Book Two: I

Friends And More

I am still working for Harold and Sharla on Saturdays. I can’t seem to let go of that job yet, and thankfully it’s one way to spend the entire day out of my house, away from Mom. There’s security in the predictability of the shop and their pleasant company. I can count on one shift a week there, sometimes a few hours after school here and there. Otherwise, I babysit and try out some other jobs like sitting with old people and cleaning and gardening. 

The only way I can get out from the watchful eyes of my hawkish mother is to work —she can’t deny me that. A friend of my brother’s said I could get work as a dishwasher for Ted’s Restaurant, so maybe I’ll try it. For now, Harold keeps me company as my surrogate dad, and Sharla gives me more and more responsibility in the shop. She is by turns soft and snarky, but generally harmless. She’s taught me everything from using a cash register to designing a flower arrangement to caring for flowers, birds and small animals. When she’s in a good mood, she has an irresistible giggle and her hazel eyes crinkle at the corners. When she’s sour, her golden eyebrows turn up with a twist of cynicism and her pink mouth forms a sneer. She is not full of compliments. But she puts up with me, and sometimes even laughs at my jokes. 

Harold taught me how to clean the fish tanks, which I do every week, endless amounts of water sucking, scrubbing, rinsing and rearranging. The dreary hours of Saturday afternoon are usually spent this way, following the decadent coffee break, which still usually lasts almost a whole hour. If I’m not cleaning fish tanks, then I’m dusting stock and serving customers. Dusting is the most boring thing I’ve ever done, but quite necessary. Serving customers is also necessary, but way more interesting. 

Even more interesting are the afternoons of cleaning fish tanks and dusting stock when Harold is around and helping me. We get into the most fascinating of conversations. It makes me so happy to know there is one man in the universe who I can trust, who doesn’t want to make a woman of me but just likes to talk with me about life and our understandings of it. I think Sharla is sometimes not playful enough for him, she controls him. 

For some reason I was born to be free, and I give others the same. I don’t like to control or be responsible for other people. This is the way it is with my friends, and how it is with Harold. I don’t treat him like some old man, and he doesn’t treat me like a stupid kid. And thankfully it is just a real friendship and not creepy at all. 

I’m lucky that way. Wherever I am, you always bring me whatever or whoever I need as my teacher. First it was Marjean . . . Her black shiny eyes and her black hair, unwound and wound again . . . Then Mr. McGillicutty and his wise words of advice, earnest brown eyes and five o’clock shadow on his chin as he leaned on my desk, his reassurance the lighthouse in my storm of social drama . . . Then Myname, snuggling me and being my special crazy girlfriend . . . Now Harold, listening to me talk about my boyfriends, a different one each month. 

“You shouldn’t cave into relationship pressure too soon, there’s plenty of time,” he says. 

“Thank God for that,” I say. “This creepy feeling comes over me, once I’ve been going out with a guy for a few weeks. With Amos, it was good for a few months, but we went to different schools so we didn’t see each other as much. Nowadays, even if I like a boy in the beginning, being close to him starts to creep me out, his voice, his walk, everything about him turns me off. Pretty soon I can’t even be close to him, and the thought of kissing him makes me gag. Eventually I just write him a note saying, ‘I can’t be your girlfriend anymore, I’m sorry, can we be friends though?’ And smile at him weakly in the hallway the next time we pass each other.”

The horrid feeling comes over me even as I’m describing it. I punch the siphon hard, digging it deep into the rocks at the bottom of the fish tank. All the fish dart out of my way and cluster at the other end of the tank.

Harold raises his bushy eyebrows. “It’s pretty normal to have weird feelings like that when you’re experimenting, Ellen. It probably means you just don’t like the guy. How do they usually respond?”

“Sometimes the guy looks all forlorn and down, other times he is really casual about it and just nods at me or chats with me about nothing,” I tell him. “Later when he ends up getting with another girl, I’ll see how I found him attractive, but I’ll remember his smell and feel glad I broke it off with him when I did.”

Harold nods. “You might not know what works for you until you’re twenty or even older. I only met Sharla when I was twenty-four, and immediately I knew she was the one for me.” 

I retort, “I’m not looking for the one, just the one for now!” 

Har har. We laugh.

Mom knows nothing about any of this. Harold won’t tell her, he says that’s not his business. She still thinks I haven’t had a boyfriend, since she told me in grade seven and eight that I had to wait until I was sixteen. I’ve had about fifty boyfriends in that time, all behind her back. Some were really wonderful and others were weird. 

One of the hottest times was in Grade Eight when I was going out with Rowan Kinney, who enraptured me with his barrel-chested swagger of a walk and his brown mullet with straight bangs. Finally that spring I’d convinced him to be my boyfriend. He was lazy about the whole thing in general, but I had a mad crush on him. This was exacerbated by the fact that his family was moving away to Oshawa and they had a going-away party at his house. In his room, I laid down on his bed and got him to put his hand up my shirt and squeeze my boob, then French kiss me. He was a terrible kisser. But he was also really drunk. He said a bunch of drunken stuff and kept feeling me up. I still thought he was hot, even if he was sloppy. 

Just before his family moved, his mom fell dead on the sidewalk of an aneurysm. She got out of the car and dropped dead right before their eyes. So they still moved, but without his mother. The last time I saw him was a few days before they drove down south, and a few weeks after his mom died. 

I said, “How are you doing?” 

He said, “How do you think I’m doing? My mom just died.” 

It was like we’d never been going out and I didn’t exist and he’d never put his hand up my shirt. But I still thought he was hot. And then he moved away and I never saw him again. He moved away before I could get the creepy sick feeling about him. But unfortunately I can’t make every boy move away – I just have to make him move away from me.

The furthest I’ve gone so far — you already know this, you were there I suppose (but ew, kind of ) —  was with one of the Hunter twins, Sam. His brother Shane is gay, everybody thinks. But Sam is a jock type and loved to make out with me. With tongue. After school one day, when nobody was around, he got me up on the cafeteria counter with my legs around his waist, feeling my sides up and down with his hands as he frenched me.

I felt a great juicy stirring in my loins, but these were sensations that I noticed privately rather than attaching them to him particularly. He wasn’t that great a kisser, and I didn’t feel very comfortable with him spiritually or mentally overall. I began to get sick of his wet mouth after a few weeks of this, and then thanked my lucky stars that I was still grounded because imagine what he’d want to do if he got me alone in a bedroom. 

Anyway I broke up with him via Pammy, who passed on the news as I was looking on from down the hall. Sam hung his head. I remembered the smell of his body all close to me and was so relieved that it wouldn’t happen anymore. All boys my age smell like French fries and Drakkar Noir cologne.

Thank goodness for Pammy . . . With her makeup and her own phone line and all her basement necking parties (not that I’ve been to any, recently). She’s always game to help out with matchmaking (and breaking). She’s game for whatever, with regard to boys. Not what I’d call moral, and certainly nothing I can even remotely share with someone like Miranda, whom I haven’t seen in many months besides at church. I do care about her, but we’ve drifted apart for sure. She doesn’t really get where I’m at, and even when I attend the occasional youth group event, we cluster with different girls. I think Miranda will definitely wait till she’s married.

But good old Pammy: she is reliable, wicked and friendly, the best sidekick a Girl #1 could need. The most problematic thing about her is her predictability, and I know I’ve complained about that before. Then again, this predictability includes the number of times she’s shown up for me, forgiven me, backstabbed me, asked my forgiveness, faked a sleepover, arranged a necking session . . . She is an awesome friend all around. I can’t deny she’s my friend, even though it’s been tough and tedious sometimes. 

You know, given all that we’ve been through, even though I criticize Pammy, I must compliment her overall loyalty to me. She’s always been one of the most popular people in class, and several times we have really turned against each other in a bad way. But maybe Pammy is just the type to forgive-and-forget easily? She’s generally kind to me, if a little dismissive. I think I feel accepted by her, in this old familiar way that is less sparkly than how I feel for Myname. Pammy is always there, floating in and out and around. We don’t even hang out alone that much together anymore, but she’s often just there in my life.

I remember one time in grade school, our friend Mackenzie was holding a birthday party. But Pammy wasn’t invited because she and Mackenzie were fighting. I was only ten, but I was troubled in my heart that I would be enjoying the party when Pammy couldn’t come. It was unjust to me that all the other kids should be invited, but not Pammy. How mean. 

Mom said I should just drop off my present at Mackenzie’s party and then go play with Pammy. So that’s what I did — I went up to the doorstep and said hello to Mackenzie’s mother, whose face froze when I told her I didn’t think it was fair to leave out poor Pammy and so I was going to keep her company even though it meant I had to miss the party. The mother’s face went sour and pinchy, the false kindness on it froze up and withered away. Where her bent elbow held the door open, I could see into the back dining room where the party was going on. Suddenly I felt the anguish of missing out, and wished I could just be a normal kid going to the birthday party rather than making some kind of moral statement.

Then Pammy came over and for the first time ever, our mothers sat and chatted on the couch while we hung out. They never had much in common. But this time, they made an effort. Pammy slept over that night, but we didn’t fool around or anything. I just did mouth farts on her upper arms while she screamed with laughter. I did feel better that evening, for doing the right thing and not leaving her out. The party would have been boring without her, anyway.

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