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They do it alphabetically to be fair. Joan’s name was well down the list. All she had to do was to walk up those steps and across the stage to collect her diploma. She had watched many of the others trip on that last step, where the stair riser fell a little short of the necessary height. So far nobody had fallen, but Joan was already feeling nervous about walking in heels she did not usually wear. And with each subsequent tripper, she felt more and more agitation. It would just be so typical if she fell on her face.
“Book ‘em,” said the store detective, self importantly, and Joan had to suppress a guffaw. The woman obviously watched too many cop shows. But it was no laughing matter. The two police officers who had arrived began to question the Joan and Sandy. They would never believe her, Joan knew. It was Sandy who was doing the shoplifting, and shoving things into Joan’s bag against her protestations. But, much to Joan’s surprise, Sandy owned up. “It was all my idea, officer,” she insisted. “She can tell it to the judge,” he replied. And Joan slumped back into her chair.
The cake was sitting abandoned on the kitchen table, with the candles still virgin, waiting to be lit. “Oh, shit,” thought Joan. She knew her mother was excited about her eighteenth birthday but she assumed her party was going to be on the weekend when it would be more convenient for people coming from out of town. So she and Sandy headed to the hotel right after school for Joan’s first legal drink. There were friends there waiting to surprise her and the sodden celebration continued into the evening... or morning – Joan looked up at the clock and shuddered ruefully.
Sandy considered drinking and driving to be a recreational activity. Most kids in town did, too. Joan did not give it much thought, either, until the accidents. Three that one winter. The wrecks would always be towed to the garage at the edge of town, and you could see them. It was closed casket for the funeral of the kid in grade nine Joan used to babysit. When Joan saw the wreck, she could see why. Then there was the near miss Joan herself experienced with Sandy, swerving at the last minute and ending up in the ditch, fortunately unhurt.
Resisting Sandy took so much energy that Joan most often did not even bother trying. She saved her protestations only for truly dire scenarios. Like the time Sandy and her boyfriend wanted to break into that cottage and party. Joan just walked away from that one. But now here she was skipping school to drive Sandy to the County Seat, so she could visit her boyfriend in jail. It was easier to deal with the repercussions of that, than endure Sandy’s persistent whiny begging. However, Joan was enjoying a tiny bit of an ‘I told you so,’ factor as well.
Joan fondly looked back on those long summer days with Sandy, hitchhiking with no particular destination in mind – just to get out of town and go. Ending up on a beach somewhere along the coast; enjoying a snack of chips and a milkshake at a tuck shop after a cooling dip in the lake. They always wore swimsuits under their clothes. Once they got rides on the backs of motorcycles with a gang wearing colours. Joan cringed to think how naive they were... and how lucky. Never again did she experience the all-out freedom of that time in her life.
The thing about Sandy was that she could sweet talk anybody, which made Joan feel like she was not the only big sap. Sandy had a way of looking you in the eye, leaning forward and seeming to be truly, earnestly interested in you. It made you feel special - and as though there was an instant bond between you and Sandy. So people did things for Sandy that they probably would not do for other people. Joan developed this gift by osmosis after years of observing her friend. But she could never really bring herself to use it so blatantly.
Even though Joan felt that Sandy pushed her into doing things she often thought better of, she knew it was not a one-sided relationship. It was that pushing that forced Joan to take risks that expanded her boundaries; and Joan’s innately reticent personality kept Sandy’s impetuous nature in check. The yin and yang of their friendship helped develop qualities in each other that encouraged them both grow. They were two halves that complimented each other almost perfectly. Without Sandy, Joan could have been too careful, cautious and conservative. Without Joan, Sandy could, quite possibly, not have survived to adulthood.
Joan was surprised to see Sandy at her door that first warm, spring day. The thing was that Sandy could not bear to sit in that classroom, knowing Joan had the day off because she was exempted from writing the exam. So Sandy ditched the exam. It was puzzling because Joan knew how much Sandy was itching to get out of town. How was she going to do that if she did not graduate high school? But another burning itch over-rode the drive for future plans – that was the itch for the drive along country roads with the windows down.
Jumping rope was what brought them together and cemented their friendship when they first met in grade two. Sandy noted Joan’s skills and knowledge of many rhymes for skipping games and actively pursued Joan as a friend. Being new in town Joan was glad to accept Sandy’s friendship because Sandy seemed to know everybody. After that the two of them dominated the playground at recess. Nobody could turn rope or jump double dutch like Joan and Sandy. Over the years the skipping fell away and other interests took over, but Joan and Sandy remained tied together by those jumping ropes.
Sandy was desperate. “He’ll drown them if I can’t find homes for them,” she pleaded. Sandy’s uncle was too cheap to have his barn cats ‘fixed,’ but he liked them around to keep the rodent population down. However, past a certain number he would dispatch them ruthlessly. Joan’s mother had already given in to three kittens, who were most likely half siblings from different pairings of the various feral cats who roamed that farm. Joan would beg but she suspected that, as far as her mother was concerned, they had already exceeded the optimum number of cats in their home.
The lake was a constant backdrop to their lives. It was what made the town a tourist spot which was an important factor in shaping their social lives. If not for the lake it would just be another sleepy little farm town. Instead they had summer romances and exposure to exotic elements. Not like those inland towns where there was nothing to do and the kids were all so dorky and straight. The lake was a life force and an entity that had its own special personality. Joan had visited all the Great Lakes, and thought Huron was the best.
Late night at the Pink Palace. The party was winding down, and munchies took over. Too late for the drive-in. “Kraft Dinner!” exclaimed Uranus, from the kitchen. Sandy went in and put a pot of water on to boil but it was taking forever on the hot plate, so she put the noodles in when it got just steaming. Only half enough milk in the fridge, so she topped it with water. Joan lost her munchies at the first taste of the plate of paste that was put before her. She smiled at Uranus eating his, trying to be polite.
“Nifty!” said Joan. “Nifty?” asked Mars, “Who says ‘nifty’ anymore?” Once again, Joan felt like a dork. Mars was so cool and worldly. Joan was just a small town girl. She was smitten with Mars from the moment she met him, but he had that daunting girlfriend from the city - Angie - so beautiful and confident, always dressed just right and saying the right things. It made Joan ache to see them together. Now it looked like Mars and Angie were breaking up. But Joan knew she would never be hip enough for Mars. “Hip?” she thought, “Who says ‘hip’ anymore?”
“Once,” said Sandy, “It was only the one time, when he didn’t have a rubber on him. What shitty luck.” She sat slumped in the passenger seat as Joan drove her home from the hospital in Owen Sound where she had gone for blood tests. Sandy begged a ride over there from Joan to avoid seeing her family doctor. “Maybe it will come back negative,” Joan offered, hoping to disperse the grim mood that thickened the air in the car. “Yah, and maybe I will stop throwing up every morning and I’ll finally get the curse after missing it twice.”
The brightly painted cabin was at the very end of the winding Beach Road and its only neighbours during the cold winter were uninhabited, boarded up summer cottages. Mars and Uranus got the shack off-season for rock-bottom rent. With the tourist season about to begin, they would have to be out soon. The place was already a shambles, having endured months of sheltering two young men as tenants. It was about to suffer one final humiliation. The words, “party at the Pink Palace,” started as a whisper, and then became a roar making their way along the grapevine in town.
Joan’s cousin offered her cabin for the long weekend because she would be away, so Joan invited Sandy. Joan imagined the two of them having a fun adventure, spending time by the lake and exploring the area. Before Joan knew it, Sandy had invited several other people. Sandy insisted it would be all right. Joan was afraid she would never be able to look her cousin in the eye again. Even if the cabin survived the party that was sure to happen, the neighbours would report to her cousin. Sandy had no qualms about these things, but Joan sure did.
Sandy waved her hand in Joan’s face; flaunting the ring her boyfriend had given her. “It’s a real Sapphire, set in gold!” she said, “Isn’t it gorgeous?” Joan was rankled and asked hotly, “if he had enough money for this, why didn’t he help pay for the abortion?” Joan loaned Sandy part of the funds for Sandy’s crisis. She doubted she would ever see that money, again, and she could little afford it. “Oh,” replied Sandy just a tiny bit hesitantly, “well, he stole it.” Joan was unsurprised that Sandy considered this to be a reasonable explanation.
Sandy came down to visit after Joan moved to the city. There was a big event at the student pub on campus and the two of them had a great time. Sunday Joan saw Sandy off at the bus depot. She saw the look of longing in Sandy’s eyes, and felt sorry for her. But Sandy had dug her own hole. Without high school, she could not get into college. After flunking out, Sandy put her hopes in her boyfriend to take her away to the city, and then he simply disappeared. Sandy settled for a cashier job in town.
During tourist season the town was an exciting place to be, but winter was deadly. Especially if all your friends had graduated and left for university. Not everybody had left. Like Sandy, there were others who did not make it through high school. With little to do during the cold months, the young people who were left behind congregated in bars or at house parties. Relationships constantly shifting as couples formed, broke up, and re-formed. Town was like a soap opera in winter. And if you weren’t living one, you were watching one on TV during the dreary winter afternoons.
“He used me,” declared Sandy, “I was just a sex toy for him.” Joan kept silent. It was not as if she had not tried to tell that to Sandy, over and over again. But Sandy would not listen. In fact she would lash out at Joan and protest that her boyfriend was devoted to her. So after awhile Joan just gave up and watched while Sandy got sucked deeper and deeper into the abyss, dedicating her future to her to this jerk. And Sandy was using him, as well. To Sandy, the creep was her ticket out of town.
Back in town for Christmas vacation. It was amazing how much things could change in a few months. A new bar had opened and the old places now sat nearly empty as people savored the novelty of a different hot spot. Joan was dismayed; she had returned looking forward to the comfort of familiarity. The new place was flashy, featuring pop music videos on huge screens. When she asked Sandy to meet her at the Queen’s Hotel, Sandy tittered suspiciously, but agreed. At the bar, Sandy greeted Joan with a grin. Their old favourite haunt had become a strip club.
Late August and the weather was humid and cloying. The change was in the air, however. While the sun shone and the heat rose from the sand on the beach, the lake was moody with waves biting the shore. Lake storms signaled the imminent transition in weather. Soon the air would begin to nip, as the days shrank shorter and shorter. A feeling of nostalgia for the summer not yet over took hold of Joan. Labour Day loomed ahead, when the town would empty of tourists and the permanent residents would be left to ride out the long, cold winter.
Sandy wanted to murder the instructor every time she hit the brightly painted kids’ xylophone, sounding the three-toned chime that signaled time was up on the typing exercise. ‘Ruby Lips,’ as Sandy called her because of her overly bright red lipstick, had this illusion that it made the classes more fun. But Sandy was determined to get her secretarial diploma at the community college. She had screwed up her life royally, but this time she planned to see things through. No more messing around; she had no intention of remaining a grocery cashier in nowheresville the rest of her life.
Sandy and Joan were waiting in line at the tuck shop on the beach. They were hankering for the tender and tasty fries for which the place was famous. Hand cut right on the spot using potatoes fresh off the farm. The people ahead were taking their time scanning the menu and making up their mind. “Don’t you have shoestring fries?” they asked. “Nope,” said the guy behind the counter. “Okay, just cokes, lots of ice,” said the customers and then left with their drinks. The server watched them leave, then turned to Sandy and Joan. “Yanks,” he said, disgustedly.
The stupid zipper on her jeans would not stay up. Joan had to constantly watch that it had not fallen, exposing the colour of her panties to everybody in the hall. She would get comments from the guys like, “Ooooh, my favourite shade of blue.” And it was just when she had gotten those jeans the way she liked them – soft and faded, the big bells frayed out with a soft fringe at the bottom. And comfortable, too – stretched out in the right places so they hugged her hips without squeezing them. She did not want to give them up.
Sandy did not have even an iota of strength to move. She was not sure how much longer she could hold her eyelids up. She wanted to reach over and pick up her drink. She was so thirsty. But it seemed a task so monumental as to be impossible. She looked at the guy sitting across from her. He was staring at her intently. Earlier he had invited himself to sit at her table and they had been enjoying a nice conversation. After she got back from the washroom this feeling of heaviness had hit her like a tidal wave.
“There’s no percentage in that,” said Sandy’s mother, overhearing Joan urging Sandy to go to the police. “You can’t let him get away with that,” insisted Joan. Sandy awakened in the hotel room to the realization that she had been slipped a mickey. The guy was long gone. “First they have to find him,” commented Sandy’s mother, “and then Sandy gets to have her name smeared around the papers. I have told Sandy many times she can’t go hanging around bars like that, dressed the way she does; they are going to blame her, not him.”
“What!?” exclaimed Joan. “I’m getting married,” Sandy repeated, “I want you to be my maid of honour.” “No way!!!!” said Joan. “You don’t want to be my maid of honour!?!?!?” responded Sandy. “Oh, sorry, of course I want to; I just can’t believe you’re getting married! How long have you known the guy!?” The last time she talked to Sandy there was no hint of this. “Only a couple of months, but the two of us are absolutely sure we were meant for each other. I can’t wait for you to meet him.” “Me, neither,” said Joan.
Sandy began talking as soon as the door opened and breezed into the house without letting Joan get a word in edgewise. Wedding plans were coming along great, everything was totally in order. A swatch of cloth was brought out. “This is your dress colour,” Sandy told Joan, “perfect for your complexion! And here’s the pattern, you have to go for measurements the day after tomorrow.” “Aren’t you full of energy!” remarked Joan. “It’s the diet pills,” Sandy told her. “Who knew how perfect they would be to help prepare for the wedding? …and I have lost ten pounds already!”
More than ever, Sandy wanted to put her old life behind her, now that she had married the lawyer she met when she was going through the court case. It had been an horrific ordeal and she would never have made it through without him. Early on he had stopped to offer comfort when he came across her crying outside the courthouse. Their friendship grew so quickly, it was not long before they were engaged. And now she was not only his new wife, but as well, his office manager, thanks to the secretarial course from which she recently graduated.
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