It’s summer and it didn’t take me long to get over Jimmy. Andrea is pregnant and now he’s going to be a dad. I look at him differently now, when I see him around town. He looks like he is a man, and I think maybe I sensed that fatherhood on him during our brief and comparatively innocent relations. I feel sorry for him now.
Myname and I are on fire this summer. We walk around in sundresses with slip-on shoes, eating popsicles and dangling our toes in the water on the government docks. There’s nothing else to do in Howey Bay. The weather is hot and dry, with a short thunderstorm sometimes in the early evening. I babysit three days a week and work at the flower shop on most Saturdays. I read a lot of romance novels. Otherwise I hang around in the dust and water, wishing for a better life. When I can, which isn’t often, I get drunk.
I did play softball through the whole spring with the Mennonite youth group, but that’s done for now. I’ll go back when volleyball starts in September. I still have thin ties with those girls. They’re homey and wholesome and they smell like clean legs and polyester. Being among them brings me into a weird sheltered safety, where parents do not leave each other one year after renewing their marriage vows, and brothers don’t try to have sex with sisters, and girls actually do stay virgins until they’re married and they sleep with only one man in their whole life. Miranda hangs out with that group, they are a better fit for her and I can understand why. When it works out, though, I like seeing her at volleyball in winter and softball in summer. I can always see in her eyes that she sees something in my eyes that she knows she can’t understand, and I don’t know how to explain it to her.
Sometimes the Mennonites have this placid, plodding way about them. They’re just like cows milling around in the fields of God. Yes, your divine fields! They are plodding their way in the direction of your goodness, with nary a thought of rebellion in them. How can you explain rebellion to those whose only method of rebellion is passive resistance? They are rebellious against the outer world, and so they succeed in rebelling against anything that would turn them bad, haughty or too passionate. They won’t even play cards because cards have been held in the hands of gamblers and drinkers.
So it is gentle and sustaining to be in their company, but often I have the sense of wanting to move faster. I’m more of a horse person, you know? Myname and I are galloping around town with our manes blowing in the wind and our bare legs shining above the blazing hot sidewalk. Everyone is looking at us. We speak our own secret language, the language of boys.
Not a day goes by that we aren’t scheming about how to find one and kiss him. Not a day goes by that we don’t meet at our tiny private spot on the lake to suntan, swim and scheme, and Myname brings beer on occasion. I love lying on the giant slanted body-sized rock near the shore, baking in the high Northern sun while listening to Myname talk about her dreams for life.
“I don’t want kids,” she says. “I’ve looked after all my mom’s kids, so many kids.” (There are seven of them altogether, six younger than her, many from different fathers.) “If I ever do have a kid, it’ll just be the one.”
I’m standing in the shallows, smoking a cigarette. Yes, I do smoke, sometimes, as I’m sure you’re aware. As if I was going to quit forever.
I say: “I want lots of kids.”
“But you’re the youngest, so you don’t actually know what it’s like,” she says. “Total chaos and needs, all the time. Wait till you have your first two, you won’t want anymore after that.”
“You don’t know. I love kids.” I’m thinking about the kids I’m working with right now, Abby and Nolan. Their parents own a big outfitting business in town, so they’ve got a house on the Everlast River with a float plane and boat and two all-terrain vehicles. Nolan is only six and he’s taught me how to drive the ATVs and the boat. Hanging out with these kids makes me feel like I’m young and innocent again. We play games and cards, we go around getting muddy and we swim all day long, and eat raw hot dogs. We talk about weird, fun, unimaginable things. Three days a week, and sometimes on Friday or Saturday nights, I’m catapulted back to the simplicity of childhood. Sometimes I wish I could live there forever.
Later on, Myname’s new friend Gabriel comes down to meet us at the beach. He’s her neighbour’s nephew, visiting for the summer. He has to live in an RV in their driveway because there’s not enough room in the house. Apparently he wasn’t getting along with his mother at all, and he’s almost eighteen so what do you do? Luckily, he smokes, and pulls out a pack as soon as he arrives. By this time, I’m lying on the large platform rock in my bikini.
Gabriel is eighteen. Another manly type, in a town of boys. Wisps of hair poke out from his light button-down shirt. He has dark medium-length hair that parts in waves from his forehead, winging out a little over his ears in a casual sweet way. He takes off his sunglasses to reveal his intense blue eyes, and looks me up and down.
Myname is all over him, like a fat kid on a Smartie. She is taking drags of his cigarette, laughing at his jokes. A couple times I make jokes and they fall flat – she just looks at me. Then looks again with a wrinkle in her eyebrow, like Stop being weird.
I’m enjoying swimming in the lake, the cool brown water slipping over my head and body. Let them chit chat on the hot sand. I’ll be out here playing like a muskrat.
Every once in a while, I pop out of this human game as if being born for the first time – I realize I’m just playing along and I don’t really need any of it, boyfriends and compliments and lip gloss and emotional roller coasters.
I just feel you, and you are all that is.
There is nothing bigger or better than you.
And yet, you are small enough to be contained all inside me, filling up my skin. I float on the water, cold water sliding over me, ducking under into your darkness, and I remember you from long long ago, we are together again. My head comes up, the people wave and laugh from shore. Who are they? Compared to you, here in the green-dark shiny bliss with me, they are nothing. I need nothing, except you.
I come out of the lake feeling satisfied. But Myname is frowning. Satisfied to have Gabriel to herself, but dissatisfied that I forfeited on the competition for him. He looks me up and down again with a smile.
I don’t care. I am still filled with dark, wet, refreshing you.
Charlie calls from Dad’s new place in Toronto. He sent me a picture last month, he’s lost a ton of weight. “I’m in the special computer science program at school,” he says. He sounds happy.
With a pang, I realize I miss Charlie. We used to play in the half-finished basement with tape recorders and blankets and paper, hosting our own radio shows and singing duets by Amy Grant and Peter Cetera. We used to schedule a whole summer around each other, filled with trips to the Slimes, fake vacations, fake families, fake marriages and deaths. It has been almost a year since I saw him last.
I’ve almost forgotten what he did to me, almost.
“Dad lives on Karma Road, can you believe it. The food they cook is boring. But Iris, Dad’s wife, she’s nice. Really quiet. There are two cats here. I guess you guys still have Bonnie’s cat.”
“No, Bonnie’s cat got killed last winter.”
“She deserved it. You don’t know what it’s like to live with her.”
“Yes I do!”
“Not really,” I say. “You don’t know what it’s like to live with any of us!” Accusing him of leaving us, just like Dad left us. Everyone left me here alone with Mom. And then Mom grounded me for life, and left me alone for my sixteenth birthday to go visit my sister.
“Maybe I’ll come live with Dad, too,” I say jokingly.
“Awesome,” he says.
For a moment, I picture the city of Toronto. I’ve only been there once, during the Grade Eight Toronto Trip. Everyone in the class saved up and fundraised, and we took a big coach bus all the way down to Southern Ontario. It was a thirty-hour drive — normally it only takes twenty-six, but we hit a big moose on the way and had to switch buses in the middle of the night— and we stayed at York University for a whole week.
Just now, I recall how I sat on the windowsill of the college dorm room, listening to my Walkman and looking out at the seething expanse of urbanity. I’d never seen so many buildings, so much action at once. It smelled divine, like fruit blossoms and car exhaust, frying oil, dust and sweat perfume. I felt so atmospheric, looking forward to something in the future that I couldn’t see, only smell it like a faint pheromone on the wind. I was restless, with a well of deep, knowing ambition inside my heart and stomach. I knew I was destined for the big city. I never wanted to go back home to our tiny hole of a town. It may have a lot of gold, but all that gold is down in a hole.
When I’m babysitting one night, Gabriel comes over after Abby and Nolan are asleep. Their parents are at some summer party, guaranteed to last all night. He comes to the door because I called him. Myname is busy taking care of her siblings and she invited Kelly over to help her.
Plus, it’s not like she’s going out with Gabriel. He’s made it clear that he’s single all summer long because he doesn’t want to get tied down. Neither do we, we shrugged, when he said that.
Anyway, Gabriel is bored to tears, so he comes over and right away gives me a big hug. He smells like pine needles and mint gum. I start to get nervous, so I make some excuse about getting us some ice cream. Downstairs in the basement, I’m rummaging for ice cream — they always have ice cream here — when Gabriel comes round behind me and puts his hands on my waist. I turn around to face him and he kisses me, then lifts me up so I’m sitting on the deep freeze. Wedges his hips between my knees, and kisses me again.
“Myname wouldn’t like this,” I murmur. But I don’t mind it.
“I had a chat with her yesterday. She and I are just friends.”
I wonder briefly about this chat. But I take his word for it, and the make-out session on the freezer gets hotter.
Then the door slams upstairs. Footsteps clomp across the floor. “Ellen?”
It’s the parents. “We’re back early. Dave’s got food poisoning.”
I’m hyperventilating. Gabriel is laughing silently.
I drag him upstairs by the hand and introduce him to the mother, who is none too pleased but polite enough. Her husband is puking in the washroom nearby.
“I will have to inform your mom,” she says to me, not without kindness.
But Mom’s sister committed suicide yesterday, and she just found out tonight (right on the heels of the report of my slutty transgression).
“Go to your room, I don’t even want to look at you,” she tells me, her face sick and grey.
She drags the phone into her bedroom and shuts the door. She stays there for the next twenty-four hours. For awhile I’m in my room, but once I finally realize she isn’t coming out and can’t deal with me right now, I start to enjoy my freedom around the house. I heat up a noodle soup. I watch TV. I have a surprisingly good sleep.
In the morning I cook bacon and eggs for breakfast, make tea. I think about bringing Mom a cup of tea, but I don’t want her to connect with the fact that I exist. I read my latest romance on the couch, some story about a poor girl falling in love with a rich boy. Around noon, I go out for a walk and smoke a cigarette.
For some reason, I just don’t care what happens now. The sun is blazing hot on the simple road that is my small-town street, and it leads to a field full of grasses and crickets. I walk through this field and then I’m at the Slimes. There are more trees now than when I was a kid, the landscape seems smaller and simpler. Some hills have flattened out and some ponds have become mud puddles. I watch the heatwaves rise off the mud flats; maybe there are frogs nearby, in the swamps. Charlie and I used to go collect the tadpoles and bring them home in a bucket. For weeks we would watch the babies develop first back legs, then front legs. Seems like they never made it to adult before dying, though.
Do you remember the time I found a minnow in a mud puddle? A real live minnow, swimming back and forth in a little puddle on the road. It was just for me, that one. You and I both knew it. I’ve had so many moments like that. Like when you came to me in the forest as a lynx, and led me to Marjean’s grave. But that’s the lucky thing about me – I find you everywhere, and I know that Jesus was right about one thing: The Kingdom of God is Within You.
I sit there in the Slimes, smoking, sweating under the sun, feeling you. Maybe Myname and Kelly had a sleepover and spent the whole night Frenching, what do I care. I feel far away and disconnected from all the social nonsense. My mother’s sister did away with herself and from the looks of it, Mom is next, and then my sister and then me, probably.
I never knew my Auntie Sharon. I’ve only heard stories about her, ever since I was a little girl. I think I may have met her once, way back when I can barely remember. She looked and acted a lot like my mother, but friendlier – isn’t that the way, with aunts. She has been institutionalized off and on for most of her adult life. Illnesses of the mind. Apparently she’s got multiple-personality-disorder and manic depression, and she is unpredictable and fierce. Sounds a lot like Mom, actually! Haha.
Speaking of Mom, she finally comes out of her room later at night, when it’s getting late but the sun hasn’t gone down yet. We live so far north, the sun is up until about eleven o’clock this time of year. I am watching TV, but my nervous stomach tells me she’s up and about, so I’m not really watching and one ear is cocked.
Pretty soon, she’s standing in the doorway of the living room. Her whole face is blotched, red and swollen with crying all day. I feel sorry for her, kind of. Mostly disturbed and uncomfortable, wondering what she will say about my having Gabriel over while I was babysitting last night. But she doesn’t say anything about that.
“Auntie Sharon wanted to die for a long time,” she says instead.
“Uh huh,” I nod. What am I supposed to say to that?
“She tried many times to kill herself, and always they stopped her.”
I picture nurses and orderlies storming in to wrench razor blades from the clutches of my deranged relative, who screams while pulling at her wild hair. I feel that way sometimes, I realize. Not like the orderlies, but like the patient. Maybe I have multiple-personalities. It probably runs in the family. After all, Mom is by turns caring and mean, happy and hateful. I am Girl #1 and Girl #2.
I am yours and then again, I am mine.
“It was her youngest personality that finally did it, the angry little girl. She sprayed a can of disinfectant into a bag and then tied the bag over her own head.” Mom starts sobbing again. Oh God.
So I go to her and hug her. Then she stops.
“Can you make some soup?” she asks. I feel as if I’ve become her caregiver, for this moment, in Bonnie’s absence.
“Okay.” I go into the kitchen and start heating up some canned soup.
She stands by the counter looking at me, weary.
“Maybe you should go live with your Dad, like Charlie,” she suggests without warning.
My skin flashes with cold, then heat. My heart gives a surge of anxiety and hopefulness.
“No, Mom, I don’t want to leave you!” I say.
I think of her being alone in this house, all her kids gone. I think of leaving Myname and my school and the Mennonites. I also think of the big city of Toronto, a new life far away among shopping malls, movie theatres, universities, MuchMusic, infinite anonymity. My heart leaps toward that, as well, but I stuff it down.
“No, I think you should go,” she says tiredly.
Is she punishing me for last night? It’s kind of the ultimate punishment.
“It’s not a punishment for last night,” she goes on, as if reading my mind. “Last night just shows that it’s all too much for me. This — ” waving her hand around and weeping, I’m thinking This what? — “is all too much.”
Ah, me. I’m too much. With my boy-kissing and wine-drinking ways.
“It’s your choice, of course. But if you want to go, I’ll call your father tomorrow.”
I look at her. The ghost of her dead sister is lingering around, filling her up with grey puffy sorrow and pink raw tears.
We both know what the answer is going to be.
But I say: “No, Mom, I don’t want to go.”
Now it’s sort of a goodbye party for a few weeks. I head down to the beach one last time with Myname and Gabriel. She didn’t mind that I made out with him, and I’m pretty sure they’ve made out since then, too. We’re kind of sharing him in that way that means no strings attached, and in some delightfully perverse way it makes me feel connected to her.
Now that she knows I’m going, she’s becoming a little distant already. But I do think of the three of us doing something forbidden, together, today at the small beach with its long flat rock and the island just beyond a safe swimming distance. This is the same beach where I used to go in winter, walking far out onto the wilderness of white ice, and tire my lungs out, singing from the Phantom of the Opera:
Think of me, think of me waiting, silent and resigned
Remember me trying too hard to put you from my mind
Think of me, please say you’ll think of me, whatever else you choose to do
There will never be a day when I don’t think of you.
Alas, there are a few other people at the beach, so my fantasy three-way make out session fails to occur. Instead, we opt for daring conversation, teasing each other with questions.
“How many girlfriends have you had?” Myname asks Gabriel.
“Have you had sex?” He asks her.
“Have you had sex?” He asks me. Looking into his blue eyes I feel my virginity.
“How many drugs have you tried?”
“Is alcohol a drug?”
“What’s your deepest fantasy?”
“Rate both of us between 1-10.” It is Myname who throws out this one.
I’m mortified and indignant and gratified at exactly the same time. I want to know the answer. But I splash water at her with my foot, as if I’m exasperated. She flicks her pretty brown eyes at me, purses her lips, then looks back at Gabriel.
He rates us both around 8.5 and says to her, “I’d be more likely to want to make friends with you.”
To me: “You, I’d want to fuck.”
Myname and I both feel both flattered and offended.
Then, as we’re standing up to go and I’ve pulled my denim overalls over my black and pink polka dot bikini, he runs his finger along my ribs and side. It makes me shiver as he squints at me.
“You have the makings of a perfect body. Don’t let it go to waste.”
It’s late in August. Sun slanting sideways in the afternoons, cool nights, tinges of brown on the summer leaves already. Mom drives with me to Thunder Bay where we stay a couple nights with some of her Mennonite friends. I look out their guest room window, thinking of how I’m not going home to Howey Bay. I won’t see Myname for another year at least. My heart squeezes when I think about our weekend snuggles and how I’ll miss them. I’ll miss our walks down to the water in the daytime, our rowdy roving hangouts all night. But I can’t stay in Howey Bay just for Myname, or for anyone else. I’m doing this for me because it’s time to get out.
Mom brings me to the airport to see me off on my flight to Toronto. I’ve got a couple suitcases and a backpack, enough to hold me until my five boxes bring my worldly belongings from Howey Bay. Just before I head through security, we go to the restroom and she wants to buy me a mini-perfume from one of those dispenser machines.
“Take this,” she pushes it into my hand. “Do you need any gum? Tampons? Pen and paper?” My mother’s face looks at me with her plaintive blue eyes, and I feel like my heart is going to break. Finally I know how much she loves me.
Our hug goodbye is a blur. Or maybe there’s such a flurry of them, I can’t count.
Are you watching? Did you count?