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Lifelines

Robyn Budd, artist, manager of a nature conservancy, and graphic designer, writes about the ambiguous territory between being best friends and lovers.

There was, of course, a time when I didn't know her. But that reach of years seems somehow indistinct, as if lightly sketched on someone else's lifeline. The details of our first meeting, however, stand out in clear contrast.

I was photocopying the first draft of my thesis. She sauntered into the grads' copy room and said, “So. I hear you ride a motorcycle. So do I.”

The first conversation began with an exchange of statistics: make and age of bikes, respective mileage, engine size – we both rode 400s – then progressed through the multiple checkpoints of mutual interest. We both made drawings and sculpture. We grew up playing with the boys. We loved mountains and wild places. We learned best by bruising our knees. She'd lost her brother three years earlier at sea, and now she rode his motorcycle and made art that asked questions about loss and where you find grace.

That year we pulled all-nighters, drank red wine, wrote grant proposals, and constellated around ourselves a girls' gang of artists who invested in lottery tickets to raise funding for one of our shows.

I remember that landscape well, its terrain mapped out in words, meanings, contradictions, objects, and images. It was the territory that taught us how to navigate.

That summer I'd decided to celebrate the end of indoor school by finding an outdoor school, this one in Atlin, BC, just south of the Yukon border. I was off to make installation art up north for six weeks – I had no idea how I would get there – and I asked her to come.

Four weeks before we were to leave, she strode into my studio and said, “I know how we're getting there. We're going on our bikes.”

I think I laughed. I think I said, “You're crazy. On the 400s? On a dirt road to the Yukon?”

She said, “You can wear my brother's motorcycle jacket.”

So we went to the Yukon on our bikes. We left Toronto and rode for two weeks across the country, far into the north where the days stretched longer than the road that took us there. It was by turns fierce, elegant, colder than bone, and precious. Once we ran into the tailwinds of a hurricane. Once I spirited (just) out of a semi's trajectory as he took a corner blind on my side of the road. Once – more than once – we cried in our helmets because the mountains were so achingly beautiful.

One morning too early on the gravel shoulder of a highway, we crouched over our bikes trying to warm our hands by the heat of our engines. She lost a contact lens. We knelt there, poring over a grey sea of pebbles as the semi's whistled past, rocking our bikes in their backwind. Ten minutes passed, 15, maybe 20. No lens. Finally, out of stiffness or boredom or both, I said, “Stop looking for the contact lens. Just look for pretty stones.” So we did. Within minutes the lens was found, spit upon, and placed back in the eye of its owner.

Some months later she gave me an oval-shaped, ordinary looking brown stone. On its upward face were two words neatly scribed in black letraset: ‘contact lens' was all they said.


It's ten years later, plus some months. She's teaching art in Toronto at a blue chip boys' school. I live and work on a small island off mainland BC. She goes out with men, and even married one once. I have relationships with women. She is curious about sleeping with her own kind. I made love this summer with a man, and now a woman is my partner.

I traded my motorcycle for a boat and salt water streaming past its hull. She rides a bicycle through snarly city streets to work. In the summers we meet on mountains, climb rock faces, compare muscle tone and share ceremonies in the desert. People who meet us for the first time mistake me for her partner and say, “But of course you two are lovers?”

And we say, “No, it's not like that.” But yes, in some extraordinary way I do know this person well.

Ten years has not yielded us a name that speaks our partnering in a way that says this is what we are. Sometimes we make art together and teach together, sometimes we do sweats and ceremonies and say prayers of intent right out loud. But that's not all; so we revert to a belief we hold in common. It says the this-ness of our relating can't exist as a noun. It occurs only in the verb, in the doing, in the inquiry, in the practice. It exists only when we push our bodies up the rock and dare the rope to hold. And we test it by distance, over time, across a big landscape.

We've set ourselves a task this year. It is the tender disclosure of our softer selves; what we know about, and how we run, our female energy. We, who do mountains and motorcycles so well, now we turn our inquiry to what keeps us still shy from ourselves and from each other.

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