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The conceit was that the art students at the Banff School of Fine Arts, many from large eastern cities, had no concept of wilderness survival. We were all dragged, shrugging and moaning, for a weekend of camping led by ‘experienced outdoorsmen.’ It was a wet weekend. We pitched our tents glumly, looking forward to something hot to drink afterwards. Our guides, however, were having trouble getting fires going. I rolled my eyes and went from one firepit to the next building my foolproof Girl Guide blazes for everybody. Then I smoked a cigarette with my beret pulled down for warmth.
By the time Sandy got to five sons, Joan was dumfounded. “Were you trying for a girl?” “We would have stopped at two, but I kept getting pregnant.” “Why didn’t you go on the pill? “That was little Jason.” “Vascectomy?” “That was Tyler.” Sandy looked miserable as several of her offspring erupted into the kitchen. Within seconds the place was awash in spills, crumbs and grubby hand prints. Once fed and watered the horde moved on to wreak destruction in another part of the house. “We’re double protected now – both Barry and I had ourselves fixed,” said Sandy.
Keep your mysteries and your romances. My reading vice is science fiction. Not that crappy fantasy stuff, either – real science fiction with stories built around believable predictions of the future and the complications they will effect on human society and culture. I get a way better kick reading about human genetics being modified to grow gills so they can live on a sea dominated planet, than imagining being swept away by some domineering male. I got hooked on it in my early teens and have haunted the SF section in bookstores ever since – often the only female among pimply nerds.
“What’s the point of even thinking about the future?” Joan remembered thinking in her final year of high school, when Ned, dumped her, “My life is over.” Several years had passed and she was back in town from the city where she now lived, working for a prestigious design company. Sandy came by to say hello. “I was out at Ned’s place the other day,” she told Joan, “he and his wife were busy slaughtering and plucking chickens.” If there was any vestige of regret left in Joan’s soul about losing Ned, it evaporated in an instant.
She wanted to feel some chemistry with Charlie. By all rational analysis he was Mr. Right. “Who was that cute guy you were with?” her friends would ask, when she was spotted out on a date with him. And, because he was so persistent, she did toss him a date from time to time. He spoiled her with expensive dinners and flowers. Later, after she had finally managed to shrug him off, she learned of his fortune and connections. She did not care. She wondered how those women did it; the ones who overcame indifference to wed themselves to wealth.
Ever notice when you ask a heterosexual male if another man is handsome, they almost always say, “I don’t know.” Is it because they are wired to notice physical beauty only in women? Or are they not sure how women judge male attractiveness, so they cannot answer that question to a female? Or perhaps, they are afraid that in noticing the good looks of another male, they will come off as gay. Maybe it is the long history of celebrating mostly female beauty in the world of art that trains men to appreciate the female form over their own.
“Whats Lenny doing?” asked Mom. I turned my attention from Sophy who had captured everybody’s attention doing spectacular jumps into the pool. Tiny at two, with no fear, throwing her limbs into an exuberant starfish. Lenny was hanging a foot below the water at the edge of the deep end, where he had slipped down the sloped bottom from where he could keep his head above the surface. His arms were flailing. Luckily he was within arms reach and I plucked him out. “Mummy,” He gasped, expelling water and vomit all over me. “I was trying to call you!”
The rock was probably about 100 feet offshore. After the first few feet there was no place to touch bottom because the lake floor dropped off sharply. On a calm day she would poke her face under as she swam, to see the sun playing on the submerged rock beds below. And then she would come to the behemoth, looming giant in the shifting green light below the surface. She would swim under water around it in awe of its silent majesty, then clamber up its side to perch on top and enjoy its soothing warmth, baking in the sun.
Joan watched Elliot taking a leak in the field beyond the roadside picnic area, their favourite spot to park and neck. Suddenly Elliot started laughing. He stooped to pick something up and came back to the car with grinning widely. “Remember last week when I got all paranoid because I saw a cop car coming?” They were smoking really strong hash and Elliot had freaked, shooting the remainder of the hash out the car window. The cops had not even slowed down; they probably never noticed Elliot’s car, parked in the shadows. “I just found the hash I ditched!”
It is put away now, because it is brittle and fragile, but it was stuck on many fridges, in many places I lived through the years. A cartoon my mother cut out of a newspaper and sent me. A woman on a swing, her raised arms holding the ropes up by herself – those ropes not attached to a frame. Meant to represent how women are often their only support for themselves. That image gave me strength at times when I thought I might just have to give up. It is fitting that I it is now tucked out of sight.
Every year Joan was forced to celebrate Sandy’s birthday. Not just getting together for a drink; It had to be a huge party, thrown by somebody else in Sandy’s honour. Joan knew impressively expensive gifts were expected. She had heard Sandy slagging another friend for ‘cheaping out.’ Joan dreaded the event; she would stress for days over what to purchase for Sandy. For her 30th birthday, Joan decided people could make a fuss over her for once. The email she got back from Sandy said, “I’ve celebrated three of your birthdays with you, that is my quota.”
Joan pictured herself slouching elegantly in the shadowed corner, smoking a cigarette. Smoke curling up around her face; a slash of light revealing the sardonic look in her eyes. Men shuffling nearby waiting for an opening to talk to her. If they dared. “Men cluster to me, like moths around a flame,” she sung under her breath, mimicking Marlene Dietrich’s husky voice. But then there was the line, “Falling in love again, never wanted to…” Unfortunately, Joan could identify with that helplessness far more than the powerful image of the femme fatale that she would have preferred to evoke.
It was a BBC production. Maybe a murder mystery. Privileged people In an elegant setting pursuing leisurely living in glamorous clothes. The actress wore a sinuous gown. Backless, revealing a large swatch of heavily freckled skin. I took note, being similarly speckled, myself. You don’t see a lot of freckled actresses. From time to time the gossip rags will have a photo spread of stars without make-up revealing a few who suffer from this hideous affliction. Like Julianne Moore. But on screen the ugliness is always carefully concealed. Patronizing people, however, will always tell me freckles are cute.
I am not sure how the boys managed to purchase a case of beer. They were only about fifteen at the time. The boys consumed the beer secretly in the garage, but one of them decided to take one home. His mother found it, and the boy told her he had lifted it out of our fridge to sample his first beer. A couple of days later the mother showed up with the boy. They brought a case of beer that the boy had been forced to pay for, to make up for the alleged 'theft.' Steve was quite pleased.
It took awhile to twig into what was happening. People kept coming up and asking if I needed anything. I was standing right at the buffet, but they wanted to fill my plate for me, or get me a glass of wine. Never had I ever experienced such solicitousness from complete strangers. A photographer danced around me taking pictures. Then I realized they thought I was ‘Her’ – the star of the show for which this party was being thrown. She arrived late, so I enjoyed the attention for awhile. But it was easy to see how tiresome it could become.
Joan and Sandy had been through a lot together. When Joan’s time came, she knew that Sandy would be very bright in the spectrum that made up the beam of her life flashing before her eyes. She wondered now whether the two of them were actually compatible. These days the bitterness and misunderstanding often outweighed the good times. Had they changed that much? or were they always like oil and water, but just never realized it? Was it time to move on and treasure the good memories, rather than let the black cloud that hung over them gather strength?
The laundromat was busy that evening. Our household was temporarily without a washer and dryer so my mother was spending the evening pushing through the weekly laundry. I cannot remember what provoked the fight. I think I wanted the car, but of course she selfishly wanted to be able to take the clothes home after they were washed. This was during ‘that’ stage of my teens, when it was daily open war with my mother. “All right,” I said loudly, “I’ll just go out and get pregnant.” “It would have to be by artificial insemination,” she retorted, even louder.
“it’s been the ruin of many a poor boy.” The House of the Rising Sun, as the song goes. And a boy was the ruin of many a poor girl, thought Joan, seeing many of her friends sacrifice their dreams to maintain disastrous relationships with men, driven by a dread of being categorized as a virgin. What was wrong with having higher aspirations than caving into bodily urges? Joan knew, having watched her friends go down, one by one, that a man could bury a girl’s dreams quicker than anything. And babies but the nails in the coffin.
The woman was trapped in the bathroom, cut off from the rest of her house because of the bear that had innocently wandered into her kitchen, out of the surrounding woods from which the sprawling subdivision had been carved. All mod cons on the edge of the wilderness. The house was probably on the bear’s former stomping grounds. Fortunately for her, she had her cell phone and called her husband. He came with the police and they shot the bear. “Living here can be dangerous,” declared the husband, standing over the dead animal. Yeah, for the bears, I thought.
“Either tidy your toys, or they all go in a lawn sale.” “Sell them!” said the defiant six-year-old. At the end of the sale I let her choose one toy to keep and took the rest to Goodwill. I was surprised at her choice. She let a beloved doll go, seemingly without regret. The next morning she was crying, “I miss Molly.” “Why didn’t you keep her?” “You said only one thing!” If she had begged, I would have relented, but how could she have known? I pawed through the toys at Goodwill, but Molly was gone.
Joan looked in on the sleeping Jasmine. Compared to some of her friends’ babies, Jasmine was easy. No colic, allergies or problems with ear infections. Even so, Joan felt desperately exhausted all the time, dealing with the non-stop responsibilities of caring for a toddler. She felt as though she had completely lost the person she used to be. Her life had been stolen by this angelic being; sometimes a tiny demon. If Joan had known just how comprehensively her life would change as a mother, she might not have had this baby. So much lost… but, so much found.
I loved that yellow halter top and wore it all summer long. It was an elegantly simple garment made from skinny rib knit cotton. All one piece so no ties to fiddle with. I thought it was adorably cute; nicely bright and summery. Paired with my cut-off jeans it was comfortable and cool. I wore it practically every day and everywhere I went I noticed appreciative looks from guy. It was not until toward the end of August that one of those guys pointed out to me how clearly my nipples were visible through its light coloured skimpy fabric.
Trying to backtrack from Loch Lomond to our friends’ place near Glasgow. Took a wrong turn and ended up in a small town where we were trapped in a loop. Every attempt to access the highway led us back into town. Finally we stopped and asked a person who was seated on a doorstep. She called over a neighbour and then another neighbour joined in. Fingers were pointed in every direction. Apparently the townspeople were not sure how to get out of town themselves. Soon I thought we would disappear into the mists to reappear in 100 years, still lost.
The trails were still mushy in the middle after the snow melt, requiring some maneuvering to avoid muddy wet shoes. Seemed like a good idea on this hot day in early spring, but Joan and Sandy were regretting their decision to check out the party spot in the bush. The clearing was in good shape; big logs along four sides for benches and charred wood still in the firepit. In the stream nearby they even found some bottles of beer. Slightly skunky but, incredibly, still drinkable. As they settled in, Elliot and Witch Doctor showed up. Party season had begun.
Where the hell was Steve? I thought, cursing him for being late. Dealing with two toddlers after a stressful day. Then the call came from the hospital. He had been hit by a car and had a fractured skull. My mother came down to help. In the middle of the night I heard a muffled cry. I went upstairs to find her hemorrhaging cherry sized blood clots from her nose. The next day I did the rounds, visiting two patients in two different hospitals. They said if the aneurysm had been half an inch higher it would have killed Mom.
“You saved my life,” said Sandy. “Yep,” Joan thought to herself, pulling out of the parking lot, “and not for the first time.” It was usually something she felt uneasy about doing, too – like lying to Sandy’s mother that she had spent the night at Joan’s place when Sandy was sleeping with that biker. It should have been him who was picking Sandy up from the hospital, but he was long gone. “It was awful,” Sandy told Joan, “They put you in the obstetrics ward. Everybody else was having a baby, and I was getting rid of one.”
There were no lights along that stretch of road, but it was the shortest way home. This time of night the darkness almost had a mass to it that closed in around us as we gingerly felt out the smoothest path with out feet, peering anxiously ahead for any glimmer to guide our way. There were noises in the bush on either side. When we would remember to bring a flashlight it would catch the glow of animals’ eye if we shone it off the road. Usually we kept the beam locked steady on the road in front of us.
There was a time when I joined protests with enthusiasm, looking for any opportunity chance to march. The chance to walk down the middle of major city routes, blocking traffic, having the police reluctantly guard us as we chanted together in unison for a common cause, feeling the power of numbers behind us. There are always a few bad eggs. Like at the peace march in Winnipeg where a group of Sikhs burned and violently beat an effigy of Indira Ghandi. But even though it was contrary to the message of peace, I rather enjoyed the irony of that spectacle.
With six cops on every downtown corner last weekend, it was hard not to feel oppressed. Although, when Steve and I were on Queen West, there was little happening. People were shopping. Steve said I was lucky I spent no time in detention. I could not help myself. Upon spotting a group of Halton police I asked them how they liked the donuts in Toronto. “Haven’t tried any,” answered one of them. “Yeah, it’s easier to find biscotti around here.” I commented walking on, snickering. But I felt a little bad. He actually seemed like a nice guy.
Time to mark another year half done. In a life that is over half done, the years speed by faster and faster. Having a fast-paced job does not help, either. Every Monday morning I put my face in front of a computer and on Friday afternoon I come up for air. In between is a blur. Weekends filled with countless family obligations pass by in the snap of a finger. And yet with all that time slipping from my grasp, I still manage to waste the precious few hours each week that I can claim to be my own.
The Tip Jar