Book Two: I

The Big Smoke

“Welcome to Toronto.” 

These are the first words my stepmother speaks to me. I am hugged by my Dad and my brother, who is now looking more his younger self, having lost all that weight. He looks cleaner than before. Less hate-able.

Dad is stocky but fit; his body is always a bit like a teddy bear’s no matter what he does. His hair is very short and silver, very different from the bushy black mass of hair and full black beard he had when I was a kid — the hairy dad who was so angry and sometimes so funny when he chased us around. He doesn’t look anything like that Dad anymore.

We’re driving on Highway 401 and I’m in the backseat of the car. Knowing you, God, in a totally new way, feeling you in your vastness and your mixing flowing humongousness. Great rivers of vehicles flow in opposite directions, all of them holding the bubbles of life that flow out to other streams and tributaries, connecting, mingling and making currents with other bubbles in other flows. There are too many people, too many flows, and I’m flabbergasted all the way home. I howl in amazement at the 401. It’s more people than I’ve ever seen in my life. Literally.

Their house on Karma Road has an upstairs level with all the bedrooms. I’ve always wanted to live in a house with stairs; we have only bungalows where I come from. Here, my bedroom looks down over the garage roof into Karma Road. I feel so city-suburb-girl, like I’m in some Hollywood movie. My dad says all he wants is for me to do my chores once a week and help out by washing dishes after dinner. 

“And be home by midnight,” he says. “I’m usually asleep by nine thirty, so make sure you know the latest bus route . . . But call if you’re ever in trouble.” And that’s that.

Charlie’s room is beside mine. I check that my door has a lock, in case he decides to make nocturnal visits again. But he wouldn’t do that, not now. I think he’s forgotten about all that, now. 

On the main level of the house, we have a piano (which Charlie plays really well), a small living room, and a small kitchen. Charlie plays Think of me, think of me, please say you’ll think of me, and I sing along in my best opera voice. Iris says I have a beautiful singing voice. So, I’m warming up to her. 

I phone Myname every day and tell her how everything is. She’s not very good on the phone, the type whose voice is flat and monosyllabic and difficult to read. I try to get a reaction out of her. I miss being with her in person, feeling her laughter. 

Finally I realize everything is the absolute same in Howey Bay, the same boring tiny vast smallness with the same people and places, the same high school. It hurts her to hear of my new awesome adventures. And I stop calling all the time, but still keep her in mind.

Outside, the weather is thick and muggy. Where is the nature? I want to know. We live in the suburbs north of Toronto, a lot of twisting cul-de-sacs of concrete and brick. Nothing like Howey Bay, which is all rocks and trees and water with the odd town thrown in. 

In these suburbs, I have to walk and walk until I find you. There is a “green belt” — they call it — where they’ve left a stream and some plants, instead of covering it all over with cement. I sit by the stream and watch the grass growing. Then I walk beside it for awhile. Following the flow, I arrive at its origin, a giant culvert as tall as me. So, this is not even a real river; it comes from the underground waterways that flush dirty rain off roads.

Around here, it feels private and silent. I know it’s only ten minutes’ walk to the street, but it’s enough. I sweat and sweat with the humidity of this thick summer heat, something I’ve never known in Howey Bay. At home, the heat is high, dry, hot and crispy — there are lakes everywhere to dip in. Here, the heat wraps you like a steamed pig-in-a-blanket all day and night, sticky wherever skin touches skin like you’re a fresh cinnamon bun placed in a plastic bag, oozing and clinging, even when you’re naked at four o’clock in the morning.

I like it. It’s sultry and damp. I remove my shoes and put my feet in the water. I sit with my back to the culvert wall and enjoy the brief shade it offers along with the pleasant cool-cement smell. I am here, in my new place, in my new home, setting up my new bedroom. All my boxes have arrived from Howey Bay. 

I smoke a few cigarettes a day with Charlie. We never mention anything that happened back in Howey Bay, and I don’t feel the hatred for him that I did before. Just a wish for us to be friends, like way before when we were little kids. So I can’t be bothered with hate. It’s too hot, anyway. At least I’ve found a cool river stream and a private place to muse. I’m very anxious about school, friends, finding a job. But I can’t tell you how relaxing it is to be away from my mother. I breathe in the hot easy freedom. She is not there, waiting in my house, to tell me something I’ve done wrong. She can’t stop me from having a boyfriend. She is not standing with her arms folded in the kitchen. She can’t get me here.

Not really, anyway. We’ve chatted on the phone a few times since I got here. She’s a little cool, and sad, and I’m trying to figure out how to make her proud and happy without letting her know that I’m feeling so proud and happy. I don’t want to seem like I’m enjoying myself too much without her, even though I am. 

Charlie goes to a different school than me because he’s focusing on computer science. I’m kind of glad I can carve out my own identity, to be honest. My high school has nearly three thousands kids. Howey Bay’s total population is around the same, on a good day, including several little outlying communities and all the dogs too. 

My first day was less than two weeks after I arrived. I’d already met a bunch of kids from the neighbourhood, which was sort of comforting. But one of them was a very loud annoying girl who was clingy and wouldn’t leave me alone; I knew she’d be the death of my social life immediately, so I avoided her for the first few days. She caught me walking home one day in the first week, and scolded me. 

“How come you’re avoiding me? I thought we were friends.” 

I found this interesting because coming from Howey Bay, all my friends were kids I’d known for the better part of fourteen years or so, and here was this city girl telling me that because we’d known each other for a couple weeks, we needed to be joined at the hip.

I told her as much.

“You’re mean!” She stomped away and wouldn’t talk to me anymore after that. Which was just as well, and probably the reason why she didn’t have many friends in the first place.

This was the first example of modern city attitudes that I came across. People are a little picky and sensitive and self-absorbed. And it seems like people’s minds and actions move a lot more quickly, they’re always in a rush to get somewhere. They become friends either instantly or not at all, and everyone forgets each other very quickly, too. Kids get driven around a lot by their parents. Everyone’s going this way and that, and everyone’s life has to be arranged. 

I guess life is just simpler in a place where there is no theatre, shopping mall, fast food restaurants, large department stores or indoor entertainment. Only green leaves and popsicles and toes in the water. Or, crystal cold blue and white shadows on a winter forest floor, marked by the zigzags of skidoos or cross-country skis. I sure miss the easy laughter and slow-going attitudes of Myname, Pammy and Cammy and the like. The way we would all just hang, talking, enjoying nature, walking somewhere. The simple longtime knowing that we had with each other.

My pace is slower, that’s for sure. I’m overwhelmed by all the styles, colours, crowds and opportunities around me. I’m still good at school, in fact better than most. I’m less distracted when it comes to my studies and I always hand everything in on time. I can’t believe how rude and brazen all the kids are here, walking into the classroom nonchalantly: 

“Teacher, I need an extension.” 

That’s what they call the staff: Teacher. Or: Sir, Ma’am, but in a sideways manner as if mocking. I feel like everyone around me is sort of joking and I don’t quite get the joke. I’m not cynical enough to get it. I feel more earnest than the city kids. I really mean most of the stuff that I say. Deep down, I’ve still got some Girl #2 in me.

September in southern Ontario is more golden, droopy and warm than in northern Ontario. In the afternoons and evenings, it’s as hot as summer and people are still barbecuing. The muggy smell here is more earthy than the crisp-bark scent of my home, where now our breath would be visible on the air and it’s time for warm sweaters and fireplaces at night. I alternate between visiting the culvert and the nearby mall, looking for you and looking for answers about humankind.

You’ve changed my life completely. By offering this opportunity to live with my Dad and brother and stepmother, by separating me from my overbearing mother, by plopping me into this school with thousands of other teenagers. I know you’re aware that I miss my hometown with a passion. What seemed so boring and dorky, I now understand was peace, connection and community. I miss Myname and Kelly, Pammy and Cammy and Jennifer, my small high school with only one type of art class, the woods and the water and the dock. I miss the you that I knew there. But I won’t go back, obviously.

I even miss my mother, somewhat. Now that I’m apart from her, the recollections of her verbal attacks are fading and I remember earlier, nicer things, like how she would let me help her bake bread, how funny and witty she could be at the dinner table, how sometimes she would look at with her mother eyes and know me inside-out, how warm her tummy was when she let me put my cold little hands on it after coming in from the cold. 

“What are you getting up to there?” she asks when I phone her. She sounds casual. I wonder if she’s been crying, though. 

I tell her about my very populated school. “There’s more Chinese people here than I’ve ever seen in my life,” I say.

“They’re all coming from Hong Kong before China takes it over from the British,” she says. “How is your brother?”

I don’t know if that means how is Charlie, or is he molesting me. “He’s fine. We go to different schools. His high school is the nerdy one!” I laugh.

She doesn’t laugh. 

I forget to ask how she’s doing. I don’t think about it much, actually. I suppose she must be grieving her sister, and probably a little lonely without us kids around. Bonnie’s gone to live with her Mennonite husband in Ohio, and Keanan floats around the province like a feather on the wind, taking whatever work he finds. 

“How are Sharla and Harold?” I ask.

“They’re fine — they’re trying for a baby. I guess they need their own kids now that they don’t have mine around,” she replies. 

“Yeah. Say hi to them for me, okay, and everyone at church.”

On the Sunday before my plane took off from Thunder Bay, I stood at the front of the Mennonite church saying goodbye. This is customary when members go away somewhere, whether temporarily or permanently; you must get up and say where you’re going and what’s happening, and receive prayers of blessing from the entire congregation. 

I read my favourite verses from Psalms 121 (1-8), which both Girl #1 and Girl #2 take to be wholly true:

I will lift up my eyes to the mountains;

From where shall my help come?

My help comes from the Lord,

Who made heaven and earth.

He will not allow your foot to slip;

He who keeps you will not slumber.

Behold, He who keeps Israel

Will neither slumber nor sleep.

The Lord is your keeper;

The Lord is your shade on your right hand.

The sun will not smite you by day,

Nor the moon by night.

The Lord will protect you from all evil;

He will keep your soul.

The Lord will guard your going out and your coming in

From this time forth and forever.

Two hundred church folks crowded around me, laying their hands on me, praying. I heard their murmuring and felt their thick warm hands on my shoulders and my head. I smelled their stale breath along with the pews, the waxed floors, the plain un-perfumed women. These religious encounters always make me feel extremely uncomfortable, but I figure that’s part of the treatment, a sign that it’s working.

Anyway, I left that service and left my hometown for good, and I’ve nearly lost sight of Girl #2 already (except for my school grades). She got swarmed by all those church hands and must have disappeared there.

It all happened because I saw this striking girl in the hall, who was immediately friendly to me. She took me under her wing; her name is Persephone, and she has a sister only fifteen months younger called Chloe. They sing and dance and make stupid videos, just like me and Myname used to do.

Chloe’s birthday falls so that she’s two grades behind us in grade nine, which she hates. She wears leather jackets, cowboy boots, feathers in her long straight hair and tassels on her bag, looking way older than fifteen. Persephone has shiny brown eyes, black corkscrew curls and a black round birthmark on the left side of her forehead that makes her look very exotic. She also has a late birthday, so she’s only going to be sixteen in October whereas I’m going to be seventeen next February. 

Anyway, she took me by the arm on the fourth day of school and began chatting with me. She could do all the Ace Ventura voices and made me laugh like crazy. She kept paying attention to me, every day, and I’ve allowed myself to become her friend because of this consistency and strength in her personality. She makes me feel important.

And just last week at the assembly, she introduced me to this boy sitting right in the row ahead of us . . . Patrick with long auburn hair. He turned around to say hi to Persephone, winked at her. She guffawed at him, “Nice try,” and introduced me: “This is Patrick. He’s a total flirt.”

“Hello,” grinned Patrick to me. His eyes were auburn, exactly the same shade as his hair. He whipped a comb out of his back pocket and quickly combed his long straight hair. 

“Hi. Nice hair,” I said.

“Thanks,” he smiled.

Persephone rolled her eyes. 

Later, she told me not to get involved with Patrick, as he is a well-known flirt around the school. “He’ll go for you because you’re new, but don’t be convinced. You’re just the next dish on his buffet.”

But I happen to like Patrick, who walks me to the bus stop after school each afternoon and brings some stuff to share in his lunch. He’s talkative about things like his parents, his scouting group and soccer team, and all his favourite foods and drinks. Finally, I feel like no one expects me to be the chatty one. Mawmouth has died along with Girl #2. Now I’m the quiet one, walking along and grinning in the warm sunshine while this boy tells stories to me.

He kissed me yesterday, just before I got on the bus. And asked for my phone number. Is this what real dating is? It never happened in Howey Bay. People would just make out, get together, and break up. His kiss was a little wet, but pretty nice. No tongue, but juicy. He called me a few hours later to ask my consent. 

“Was that okay?”

“Was what okay?”

“When I kissed you, earlier?”

“Sure, it was,” I smiled through the phone receiver.

“So . . .”

“So . . .”

“So, are you my girlfriend now?”

“Do you want me to be?”

“Well, I kissed you, didn’t I? I don’t kiss people for nothing!”

“Okay then.” More smiling. 

Only a month after getting to my Dad’s, and a boyfriend already. What would the Mennonites think?

It didn’t take Persephone long to forgive me for going out with Patrick; she decided to go out with his best friend, Anthony. Now we’re a fun foursome that eats lunch together outside on nice days, and we roam the halls holding hands. The boys found a secret stairwell that leads to nowhere — well, there’s a door but it’s sealed shut — and we park ourselves there in the breaks to make out. I was right about Patrick’s kissing being just slightly on the slobbery side, but I like his hands roving all over my body, and smooching with him for like twenty minutes on the stairs. I think he’s pretty experienced; he touches me as if he’s touched a lot of girls.

For some reason, I haven’t gotten the gross feeling yet with Patrick and it’s been well over a month. The urban vibe changes things, I think. Partly because my Dad never looks after me so I get to roam around doing whatever I want, and partly because I can be anonymous here, I’m having a lot of fun letting Girl #1 feel out her rhythm. She likes to dress like a ragged doll, rough around the edges but girly. A plaid flannel shirt over a polka dot tunic over purple long johns. With black army boots. Her hair is a shaggy cut around shoulder-length and she’s thinking about dying it purple with Manic Panic. Sometimes she wears a lace tutu to school. 

None of this helps out one bit with my job hunt, which is currently going nowhere. Thankfully I only smoke four cigarettes a day and I get those from Charlie and other kids from the smoke pit at school. There are so many kids at this school, I can usually mooch money for lunch. Or Patrick shares his whistle dog with me. We always argue about which condiments to put on.

He comes from a suburban family with very British roots and everything is just tickety-boo at his house. His mother drinks sherry in the evenings and has invited me over for Sunday dinner on multiple occasions. She seems to like me enough. When she’s home, she likes to open Patrick’s door really fast in order to catch us in the middle of making out. She doesn’t get mad, just giggles and shakes her finger, then closes the door again. But she works till suppertime a few days a week, so we can play in Patrick’s waterbed after school. 

I even skipped school the other day, so we could spend the whole afternoon together. That day, he put some weed in a long clay pipe and we smoked it in his backyard. Right away his eyes turned red and he started laughing. I wondered what he was laughing at. I didn’t feel a thing until fifteen minutes later, when suddenly everything that happened became part of this amazing story and my face thickened up and I started giggling and running around the yard in circles hollering. I was high. 

I promised myself I would never do it more than every two weeks, in order to still stay connected with you.

We went upstairs and laid down in his warm waterbed. We both took our shirts off and pressed our bellies together. I felt all the warm tinglies imaginable between my legs and it was so nice I couldn’t even bother feeling guilty about it. We French-kissed for a long time and he felt up my boobs and sucked on the nipples till they were raw. I licked his nipples too, but he said it didn’t feel like much. They are a very pale pink. I could definitely feel his hardness through his pants, but did not feel comfortable touching it yet. Though I have to admit, I am curious!

You know, I know I’m supposed to wait until I’m married and everything, but when I’ve read the Bible before (which I have, only once but all the way through) I haven’t seen a whole lot of attention paid to that. It’s just what my Mom has told me to do, and what the church says you should do. And maybe I will wait till I’m married to actually let a guy inside me or whatever, but in the meantime I do feel okay about having some fun! It feels so natural. 

Anyway, I’ve read the New Testament numerous times and never did Jesus say any kind of thing like, “Wait until you’re married to have sexual relations.” If Jesus was concerned about something, he made it a priority to talk about it. It seems like he was more concerned with matters of the heart and the wallet than the gonads, if you ask me. 

And, also if you ask me, one of the most interesting books in the Bible is the Song of Solomon! I touch myself while I read it. It’s so sexy. A celebration of sweet physical delights. There really isn’t anything wrong with making each other feel good, if you love the person. And I think I love Patrick. I just think I’ll save actual sex for when I’m married.

I do feel a little guilty about all my activities when I think of Miranda and her family. I haven’t even bothered to contact them. I suppose I’ll see them all next summer when Bonnie gets married to her Mennonite boy that she met at college (TOLD YA). She’s going to have a big Mennonite wedding and she’s waiting till she’s married and all those Mennonite girls don’t want to know what Girl #1 is up to these days. They would be absolutely scandalized to know it. 

So I just don’t get in touch, and I try not to think about them. 

Occasionally Mom will pass on some news about my old friends, but really there isn’t much because they are Mennonites so what could be new? One baked another loaf of homemade bread this week? Another lost a hairpin from her head covering? And someone else dared to play a hand of rummy when she couldn’t find her Dutch Blitz deck? Whoa, dude. 

“Be respectful,” Mom chides me when I speak these things aloud.

But Mom is far away. And if she wanted me to learn respect, she should’ve taught me how it felt from the inside.

We’re going to the Fall Harvest dance tonight and Patrick has some tabs of acid. We already smoked some weed again last week and that time I got high right away, and it was so warm and giggly between us. We smoked some again after school today and made out for awhile. I told my Dad and Iris that I was sleeping over at Persephone’s and she told her parents she was sleeping over at my place. No one checked.

All four of us meet up for pizza before the dance. Patrick and Anthony have a few beers and a mickey of rye, so we head to the football field adjacent to the school. Patrick is a very prepared person, who always brings what is needed. He has dropped acid a few times before. In his backpack, he has a blanket, two bottles of iced tea mixed with fruit juice, two bags of chips, two chocolate bars, a toque, a lighter, a bag of pot, and a pen and paper. He sets us up at the edge of the field, all splayed out under the royal blue October evening sky. It’s cool but not windy, and I’m wearing a thick plaid wool button-up that feels pleasantly itchy and snug. I have a toque on and my long hair is sticking out over my shoulders. I take a careful swig of rye. 

You’re not supposed to swallow the acid hit because it’ll rot your stomach, Patrick said. So I’m keeping it under my tongue for the next hour. Persephone was worried she’d go nuts, so she’s only taking a half. That’s fine, it’s good to have someone more responsible than the rest of us. Anthony and Patrick and I are taking one each. With the alcohol and the pot, I am feeling very warm and woozy indeed. 

Now it looks like I’m wearing 3D glasses, there are rainbows around the clouds in the sky. Everything has a few layers. Wait, there are rainbows around my hand, whoa, my hand leaves rainbows in the sky939393 is that what it is? 93? I think maybe I will dye my hair like a rainbow, going all the way down my back like a cascading waterfall and every time I run my hands through my hair, I’ll be touching a rainbow.

Isn’t it funny that you can’t touch a rainbow . . . I start laughing and Persephone is laughing, everything is so funny we are laughing our heads off and I feel a hinge at the back of my neck and it’s cracking open as the top of my head almost floats away with laughter, it’s floating and floating away but I can’t stop giggling. The blanket is warm and Patrick’s iced tea juice tastes so good, their faces are wobbling as they hand the bottle to me.

Persephone keeps giggling in a high-pitched voice, looking at me with a helpless slant to her eyebrows, her forehead birthmark higher on one side. They are all creatures, each one a different creature made of different colours and substances, a whole world of sights and memories and meanings jumbled up; I want to know and untangle the insides of these creatures.

“I want to untangle your insides,” I tell my friends, really lovingly, and they laugh and laugh, and I keep repeating that I want to untangle their insides until we make it to the school dance. Somehow I act normal enough, though pasted with a mile-wide giggly grin on my face, to get through the doors into the school gym. Lights and lights and more rainbows. Patrick is dancing in circles around me, smiling, looking into my face and I think, Do I know this person. Who is that. Where is Myname. Who are these people. I can’t see Persephone or Anthony but I think they’re dancing and making out nearby us. Do I know those people? Where am I? Oh, I’m in my new life, away from the trees.

Patrick and I dance in circles, I can’t even believe my eyes. All electric shapes around me, muddling and morphing into other versions of themselves, and electric buzzing in my skin that makes dancing feel so, so pleasant. My body never stops moving. I am a crazy person, spinning in circles. 

Later on, we leave the dance and walk through a cornfield. I make friends with a small piece of yellow wood that I find and cradle in my arms and talk to like a baby, and I fall asleep with it under my pillow when I arrive home at five in the morning, just before Dad wakes up. For days afterward, I feel a lingering tenderness towards that little piece of yellow wood.

It’s been less than two months since I read that Bible verse at my church in Howey Bay.

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