luke says after a while. He reaches into the cooler and grabs a can then stands up and cracks it open with a wet crunch before passing it to me.
I’m overcome by the feeling that I want something so badly I could die, but I don’t know what it is. I think of my brother, who was four years older than me. At some point, he must have done such intimate things, like opening what I was about to consume.
“If I ever want to date a woman again I’ll have to move,” I say eventually. “Heather is friends with every single lesbian in Kenora over the age of twenty. And most of them hate me.”
“She should move,” Jia says. “You were here first.”
“She won’t. Do you know how powerful she is here? It’s everything she ever wanted. I think she would have left me sooner but she had to prove me wrong first.”
“Wrong about what?”
“When she started trying to convince me we should move back here, I told her it wasn’t going to be easy. The queer people here don’t all want to hang out. They’re, like, real people with Ski-Dos who work at the post office. They’re not rah-rah gay. And people are fucking homophobic here. That just made her want to move more. God, I got called a faggot last year when I was putting the coloured lights up at the roundabout. Can you imagine if I would have tried to come out in high school?”
“Do you remember Riley from high school, babe?” Jia asks Luke.
Luke picks up his fish and his knife then puts them back down again.
“Yeah,” he says. “But I knew her brother better. From hockey.”
“Brother?” Jia says.
I’ve never told Jia about Aaron, or any of it. Luke looks at me as if he’s just made a mistake and it makes me want to cry.
“You tell her,” I say. Jia is looking back and forth between us, firelight settled in her eyebrow crease.
“I don’t know,” Luke says. “I never really knew—”
“My brother and I,” I say, cutting him off, because of course he knew. Everybody did. “We took care of our dad. He was sick. And Aaron…” I have to stop after saying his name out loud.
“He left,” Luke says. “Right after high school, from what I heard.”
“Yes,” I say. “I don’t know where he is now.”
There are a million obvious questions, but Jia doesn’t ask them. Instead, she reaches out a hand to each of us, her body connecting our bodies with a bright V. We stay like that for a while as the room slowly darkens, coals crackling orange.
When Jia lets go, Luke picks up his wooden fish and tosses it into the fire.
Later, I take the long walk back to my yurt alone, gathering little sticks in the dark woods and shoving them into the pockets of my snow pants. It’s clear, windless, thirty-six below. Blankness of a new moon rests precariously at the peak of the black sky, like a rollercoaster car about to fall.
When I’ve gathered enough kindling, I head home. Tell myself there’s no reason I shouldn’t survive here.
Joelle Barron (they/them) is a writer and editor who lives and relies on the Traditional Territory of the Anishinaabeg of Treaty 3 and the Métis people. Their first poetry collection, Ritual Lights (icehouse press, 2018), was nominated for the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award. In 2019, Barron was a finalist for the Dayne Ogilvie Prize for Emerging LGBTQ Writers.