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Joan stepped out the back door, feeling the humidity cling to her skin. The rain had not cooled things down at all, and it felt steamy. Rich aroma rose from the moistened soil of the garden, an earthy smell Joan could never decide if she liked. It mingled with the perfume of flowers and the scent of cat pee wafting from the neighbour’s yard. Some kind of shrub that smelled that way when it got wet. So the neighbour claimed. But she had several cats. Joan brushed water droplets off the chair on the deck, settling in for cigarette.
The kittens were free. Following the directions Joan made her way along the road that curved through a tidy suburban subdivision. As she came around the bend she was confronted by a home that had two wrecks of cars on the front lawn. The woman who came to the door told her to go around the back where the yard was a labyrinth of rusting machine parts. Inside the dark doorway Joan saw newspapers stacked shoulder height with a narrow path cutting a canyon through them. She had heard of people like this before but thought the stories were exaggerated.
He was a huge man. Joan wondered what his skeleton looked like in comparison to the average person. Were the bones that much thicker? He had ugly amateurish tattoos covering both forearms, and he had that look in his eye that made one tread carefully around him. Tiny Sandy looked like a child beside him and when he was with her he was tender and fatherly. A gentle giant. Joan knew Sandy felt safe and protected; nobody bothered her when he was around. Nice now, thought Joan, but what would happen when Sandy decided to it was time to leave?
‘What goes around comes around’ is not always true. I always see people repeatedly getting away with murder and never suffering any repercussions. An old rival - somebody who purposely mortally wounded my career in theatre - seemed to have all the luck come her way. I heard through the grapevine, however, that she was dealing with an abusive husband who made life hell for her. When I thought about I realized whenever I saw her it looked like she had aged another ten years. I could not help feeling gleeful. Then I immediately felt guilty; and sorry for her.
“I guess dog owners are as blind to their pets’ shortcomings as parents are to their children’s,” thought Joan, as the overweight pug sat wheezing on her lap, embedding short coarse hairs into the weave of her black dress. The dog’s guardian cooed, “Oooh, he likes you!” As if it was a special fortune for Joan to have this gargoyle friendly up to her. She surveyed the expanse of cream carpet in the woman’s living room, dotted here and there with yellow or brown stains. And in the corner a turd that had not been cleaned up.
The basement apartment was freezing and I could not cope. I called the landlord and he brought me a heater. “Great, I said,” now my electricity bill will sky-rocket. “It’s okay,” he said, “Plug it into this outlet, here, and you won’t pay a thing.” The heater definitely made the place liveable. After I had been living there a for awhile I got to know the other tenants in the house. The woman upstairs from me remarked, “It’s weird, a couple of months ago my Hydro bill shot up, and I can’t figure out why.”
Vegas flies in the face of Mother Nature, defying her to wipe it out. They claim that their fountains reuse water, but considerable amounts must evaporate in the desert heat. Remember how your mother used to tell you off for heating the outdoors when you left the door open? In Vegas they actually air condition the outdoor patios, blowing gusts of freezing air out over the diners. When we were there I woke up shivering in the mornings, in spite of a thick comforter. I had to go downstairs and sit on a bench outside the hotel to warm up.
What shapes one’s fate? We were under that tree at Afrofest and we decided to get something to eat. It took awhile to fight through the crowds to get to the food concession area, so who knows what the timing was? We withdrew to a secluded grassy area off to the side to eat and saw the flashing lights of the ambulances through the crowd. Maybe somebody collapsed in the heat, I thought. We stopped to see a marimba band, then circled back to where we had been. A giant branch had fallen, and some people had been hurt.
I had already outgrown my early parental jitters by the time I learned the answer to beating the triage system in the emergency department. Many times I sat for hours waiting in outrage at being overlooked, concerned my child was on the verge of death. I had become blasé and happy to wait for the next day to see a doctor, except the night when Sophy had a high fever and complained of a headache and a sore neck. When I mentioned those symptoms, possibly meningitis, I was whisked immediately in to see a doctor. Turned out Sophy was alright.
Seems like we have strong bones in our family. Twice doctors have suspected Lenny had broken bones, due to the pain and the nature of his falls, but after enduring the fracture clinic at St. Joseph’s for x-rays, it turned out his bones had held up. The worst break I had was when I cracked my middle finger in a skiing wipe out. I was in my early twenties and got a kick out of having that finger hard-fixed into the flip-off position. I was almost disappointed when the doctor decreed I could remove the splint.
I have heard that, in lawsuits, mutilation of the hands has equal weight to mutilation of the face in terms of monetary reparation, because those two parts of the body are the first things put forward in social interaction. Hands are read by others, not only for fortune, but in assessing personality traits. A long time ago somebody told me that because my thumbs bend back, it means I am a liar. Ever since then I have tried doubly hard to be as honest as possible in an effort to undermine those who wish to judge me by my thumbs.
What I admire the most about successful contestants on Jeopardy (the rare times I watch it) is not their knowledge, but how fast they manage to hit the buzzer. I usually know the answer to the question, but by the time it floats up from where it lies resting in the back of my mind, one of the contestants has usually buzzed in. Do they buzz first and think later? Sometimes it looks that way. Then they have to suffer the embarrassment of looking stupid in front of millions of viewers. That risk would freeze me from the get go.
For some reason Mr. A, a parent soccer coach in the park league, was favoured by the referees from the Rec Department. However, we heard rumours that he swore at his team during practice. Mr. A was hell bent on winning. That summer my team was up against him for the championship. A handball was called, which lost us the game. There was no handball and everybody knew it. The referee called me a bad sport, but I would not let my team shake hands with their victors. For weeks afterwards kids from the neighbourhood came up and thanked me.
His mother was sick for a long time; Greg and his father were always visiting her in the hospital. Greg also spent a lot of time at Sandy’s house because he was a good friend of Sandy’s brother, and her mom took pity on Greg’s virtually motherless state. His father was out of town ‘on business’ a lot. It was a relief when the suffering ended for Greg’s mother, although Greg was grief-stricken. It was a surprise when, within only a couple months, his father introduced Greg to his future stepmother. Certainly made everybody wonder.
Joan ran into with Elliot by chance years later. After he had taken off without any warning. It was in a coffee shop in Vancouver – that was where she had heard he had gone. He was at the bar huddled over a coffee; seemed like he was a regular. He looked older than she knew he was – scruffy – although still handsome. She imagined him in some spare digs close by. Obviously not being cared for by a woman. Probably still loving and leaving. She turned her head, hoping he had not seen her, purchased her take-out coffee and left.
Tension filled the house. My parents were behaving strangely. My mother wanted to get a job. It was the 70’s and not many wives worked outside the home. Dad was confused and angry that Mom felt this need. We heard yelling, but never in front of us. Sometimes it looked like Mom was about to cry. “If Dad and I were to separate, who would you go with?” my mother asked me. “I would probably go between the two of you and milk you both for all I could get.” I said. After that, it was never mentioned again.
When my mother decided to go to teachers’ college at McMaster University, she, my sister, and I, moved in with my Grandfather in Hamilton. Dad and my brother held down the fort at our home in Port Elgin. My mother thought it would be a good idea for us girls to have a taste of city life, and I, for one enjoyed it. What I enjoyed more than anything was the thrill of the gossip going around Port Elgin that my parents were divorcing. It secretly pleased me that my family was being viewed as other than happy and wholesome.
When my mother moved to Toronto, I helped with her yard sale. She had in her possession clothes I wore in my twenties. I wondered how I ever fit into them. True, I am heavier than I was then, but not all that much. Things have shifted. My pelvic bones irreversibly altered by pregnancy. Weight that used to sit high and firm has descended to my waist and hips. It’s a new me that looks way better clothed than not. Funny how self-conscious I was of my body back then, when it was in the peak of youth.
In my younger days I bemoaned my need for glasses. I felt they were a drawback to my attractiveness. When I finally got contacts, in my 20’s, I wore them all the time. With age, my eyes began to be more sensitive and the contacts less comfortable. And my astigmatism became worse. Without correction I see things kind of squashed. My contacts do not correct, only my glasses, so when I look at myself in the mirror while wearing contacts I seem shorter and fatter. I now prefer to wear glasses because it is better for my self-image.
Funny how illogical vanity is. Me not wanting to wear contact lenses because they don’t correct my astigmatism and when I look in the mirror I don’t like what I see. I can tell myself over and over again that everybody else sees me the way they always see me – except they think I look better without glasses. It does not matter, I just cannot stand to see myself all squashed like that. It makes me wonder, however, just how differently people see things, if what I see changes so radically just by putting in my contact lenses.
I have always preferred to live in working-class neighbourhoods. That is what delighted me about the Roncesvalles locale when we moved here. I was horrified when the BIA put up cutesy street-signs identifying the area as ‘Roncesvalles Village.’ Seemed like they were making a comparison with ‘Bloor West Village,’ a trendy neighbourhood that I abhor. I seek the antidote to ‘trendy.’ I seek porch-sitting and clotheslines, back alleys crammed with ramshackle garages. Recent street construction on Ronces seems to have set the ‘boutique’ businesses back. I am pleased to see the process of gentrification delayed, at least temporarily.
We could not have been luckier with our first neighbour when we moved to the neighbourhood. An old Ukrainian guy who was cheerful, quiet, and doted on the children. Every Christmas and Easter he would leave gifts for them at the front door. When I tried to retaliate he objected vociferously. He watched out for us. I feel I failed him. I HAD noticed his backdoor was ajar for a couple of days, but it WAS a hot weekend. My sister was visiting and I was preoccupied. When his nephew finally arrived to investigate, he had been dead some time.
Hallowe’en is probably my favourite holiday. Partially because of dressing up. After all I was a costume designer. I have a trunk of crazy garb at the ready. I love the idea of disguising yourself to fool the devil so he won’t take you. So deliciously pagan. Also because it is a celebration that brings people out of their houses. The neighbourhood comes alive for a few hours once a year - starting in the morning, when you see the tots heading to class in their get-ups. I usually wear something goofy to work, too – like spider earrings.
I think it is about age three when Hallowe’en twigs on most kids. Tiny one-year-olds find it terrifying. Two-year-olds are confused, but pleased by the treats. At three kids are finally struck with the realization of the genius of this candy-gathering ploy. At age four my kids started planning their costumes in advance. From then on I had little dictators stamping their feet and demanding authenticity. It was a lot of work but all the same, it was fun coming up with the solutions for creating things such costumes as… a scorpion super hero.
It was fitting that I started that job on Hallowe’en. My new boss was so insane that Steve found it hard to believe the daily stories I brought home of his behavior. Looking back to the interview I realized that he must have been fighting to maintain a façade of reasonable humanity for the entire time. He was probably more nervous that I would detect that he was utterly psychotic than I was in trying to impress him that I was right for the position. I loved my work but dealing with him finally drove after three years.
Thrown into a temp position where computer skills were required, back when PC’s were just being introduced into offices, I was flummoxed by the use of Word Perfect. “The manual is in the desk,” snapped the supervisor, impatient with my slowness. Trying to make out the convoluted instructions, written in technolese, I felt I must be the stupidest person in the world. Later, once I got to know all the ins and outs of Word Perfect, I checked out the manual again. I still could not understand a thing – even for operations I now performed on a daily basis.
What I hate most about Microsoft products is that the tacky formatting they force on you. I am horrified by the combination of colours and fonts that Microsoft calls ‘styles,’ I can imagine nothing less stylish. I have always prided myself for formatting a document to support the material, making it both attractive and easier to understand. I have to fight Microsoft word every step of the way to embed my own formatting. Seems like most people have given up, however, because as far as I can see just about every corporate document is starting to look the same nowadays.
As a costume designer, my eye that would zero in from the back row on the tiniest thread hanging from a hem. Nothing escaped my attention and I am sure the costume shop staff often rolled their eyes, but it was my name that was going on the programme. So you can imagine how hard it is for me to walk down the street seeing people with various garment flaws. I can imagine myself in my dotage creeping up behind people on streetcars and turning in the labels I see sticking out of the backs of t-shirts and sweaters.
I feel sorry for the makers of Black Label beer, who were no doubt mystified why their previously low profile beer had a surge in popularity in certain fringe culture bars in Toronto. I met the guy they hired to capitalize on the profits. He developed an edgy ad campaign meant to appeal to the ‘type’ of people who patronized those bars. For awhile the beer’s popularity shot up more, but then it fizzled out. He did not realize those ‘type’ of people ordered Black Label because it was not widely advertized, striving to resist being influenced by marketing.
We were in the gift shop after touring the Globe Theatre. Next on the agenda was lunch. The salesclerk was ringing my purchase through when an obviously American woman came rushing up and asked her for advice on the best place for lunch in the area. The salesclerk shrugged coldly, almost rudely, answering that all the restaurants were good. Since I, too, was interested in lunch I perked up, saying, “So any place around here is fine?” To me, she smiled and recommended a specific eatery, saying, “I hate the way they always butt in.” I knew she meant Americans.
It is my nature to seek order. I see patterns and develop systems for working within them. I love schedules and routines. There is nothing more satisfying for me than when, like a lock, all of the tumblers fall into place, providing me with entry into serenity. For me rules and regulations are not restrictions, but free me to move about the world with a sense of appropriate behavior; they allow people to interact with consideration for others. And it is a lot more fun to break the rules on an exceptional basis, than to flout order all the time.
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