Except she tries to break it off with me the second I get back.
Happy New Year.
All night we rove together from party to party, from drink to drink, substance to substance, kiss to kiss. We drop magic mushrooms sometime around midnight and Scott throws us a cap of e to share, saying to me, “You’re not half bad y’know,” as if our fifty hours of somewhat companionable silence while roadtripping across Ontario was a testament to the friendship between us. I sail away from the year of 1994 with Sunny, who finds peace in an armchair in a garden shed behind Mac’s place. First I’m sitting in her lap, nuzzling against her springy yellow curls, soaking up the musky scent of her, touching her soft jaw. God, you know how much I love this person. Thank you, thank you.
But she is restless and slides me off her lap, her brow furrowing into rumination mode.
She talks for awhile about me and her and us, and admits to me, “I missed you more than I expected to, while you were gone. I couldn’t stop thinking about you.” She looks up at me, her blue eyes intense, her face morphing psychedelically into different people’s faces yet still seeming so familiar.
I think she’s going to say “I love you,” but instead she turns her face from mine and mutters, “I think it’s best that we break up. I don’t see how we can continue. I don’t know where this is going.”
Now I cry. It’s as if my whole childhood, everything and everyone that I am,
and all the years of mistakes and grief and, yes, losses, all of it comes right up in me like a big tsunami and I cry and cry and cry.
I’m nothing but a small-town loser sitting on the cold dirt floor of a woodshed on New Years’ Eve in a city that doesn’t recognize or appreciate me at all, just hands me friend after friend, connection after connection, falsehood after falsehood. I should be used to it by now.
It’s just that I really trusted her, you know? I really thought we were sympatico. I find myself blubbering, “But I love you, Sunny, I love you like air . . .” Feeling how big and spacious is my love for her, how it goes on and on. Just as I say that, I’m picturing me and Sunny in a movie about a teen lesbian romance and how the power of our love would look on film. I’m sobbing, but Sunny is like a wall before me — stoic, resolved, already built without my input. I beat my hands against her, but she doesn’t budge.
I go home alone and in shock.
For the next five days I lie in bed without eating, in the dark. I’ve never felt so
alone in my life. The words she said, so resolutely, really meaning them, no choice on my part — just cut off once and for all. But I love her so much. Why doesn’t she want me?
My flesh turns to shredded wheat and my teeth go as soft as baby marshmallows, I live on cigarettes, milk, potato chips, movies and darkness. I won’t talk to anyone.
“I’m sick,” I tell my parents. That and “Leave me the fuck alone” to Charlie. And “Go away,” to Persephone and Chloe when Charlie contacts them in desperation and guides them into my lair of stinking self-annihilation.
I can’t live without her, I can’t, but she’s making me. I’ll never have her again. Omigod. Please help me. Bring her back to me. I’ll do anything.
“There will be others, don’t worry,” whispers Persephone, creeping in to hold my hand. Her comfort is now foreign, since we’ve grown so far apart and I only ever see her at school these days. She doesn’t understand what it’s like to really love a girl. And her breath smells like dry bread.
“There won’t be others,” I say flatly.
She purses her lips, stays quiet. She has this mothering face on her. The room is so dim I can only make out the dark dot on her forehead and how it wiggles up and down with the movements of her concerned eyebrows.
“You can get through this,” she tries again.
“I’m fine.” I keep repeating that until Persephone finally leaves me alone. I hate her for trying so hard to help me, and I hate her for being the simple teenage girl she is, and I hate her for leaving in the end. But I would hate it the very most if she stayed.
By the weekend, Mrs J comes back home just for my sake. “What the fuck is going on here?” she demands. “Oh God. It’s about Sunny? She doesn’t deserve you, forget about her. Anyway, I told you it’s not possible for a good relationship to survive without dick, dude.”
I am practically comatose. She climbs into my bed and puts her arms around me, squeezing me. I’m glad she’s not trying to comfort-fuck me.
“All this drama,” she says, then falls asleep and starts snoring. She smells of patchouli and incense and dirty hair (she still has dreadlocks, even after eighteen months). Somehow it is the scent and feel of her lying in my bed that awakens me, and I stir and begin to feel hungry.
I reach to turn on my lamp. As soon as the light hits my face, I realize again that I’ll have to do without Sunny from now on. A pang of pain hits me like a fist in the gut and I almost double over and collapse back on the bed. But instead, the little bit of life in me struggles like a seedling toward the sun, like a newborn toward the sound of its mother’s voice, like Irene’s thread leading her all the way to her grandmother. I ease myself away from Mrs J, rise, and put on my shoes and jacket.
Outside the air is grey, mushy, wet and filled with sopping, drippy sounds. Five days into the new year and life looks like shit. It’s unpleasant to walk down to the stream and the culvert, but at least I wore my galoshes. I wear them like a fashion statement, in a way no one ever has. Persephone even copies me, wearing a little mini skirt and striped stockings with rubber boots. So, lucky for my unique sense of style, I’m able to get down there without a soaker. I cannot sit down. I stand on the edge of the tiny creek that’s grey, too, surrounded by grey tuffs of snow covering its banks, the grey culvert trickling with cold water; and my face grey and slack in the midst of it all.
“Think of me, think of me waiting, silent and resigned,” I sing in a feeble voice. It doesn’t feel nearly the same as back home, where the snow is pure white and stretches out in ripples forever on the frozen lake. There is so much space to sing in Howey Bay, without being heard.
I stand and wait for the feeling to arrive. It has been so long and the only satisfaction I ever feel now is when I light up a joint or a cigarette. But I stand here waiting. Eventually I smoke a cigarette, then another. And, you know, although I don’t really get the feeling, and I don’t feel any happier, at least I do get the feeling of having tried, and the smokes, and the puffy grey sky with its quiet softness hushing the nearby traffic.
When finally I walk home after two hours at the culvert, my nose is dripping and my hair is curly-damp, my core is hollow with hunger. I don’t want to enter my house; who knows what will happen, what will not? But it’s my only place, and it’s not as bad as some places. It’s not as bad as it could be . . . It’s not as bad as it was with Mom.
But tonight it is. Tonight it’s really bad. It feels like the first time I’ve seen my Dad in months. Suddenly he seems a lot older; his hair is thin and whitish, his face is sallow and drooping, his eye colour has paled from brown to hazel. I don’t know know this person at all, and I’m sure he doesn’t know me. When I enter the house, he’s standing in the hallway at the bottom of the stairs. Charlie is on the stairs, and Iris is behind them both in the living room. I guess Mrs J went home. As soon as I enter, I know I should turn around and leave, but I don’t even have my purse or wallet.
“What’s this I hear about you doing drugs?” says Dad in a big voice.
Charlie won’t look at me.
Dad moves aside and gestures to my purse, which is on the living room floor, its contents dumped out.
“What’s my purse doing there?” I blurt, not understanding. “Where’s Mrs J?”
“Charlie found your purse and everything in it scattered on your floor. Your friend Jessie just stumbled out of here twenty minutes ago,” Dad accuses me. “Charlie thinks you might have a problem, and so do we.”
I look behind him at Iris, who stares on like a mule and remains silent. My body feels like a jailhouse, everything clanking shut behind bars as I fight the panic. What do they know? What are they going to do?
“I don’t have a problem.”
“You’ve been drinking, taking drugs, having sex with boys and with — ” Dad stops, waves his hand at the mess of stuff vomiting from my overturned purse. I can see my pot kit in there, as well as a pack of cigarettes. Other than that, it looks pretty innocent. I wonder what Charlie’s told them about my sex life. What a pig. He just can’t get his nose out of my private business, can he?
“What did you tell him?” I thunder at Charlie, who cowers with tears in his eyes. I hate his guts so much.
“I was worried about you,” he whispers tearfully.
“You were obsessed with my life, is what. As usual. Fucking jealous asshole.”
“DON’T YOU TALK LIKE THAT IN THIS HOUSE,” roars Dad, and along with the surge of adrenalized fear in my system, I feel a peculiar relief because this is predictable. This is the father I remember from my childhood.
“FUCK YOU,” I shout back. “YOU DON’T HAVE ANY RIGHT TO GET IN MY BUSINESS, I’M PRACTICALLY EIGHTEEN YEARS OLD.” It feels awesome. What’s he going to do, ground me? I’m almost of age, I’ll move out and never see him again.
“AS LONG AS YOU’RE UNDER MY ROOF, YOU’LL BEHAVE YOURSELF.”
I think to myself, That means no licking pussies, right Dad? I know he’s disgusted to think about the fact that I might be a lesbian, but he’s too mortified to speak about it out loud. He can’t even touch it. He can yell real hard, but Georgie is a total coward when it comes down to it.
“I WON’T BE UNDER YOUR ROOF FOR LONG.” I storm past Dad into the living room, furiously gathering up my things and stuffing them back into my bag. Iris stands there with no expression on her face. She’s holding a box of Kleenex, I guess in case anyone cries. Dad approaches me and I shove past him. He grabs my arm with his thick fingers.
“Get back here -”
“OW! FUCK OFF!” I stomp upstairs, only shoving Charlie on the way but wanting to punch him instead. “FUCK YOU, CHARLIE, DON’T EVER TALK TO ME AGAIN. YOU FUCKING GODDAMN PRICK.” I slam my door and lock it. Then I pick up my phone, but Dad is picking the lock and he comes in, ripping the phone out of its jack.
“I’m not letting you have this — you’ll only call your mother to tell her what bad person I am.” He looks like a demented camel when he snarls like this.
My blood is raging and healthy, I hate him with an absolute passion and feel no bond. “YOU ARE A BAD PERSON. YOU DON’T GIVE A SHIT ABOUT ME! GO AWAY!”
“We’re going to talk more about this later,” he says as he shuts the door.
“NO WE’RE NOT BECAUSE I AM MOVING OUT.”
Later on, as if nothing even happened, Iris calls up the stairs: “Ellen, Charlie . . . Dinnertime!”
“GO TO HELL,” I holler as loud as possible. I feel a certain squeeze of sadness and shock at myself, being so hurtful to poor old Iris. But I want everyone in the whole house to know I mean business.
So, in the smallest quietest moments of the wee morning, when I can hear Charlie snoring his face off, and I know Dad is still two hours away from waking for his daily workout, I take my duffle bag of clothing and personal supplies, my purse, and my warmest jacket and boots, and I softly walk out of the house on Karma Street, never to return again.
I had nowhere to go but Sunny’s. Mrs J was going back to college in another day or so, Persephone and Chloe’s parents would’ve promptly returned me to Dad and Iris, Scott’s family was out of the question, Mac would require that I have sex with him in exchange for lodgings. Sunny’s mom has been known to take in strays and they have a pullout couch in the basement for just such occasions. She’s Catholic but not conservative, and she knows that sometimes what a broken teenager needs is a few days spent at a friend’s house where they can let down their guard a little.
It was mid-way through the morning when I summoned the courage to ring their doorbell. I’d spent the early hours at an all-night coffee shop. Honestly, it was so peaceful to sit there, drinking coffee, reading, writing, smoking the odd cigarette, thinking about what to do with my own life. I felt freed. My future was before me, with no one to boss me around anymore. The first thing I’d do is get a new job. Then, get my own place. Then, save up for university. Then, go to university. And so on.
Sunny herself answered the door. She looked surprised.
Seeing her made me burst into tears again. How awful. “I’m sorry,” I sobbed.
“It’s okay. What’s wrong?”
I told her everything that had happened at home and how I’d left early in the morning. I was crying because of shock about the fight with Dad, but more because again I was hit with the sharp pang of losing Sunny. I would not let her put her arms around me because I only wanted to be embraced by her if I could really have her.
“Do you want a cup of tea, then?” A second choice.
I nodded and followed her into the kitchen. She made the tea just the way we both like it, strong with a teaspoon of sugar and plenty of milk. We sat across the table from each other. Even though we’ve only known each other for half a year, it felt at that moment like she was someone I knew from Howey Bay, someone old and familiar who knew and understood everything.
My head was still reeling with the words hollered between Dad and me. I also couldn’t shake the image of Iris standing there like a statue with a box of tissues. I wanted to go back there and rip out all the tissues and throw them around the whole house after blowing my nose on them. “Fuckers,” was all I could say.
“What happened?” said Sunny finally.
“I’m out,” I answered.
“Out? Did you tell them about us, is that it?”
“There is no more us, remember?” I stated, tears welling up in my eyes again. “I’m out of my house — I’m moving out.”
“Oh. That kind of out.” Then she looked around the kitchen, sipped her tea. “Are you wanting to stay here?” Her face puckered into an expression of reluctant concern.
“Can I? Just for a week? A few days?” My skin went cold. What if her family said no? What if I ended up on the street? This is how it happens, a teenage runaway finds no solace anywhere, so she turns to drugs and prostitution and her life is wasted. Give me a year and I’ll be a toothless meth-head, clawing in rubbish cans for a fix.
“Please?” I added.
Sunny looked at me with her slow gaze. On another occasion I would’ve melted with desire, but this time I only noted her hotness and then pushed it aside.
“The thought of you staying in my basement right now makes me nervous, frankly,” she said in a low earnest tone. “But . . . I’ll ask.”
Now I’m tucked down in a basement hideaway, under blankets made by family members of Sunny’s and her special home smell all over everything. I’m drowsy, but feeling sweet and excited as well as sad and fraught. Right now I am weighing my sadness between the break-up with Sunny and the falling out with my folks. I can’t believe I am suddenly all grown up, out on my own. What the hell am I going to do?
I suppose I have felt alone and on my own since I left my mother. Since I’ve started living at Dad’s, I haven’t had any supervision at all. Once in a while, he takes us all out to dinner at one of his favourite restaurants. He gives me chores to do, and says he expects me to come home at certain times and earn money from my job. But he doesn’t give me anything of his time or energy, at all. He doesn’t ask me about myself, my friends, my interests, or school. He doesn’t even ask me what food I like to eat.
Now that I think of it, the difference between my parents is interesting. One of them is like a hawk, watching over everything and grasping onto me with talons so sharp they pierce my skin. The other one provides for me only out of necessity and barely registers my existence. Either way, I feel like a ghost — empty, invisible, unloved, whistling with haunted breath. The people who created me have also ripped me in two: Girl #1 and Girl #2, ghost and flesh, boy-lover and girl-lover, wise sage and foolish ass.
Sunny’s mother says I can have a week here, two at the most.
“This couch might be needed by the next runaway teenager,” she reminds me, not without compassion. “You should consider going back home to your folks.”
That spurs me into action. I’m applying to work all the fast-food places in town and searching for anywhere I can live. The best thing would be a little bachelor pad like Mac’s, but they’re super expensive. I guess I’m eighteen next month, so I could go on welfare. But I do have some small amount of pride. I’m an Honours student, for goodness sake, not a welfare case. I’m going to go to school and work and do the best I can to pay my own way.
It’s not easy to live so near to Sunny. I can smell her everywhere, and we eat most dinners together. Sometimes she is working and sometimes I am out. I’m barely getting any shifts at GasCan, but I do spend at least two hours a day pounding the pavement after school so I can get something better. When she’s around, the ghost in me wanders over to her and gets in her space. It’s all I can do not to beg her to take me back. (But I don’t look at her with my eyes, only with my heart.)
Almost one week into my stay, she comes down to the basement where I’m doing my math homework. School is the only stable thing in my life right now and it provides a surprising amount of comfort, actually. She sits on the edge of the pullout couch and watches me writing out one equation after another, my numbers neat and rhythmic. I’m lying on my tummy, acutely aware of her presence. I try to stay focused on my math, one line, two lines, three lines. I fumble, stop, erase. Start writing numbers again.
Then I feel her warm hand riding up my spine.
Sighhh, the breath comes out of me. Her touch is more comforting than math — more comforting than a mother’s, even. Her hand rides up and down my spine, very slowly until finally it rests on my lower back just above my bum.
“I miss you.”
I feel the weight of that statement in her low voice, in her touch, right through my back and into my belly. I stay completely still, letting the feeling wash over my body. Then she leans over and I feel her wiry curls brushing my face.
“Elle?” Her low voice.
I roll over onto my back, dumping my math onto the floor.
Sunny looks at me with an apology on her face. “Having you here . . .” she starts, “It’s made me realize how much I want you.”
“You didn’t want me so much last week when you broke up with me,” I mumble. But I already know I’m hers. There’s no other question, no other answer.
“I broke it off with you because . . .”
“Because you didn’t know where it was going.”
“Because I’m starting to love you.” She takes a deep breath. “I do love you.” She picks up my hand and squeezes it between her own two hands. I’m looking at the strawberry birthmark on her thumb, at the fingers which have touched me so thoroughly and with such tenderness. “I didn’t know I could love anyone so much, and it scares me.”
That’s all I need. It’s all I’ve ever wanted to hear. I wrap my hungry little hands around her neck and pull her head down to me so her lips meet mine, and we share another kiss that’s almost as good as our first one ever. She tastes like fresh air, honey, wheat and tea. My fingers are corkscrewing in her hair as her fingers work their way under my hip bones, feeling my ass and thighs. I am sighing into her mouth.
“Sunny!” calls her mom from the top of the stairs. “Bed! Ellen! Bed!”
We pull apart with flushed faces and look at each other. Sunny’s eyes are shadowed with steaming desire. I know exactly what she wants to do to me.
“I’ll be back,” she whispers. “You bad girl.” And smiles mischievously.
It’s then I know we’re together again, and all the previous days of dying are over suddenly, and the world is a friendly and marvellous place.