Tag Archives: being a teenager sucked ass

Zits

26 Aug

It started the summer that I turned twelve. It started on my face, just a few red bumps across the bridge of my nose. I poked at them and they sort of hurt. At first I wondered if the bumps were a sort of rash or allergic reaction, but after a week or so I realized what they were. Zits.

I wasn’t too bothered by them in the beginning, really. In fact, I was sort of excited, because they were yet another sign that I was almost a teenager. On my cousin they’d looked strangely tough and grown up, and I hope that they would give me the same air of hardboiled adolescence. Mostly I just thought that they were normal, and that I would eventually grow out of them.

As the summer progressed, though, the bumps spread across my face, down my neck and over my back and chest. Huge patches of skin were angry and red; whiteheads started to appear, and I was mortified by the fact that I had to walk around with what seemed like enormous pus-filled lumps on my face.

I was even more mortified when my father pulled me aside and said that he’d noticed that I had blemishes and offered to send me to the doctor about them. In retrospect, I know that this was because he’d been teased as a teenager about his own pimply skin, but at the time I just wanted the floor to open up and swallow me whole, then maybe regurgitate me in ten years’ time as a gorgeous twenty-something with a flawless complexion.

Our family doctor referred me to a dermatologist, whose treatments were the closest thing to torture that I’ve ever experienced. I would lie on a table under a magnifying glass with an enormous, burning light on it, and he would peer through the glass at my face. He had a funny metal instrument with a tiny sharp hoop at one end, and he would use that to pop my pimples. The light hurt my eyes, but closing them and having every fresh flash of pain come as a surprise was somehow worse. If I looked like I might start crying, he would tell me harshly that if I cried I would fill the open sores with bacteria.  So I would lie there, blood and pus running down my faces and my head aching from the bright light, trying desperately not to cry.

Once the doctor was finished shredding my skin, he would pour iodine over my face. The burning seemed unbearable, except that I had to sit there and bear it. As I waited for the stinging to subside, the doctor, his voice oozing condescension, would say,

“There now. That wasn’t so bad, was it?”

Afterwards they would put goggles on me stick me in a sort of tanning booth, because ultraviolet light was supposed to cure acne.

I only went to a handful of these treatments – five, maybe ten at the outside. Eventually I just refused to go back. I figured that being a social pariah was less painful than having my face cut open and doused with what felt like acid on a bi-weekly basis.

Just to be clear, I really was a social pariah that year. And the year after. And the year after that, right up until the end of high school. Some of the cruelty was fairly subtle – innocent-seeming questions about how often I washed my face, or wonderings aloud about how much chocolate I must eat, with pointed glances at my waist-band. Most of the jokes about my skin were openly mean, and the kids who made them faced few consequences. One girl said that it was no wonder that no one wanted to kiss me, because what if one my zits popped in the mouth of the boy unlucky enough to be making out with me? A boy in my class said that I was lucky because I didn’t have to spend money on whiteout; if I ever made a mistake I could just pop one of my zits and use the pus to correct what I’d written. Both of these remarks were made in front of teachers; in both cases the teachers just laughed along with everyone else.

I tried everything – creams that made my skin even more greasy, gels that burned when applied them, pills that made me feel queasy and light-headed for hours after I took them. I tried caking foundation an inch thick onto my skin, because it was easier to be teased for wearing too much makeup than for being Medusa’s twin sister. I tried lying for hours in the sun, suffering sunburn after sunburn, because I thought that there really might be something to that ultraviolet light idea.

Mostly I just tried pretending that it wasn’t happening.

When little kids would ask me what was wrong with my face and if I was contagious, I would just smile like they’d said something incredibly adorable. When people at school said mean things, I would laugh harder than everyone just to prove that I could take a joke. When adults gave me unasked-for advice, I would pretend that this didn’t translate in my head to, you are the ugliest person in the world.

Because that was what I felt like: the ugliest person in the world. When boys were nice to me or complimented me or wanted to date me, I wondered what the catch was. Did they want me to do their English homework or introduce them to my cute friend? Would they go back to their friends and laugh  about me later? Was someone recording our conversation, like on candid camera?

It never occurred to me that anyone might ever want to touch me; I didn’t even want to touch me.

Sometimes I’m still surprised that people can hug me or kiss me or place their hand on my face without recoiling in horror. Because, as much as my skin has cleared since I was a teenager, it’s still what is politely referred to as acne-prone. I still get those angry red bumps; I still wear more makeup than I probably should. It’s like a bad joke – I used to think that my acne would disappear once I was a grownup, but now I just get zits on my wrinkles.

Fuck. Me.

I guess the point that I want to drive home here is that I really feel like my skin will never be good, and that is fucked up. Why do we have to refer to acne as “problem skin” or “bad skin”? My skin isn’t bad or a problem; it’s just my skin, and I’m fucking tired of being made to feel like I should be ashamed of it. I’m sick of the fact that the only time I ever see someone in the media with acne, they’re there to tell me how not to have acne.

I can turn on my television and see people from all different kinds of ethnic backgrounds. I can find television shows with characters from all the major religions; I can find shows with characters of several different sexual orientations. There are television shows with trans characters. There are television shows with disabled characters.

There are never any people on my television or in magazines or even in cute, independent, deliberately not-Hollwood movies who look like me, with angry red skin and patches of whiteheads and that greasy sheen that you get because the Exxon Valdez has crashed on your face your oil glands are working overtime. I just want to see one person who doesn’t have beautiful, flawless skin because at thirty one I’m so fucking tired of hating my body. I just want to feel normal.

I just want to stop flinching every time someone leans in to hug me. I don’t really feel like that’s a lot to ask.

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Fiction: Georgiana

17 Jun

*TRIGGER WARNING FOR SUGGESTION OF SEXUAL ASSAULT*

It’s important to find the perfect words.

Not everyone believes this, of course. People will often say that they don’t have the right words to explain or describe something, but in Georgiana’s experience, there is a perfect word for anything if only you’re willing to look hard enough for it.

Most people aren’t willing to make enough of an effort to find the perfect word. They’re happy to stick to the nouns, verbs and adjectives that they know, doing their best to to pinch and pull them into new shapes for new situations. This is, in Georgiana’s opinion, like trying to shove a square peg into a round hole – you might be able to do it, and you might even be able to convince yourself that it fits, but everyone else will still feel awkward and uncomfortable.

Right now, sitting at the kitchen table, she is testing out a new word. She does this by writing it out, letting her hand feel the truth of it as it guides the pen across the paper. First she prints COURTESAN in neat block letters across the top, then, after a moment’s consideration, she writes MY MOTHER IS A COURTESAN in elegant script half-way down the page. Georgiana’s handwriting is the best in her eighth-grade class. In fact, she won an award in a penmanship competition held at her school last year. Georgiana’s mother had snorted at this and said that it was ridiculous to give a prize for something no one cared about anymore, but Georgiana disagrees, and keeps the certificate they gave her in her second-best desk drawer. Penmanship, like baking bread or crocheting lace, is a skill that she has no immediate use for, but could very likely come in handy sometime in the unforeseeable future.

Georgiana slouches in her seat and stares at the paper, narrowing her eyes until her brow begins to furrow. My mother is a courtesan. Does it fit? Is it right? She tilts her head first to one side, then the other, then slowly lets her eyes drift out of focus. She’s feeling as though she’s getting quite close to something when the sound of her mother’s keys in the door interrupts her meditation. She quickly sits up and folds the paper neatly in half, then in half again before sliding it into the pocket of her skirt. A moment later, her mother, Peggy, appears in the kitchen and drops a quick kiss on the top of Georgiana’s head before heading over to refrigerator.

“Jesus Christ have I ever had a long day,” Peggy says to the carton of eggs on the second shelf. “I need about three drinks and then another drink on top of that. Honey, what do I want to drink? Do I want beer or wine?”

“I don’t know,” Georgiana answers, peevishly. “How should I know what you want? I’m not a mind-reader. You’re being stupid. You’re being stupid and you’re wasting energy by leaving the fridge open.”

“My thirteen-year-old daughter thinks I’m stupid. Quelle surprise. Next you’ll be insulting my taste in music.”

Georgiana twists a stray lock of hair around her finger as she watches her mother pour herself a glass of riesling.

“Mom,” she begins, keeping her voice carefully bored and distant. “Mom, what’s a courtesan?”

“Look it up. You know how to work a dictionary, and God knows that there are enough of them around here.”

“I tried, but I can’t find mine, and the door to your office is locked.”

This is patently untrue. Or rather, the lost dictionary is untrue, although Peggy’s office really is locked – it’s always best to add a little bit of truth into your lies, Georgiana has learned. It makes them that much more believable. With the right amount of fact and fiction, Georgiana knows that she can manipulate her mother into giving her some approximation of what the word means.

Not that she really wants a definition. What she wants is to see her mother’s reaction to the word.

Peggy sighs and rolls her eyes heavenward, as if deep in thought.

“Oh, I don’t know. I guess a courtesan is a woman who’s involved with a married man, and lives off the money and gifts he gives her. A sort of sex-worker, but not really in the way that we currently understand that term. She’s not exactly a prostitute, more like a professional mistress. I wouldn’t worry too much about it, though – it’s an old-fashioned word that no one really uses anymore.”

Like penmanship, Georgiana thinks, coolly maintaining her blank gaze as she watches her mother’s face. Is that a ripple of anxiety? Or embarrassment? It’s gone too soon for Georgiana to tell.

“Go change in to something nice,” says Peggy, ignoring her daughter’s stare. “We’re going to Eric’s for dinner,”

“But I’m already wearing a skirt,” Georgiana protests, conscious of the childish whine creeping into her voice.

“Well, I guess you’re going to have to put on a nicer skirt, then, aren’t you?”

And with that, her mother takes her drink into the living room and turns on the news, neatly ending the conversation before Georgiana can voice any other complaints. She sighs and begins to mount the stairs to her bedroom, dragging her feet as loudly and obnoxiously as possible.

Eric is her mother’s boss, and Georgiana is certain that the two of them are an item, as her grandmother would say. Although Eric has been a part of Georgiana’s life for nearly as long as she can remember, she has only recently become aware of his true feelings for her mother. After reviewing all of the evidence, though, Georgiana can’t believe she’s been so blind for so long.

First of all, there’s the fact that Georgiana and her mother should not be able to afford to live the way that they do. Take this house, for example – their neighbours all have high-powered, lucrative careers, and the street is dotted with doctors, lawyers and hedge fund managers. Peggy, meanwhile, is the arts editor for the small, left-wing magazine that Eric owns. Georgiana has heard Eric say more than once that the magazine will never be profitable. How, then, are they able to own this house? How is Peggy able to keep Georgiana adequately clothed and fed? How does the liquor cabinet manage to stay so well stocked?

Next, there are all the evenings that Peggy spends at Eric’s house, supposedly “working”. But why do they need to meet at night? They see each other at the office all day long.

Georgiana’s mother used to leave her with a babysitter on the evenings when she had to “work late”, but lately she’s been bringing her daughter along, forcing her to dress nicely and pick her way through so-called gourmet meals cooked by Eric himself. But where is Eric’s wife? She is always noticeably absent during Georgiana’s visits to his house. The official story is that Eric’s wife is frequently out of town, “on business”, a reply that is both vague and entirely unsatisfying.

And then there are the swanky vacations her mother takes, alone, if you believe what she says. At least once a year Georgiana is dumped at her grandmother’s apartment, left to navigate her way through a sea of porcelain figurines and doilies, while her mother flies off to Barcelona, Rio de Janeiro, Milan. Last year it was Paris. Paris! Who goes to the most romantic city in the world by themselves? It’s clear that, when thoughtfully examined, Georgiana’s mother’s stories are totally lacking in credibility.

There are other, smaller things, as well. There’s the way that her mother behaves during Eric’s late night phone calls, like a giddy schoolgirl who suddenly has the attention of the cutest boy in the class. There’s the mysterious jumble of soft, velvety jewellery boxes in her mother’s underwear drawer, a stash that has grown alarmingly over the past several years. Worst of all, there’s the way that Georgiana’s mother treats Eric’s thoughts and ideas as though they come from God himself. If Georgiana has to hear “Eric thinks…” or “Eric feels…” one more time, she might slit her wrists.

Up until today, Georgiana hadn’t exactly been entirely certain that something was going on between her mother and Eric. The problem was that she’d been missing the right word to describe their relationship. She’d tried out fuck-friend, but that was crass and uncouth and not befitting of two adults involved in an adult situation. She’d also given the term mistress a whirl, but it was too dowdy, too boring. The word courtesan, on the other hand, has a lovely sing-song rhythm that Georgiana can’t get out of her head. It sounds vaguely foreign, and yet is a perfectly respectable English word. It’s elegant, rich, sensual, and bordering on obsolete.

Exactly the term she’s been waiting for.

After pulling on a suitably nice dress, Georgiana stands in front of her mirror and braids her coarse, wavy brown hair. She stares at herself critically, then suddenly leans in towards her reflection and viciously whispers, your mother’s a whore and you’re a stupid, ugly bitch.

She stays suspended in this position, her mouth so close to the glass that her breath appears as a fog. The edge of the bureau digs uncomfortably into her stomach, but she doesn’t mind. It actually feels sort of good, in a strange way. She waits until the funny ache bisecting her abdomen becomes more than she can stand, then pushes herself back and turns to rummage around in her closet, pulling out a pair of well-worn ballet flats.

She steps into her shoes and then sits on the edge of her bed, her face as blank and impassive as a mask.

The drive to Eric’s house is short and silent. Georgiana slides as far down in her seat as possible, fiddling with her braid, clenching the end of it between her mouth and her nose to make a mustache. Her mother, who hates driving, stares grimly at the road, her hands clenched in a death grip around the wheel from the moment they leave the house until they pull into Eric’s driveway. Eric, as always, is waiting for them, ready to open the door before they can even ring the bell.

“Peggy, you look lovely,” Eric says, kissing Georgiana’s mother on the cheek as he takes her coat. “I can’t believe you’re the same person who was having a minor meltdown three hours ago.”

“Oh God,” Peggy laughs, “wasn’t that a nightmare? I need a drink. I mean, another drink.”

“And the young Georgiana, beautiful as always,” Eric continues as Georgiana shrugs her jacket into his waiting hands.

She watches him out of the corner of her eye, saying nothing, listening for the crackle of her secret paper, stealthily transferred from one pocket to another, as he hangs her jacket in the closet. The noise is wonderfully satisfying.

Dinner is paella, and Georgiana spends the first half of the meal picking out the vegetables and moving them to the edge of the plate. Once that’s done, she concentrates on the edible parts of the dish. She has her first forkful of beans, rice and meat halfway to her mouth when Eric says,

“So, Georgiana, what are you studying these days?”

Georgiana is hovering between answering his question and stuffing her mouth full of food when Peggy replies for her.

“Don’t bother asking her, she’ll just tell you she doesn’t remember. Gigi never remembers what she’s learned at school, it’s one of her charming trademarks.”

Georgiana drops her fork with a clatter and turns on her mother.

“Don’t call me that,” she spits out.

“What, Gigi? Don’t be silly, I’ve always called you that.”

Peggy rolls her eyes at Eric, a gesture so entirely dismissive that Georgiana feels her face and chest flush with rage. Part of her knows that she will later feel embarrassed by what she’s about to say, but right now all she can feel is the rush of it, the exhilarating sense of being swept up in her anger.

“It’s a stupid name. It’s the name for a dog. It’s so humiliating. No one calls me that but you.”

“What do your friends call you?” asks Eric.

It’s such an unexpected question that Georgiana is immediately disarmed. She looks between Eric and her mother, their faces both calm and inquiring, and feels herself deflate.

“George,” she says, neglecting to mention the fact that she doesn’t have any friends. “It’s nice and short and gets right to the point.”

“Ah, yes, but what is the point?” Eric wonders aloud.

Georgiana, unable to tell if he’s laughing at her, ducks her head and takes refuge in her dinner. After a few minutes the centre of her dish is clear, leaving only a ring of vegetables.

“May I take my dessert in the library?” she asks, pushing her plate away.

Eric looks at Peggy, who shrugs her assent.

“It’s the chocolate cake on the counter in the kitchen,” he calls out as she beats a hasty retreat.

Or rather, she beats what only appears to be a hasty retreat. After she’s taken several loud steps towards the kitchen, Georgiana does a quick pirouette on the hardwood floor of the hall and then creeps back towards the dining room. She lingers at the edge of the pool of light spilling from the doorway, her mouth hanging half open as she strains to listen.

God, I’m so sorry about that,” she hears her mother say. “She’s been so terrible lately. I’m trying so hard to just ignore her, because I know that at that age any attention is good attention, but Jesus Christ is it ever hard not to smack her sometimes.”

Eric murmurs something in response, but Georgiana can’t hear what it is.

She know that she should be upset over what her mother said, but instead she feels meanly glad. Good, she thinks, I’m glad she wants to smack me. I hope she does someday. I hope she does tomorrow.

Eavesdropping makes her hungry, and Georgiana feels entirely justified in cutting herself two enormous slices of cake. She carries her plate and a glass of milk down the dim hallway, towards the back of the house. The library, as Eric calls it, is really just a small-ish sitting room lined with bookshelves and furnished with two comfortably ancient armchairs, a couple of mismatched lamps and a sturdy but beat up old table. Most of the shelves are tall, reaching almost to the ceiling, but one of them is a squat, handsome case fronted by two neat little glass doors. This houses Eric’s collection of rare, first edition and out-of-print books, and Georgiana makes a beeline for it.

She spends an hour and a half with a 19th century medical encyclopedia, poring over woodcut drawings of syphilis infected genitalia and deformed fetuses. The pictures are fascinating and nauseating at the same time; looking at them makes Georgiana’s skin crawl, but she feels compelled to keep turning the pages. When she finally can’t take any more she closes the book and reverently places it back on the shelf. She feels strange, shivery and sweat-slicked, as though she’s just awoken from a bad dream. A thin, piercing headache is blooming right between her eyes.

She decides to go find her mother. Peggy and Eric will be upstairs, she knows, in the office, which is shinier and newer than the library. The office is probably where they do it. The thought makes Georgiana’s stomach turn over and causes her headache to spread until she can feel it pulsing through every vein, her scalp alive with tiny filaments of pain. The door to the office is closed, and Georgiana can hear her mother and Eric talking and laughing softly behind it. She is about to knock, about to tell her mother that she’s feeling sick and wants to go home, when suddenly she hears something. It’s her mother’s voice, contorted almost beyond recognition, groaning, sighing. Georgiana turns on her heel and runs to the bathroom.

She crouches over the toilet, sweat beading along her hairline. Her arms are shaking and her heart is pounding, sickness welling inside of her as she stares at the water. She wishes that her mother was there to hold her hair. She wishes that she’d never left the library, that she hadn’t been so rude at dinner, that she’d never started this whole stupid thing. Her breath comes in gasps, her stomach clenches hard and she gags, but nothing comes up. Her body, completely beyond her control, relaxes and then stiffens as she gags again and again. Tears begin to drip down her face, splashing into the toilet bowl beneath her.

Then, slowly, the nausea begins to recede, leaving her trembling and empty. When she feels steady enough, she pushes herself to her feet and runs cold water in the sink, splashing it on her face. Her head still aches, so she eases the elastic off the end of her braid and shakes her hair out until it frames her face like a mane. Between the cloud of her hair and her thin, pale face, the effect is distinctly pre-raphaelite, a wan Rosetti goddess, perhaps, or a despairing angel. She takes a step back and turns first one way, then the other. Her dress is made out of soft, stretchy fabric and she pulls it down over her shoulders, exposing both breasts. She lightly runs her hand across her nipples until they stand up like pencil erasers. Something begins to uncoil inside of her, like a vine, like a snake.

In her earlier haste to get into the bathroom she left the door ajar and now it begins to swing inward. Georgiana turns towards it, sort of almost accidentally forgetting to pull her dress back up. Eric is outlined in the doorway, bright against the dimness of the hall behind him. Georgiana gives him a look that she hopes is defiant, daring, her lashes lowered over what she thinks of as smouldering eyes. She expects him to be embarrassed, or even shocked at the sight of her breasts, but the expression on his face is frank, appraising. She shrinks back as he takes a step towards her, pulling her dress up over her chest. She is trembling again.

“I think I had too much cake,” she hears herself say, her voice childish and faltering. To her relief, he turns away.

She watches Eric leave the room, hears him call her mother. Peggy comes, lays a hand on her daughter’s forehead, then guides her out of the bathroom and down the stairs. Georgiana feels dreamily detached, like a spectator seated very far away from the action. She stands calmly as her mother rushes around, gathering her notebooks and folders together. She allows Peggy to help her into her coat and shoes while Eric hovers solicitously in the background.

At home, Peggy leads her daughter up to her bedroom and peels the dress off her feverish body.

“I’m sorry,” Georgiana says she burrows under her sheets, although she’s not sure what she’s apologizing for.

“My poor Gigi,” Peggy says, kissing the tip of her nose, “I forgive you, even if Eric and I were in the middle of something very important.”

Georgiana, her cheeks flushing pink and her mouth suddenly twisting into a snarl, uses the last of her strength to push herself up close to her mother’s face.

“I know what you do,” she spits, “I know what you and Eric do together. I know exactly what you are, and I think you’re revolting. You make me sick.”

A look of deep, frightened hurt spread’s across Peggy’s face, but is quickly replaced by a wintry smile.

“Go to sleep,” Peggy says calmly, “it’s late. Call me if you need anything.”

Georgiana sinks back, exhausted, feeling strangely empty now that’s she’s divulged her secret. Her mind is very still and quiet, the restless anger drained from it like pus from an abcess.

The next day, Peggy lets her daughter stay home from school, although she herself goes to work. Georgiana, for her part, enjoys her fever, the lightness and giddiness of it, and also the weakness. She spends the day in bed, eating grapes and reading comic books. The light outside is grey, soothing. She is safe, cocooned in her illness.

The day darkens into twilight, and her mother comes home. She brings a little tissue paper-wrapped package into her daughter’s room and lays it on her lap. Georgiana peels back the soft, thin layers slowly, revealing a small, lacquered wooden box. On the lid there is a young deer looking nervously over its shoulder, its eyes somehow both frightened and curious.

“It’s from Eric,” her mother says, perhaps a bit too casually, “he says that it reminded him of you. Don’t ask me why.”

Georgiana feels a small surge of triumph as she turns the box over in her hands. Triumph over what? She will have to untangle this later. For now, she contents herself with watching her mother’s face. Is that anxiety, creasing the edges around her mouth? Is that anger flashing somewhere deep in her eyes? Georgiana isn’t sure.

She settles back against her pillow and looks at the box, stroking her fingers along the deer’s back.

“Tell him thank you,” she says, finally. “Tell him that I know exactly what it means.”

Peggy gets up and leaves the room. Georgiana falls asleep, her flushed cheek pressed up against the cool painted wood. Outside her window, the streetlights come on and the world, for once, is very, very quiet.

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Roland Muller

7 Jun

You get two biological parents in this life. If you’re lucky, you get to have at least two people (though not necessarily the two people whose genes you share) conduct you through the first eighteen or so years of your time on this planet, using that time to help you create a map that will, hopefully, allow you to spend the rest of your days navigating this confusing world.

But it’s not just parents who participate in this amateur cartography, is it? I mean, they do the majority of the work, and maybe they do the toughest work, but they don’t get all the credit, do they? So many people contribute to helping any given child flesh out their map, adding towns, rivers, and signs that say “Here There Be Dragons.” Children chart the world with their parents, yes, but also with their aunts and uncles, their grandparents, their babysitters, their neighbours, the old Korean couple who own the convenience store on the corner, that nice crossing guard who can’t speak English, and most of all, and especially, their teachers. Their dozens of daycare teachers, primary and high school teachers, and even college professors, all those people who work tirelessly fill their heads with words, numbers, new thoughts and hopefully a little bit of common sense.

Not all of your teachers will be good ones – for some of them, the best that you can say is that you only had to spend one semester in their class. A great teacher, though? A great teacher is worth their weight in gold.

A great teacher will stick with you for the rest of your life.

Roland Muller was a great teacher, maybe even the best. I was in the last ninth grade English class that he taught before retiring, and I will forever be thankful for whatever stars aligned to place me there, in the second row of that dingy first floor classroom at Eastwood Collegiate Institute, during the first period of day two (we had a day one, day two schedule instead of being semestered).

Mr. Muller was old-fashioned. He was impatient with, sometimes even downright uninterested in, newer teaching methods. He taught us English grammar, even though it wasn’t on the curriculum. When we misbehaved, he had us write lines. In fact, I still have the lines that he made me write – fifty of them – because I talked too much. They read, “henceforth, I will not babble incessantly in class.” I don’t know why I kept them, except that I thought that it was sort of nice and funny that I’d had to write lines. Like a character in one of the English boarding school books that I loved so much.

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In spite of all of this, or maybe even partly because of it, we loved Mr. Muller. He was, hands down, the all-time favourite teacher of the majority of the students in his classes. And you know what? He loved us in return. I’ve rarely had a teacher who cared so damn much about his students. And I’m not sure that I’ve ever had a teacher who put in so much extracurricular time, both with academic issues and with any and everything to do with the Arts Package that he helped found in 1988.

And sure, sometimes his teaching methods were a little stuffy for some of us, but holy cats did that man ever love reading, writing and the arts. His classes fascinated and captivated us, and he found ways to make even the dullest subjects interesting. He was funny, too, sarcastic and snarky in the best way possible. And he was kind. And attentive. And interested in us, this scraggly pack of know-it-all fourteen year olds.

I was his pet that year. I don’t know why or how he took a liking to me, but he did, and I’m forever grateful for that fact. He was the first person who told me that I was going to be a writer, a thought that I found flattering but unlikely. When the school organized a special enrichment “Mystery Writing Tour” field trip for English students, he chose me to be one of only three ninth grade students invited along. When I was having a hard day, he always had a smile or a hug for me. During what was the first full school year after my father had left, he was kind of, sort of, maybe a little bit like a father to me, and I will always, always be grateful for that. I’m grateful for everything.

14-year-old me on the English enrichment "Mystery Writing Tour."

14-year-old me on the English enrichment “Mystery Writing Tour.”

I saw Mr. Muller just a little over a month ago at the 25th anniversary of the Arts Package. He didn’t recognize me right away (which led to me yelling, BUT MIS-TER MU-LLER, I WAS YOUR FAVOURITE STUDENT, I WAS YOUR PET), a fact that honestly isn’t surprising considering how many students he’d had over the years. It wasn’t long, though, before he’d figured out who I was. Once he realized that I was the girl he’d once spent a year referring to as Little Orphan Annie, I got this huge, irrepressible grin on my face. He grinned right back at me then turned to Matt and said, “See that smile? That smile is how she wrapped me around her little finger. How could I ever forget that?”

I only spoke to him briefly at the anniversary, partly because there were so many other former students who wanted to reconnect with him, and partly because I had some very important drinking and dancing to do. Although I hadn’t seen him in well over ten years, I figured that there would be other times, other places when we would be able to catch up or reminisce. I always think that I will have other chances; I never, ever think that anything is happening for the last time.

I wish I’d known that it was the last time.

Rest in peace, Mr. Muller. I know that I probably wasn’t an especially amazing kid to have in your class, and I’m sure that I don’t really stand out among all the other students you had, and I know that I talked waaaay too much. I’m not by any means your brightest or most successful or most talented former student. I wish that I had more to show for the year that I spent in your class, because that would give some kind of indication of how very much of an impact you had on my life. I guess the most that I can say is that now, sixteen years after I had you as a teacher, I’m finally coming around to what you knew all along: I’m a writer.

And if I’m at all a good writer, and if my words have any kind of impact in this world, a large part of that is because of you.

So thank you.

Roland Muller giving a speech at the Eastwood Arts Package Reunion, April 2013

Roland Muller giving a speech at the Eastwood Arts Package Reunion, April 2013

High School Redux

29 Apr

So a little while ago I blogged about how I absolutely, no-way, seriously was not going to my high school reunion.

I hated high school. Hated it. There was no fucking way that I was going to be talked into setting foot in that building again.

An old friend and I exchanged several emails coming up with long, detailed reasons for why we were going to miss the reunion.

Naturally, I ended up going.

A couple of notes about reunions:

1. If you blog about how you’re not going to your reunion, every one will spend all evening coming up to you and asking if you’re glad that you went after all. Not that I’m complaining about this – just mentioning, is all. You know, in case you were planning on emulating my life choices (note: I do not recommend this).

2. Everyone will tell you that you look exactly the same. This is meant as a compliment, although admittedly I didn’t initially take it as one. I mean, come on – the whole point of going to this reunion was to prove to people that I’m not the gross, ugly, greasy-skinned loser that I was in high school. But then I realized something – everyone is, in one way or another, an ugly loser in high school. I doubt that even the prettiest, most popular girls were immune from hating the way they looked. I also realized that, as hard as I was on myself back then, I didn’t look that bad.

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I mean, sad, angry and consumed with ennui, sure. Wearing an ill-fitting velour shirt, yes. But not exactly the horrific, Medusa-like creature I’ve been picturing all these years.

Anyway, in response to everyone who is absolutely dying to know whether or not I’m glad I went: Yes. I am.

That’s not to say that it wasn’t overwhelming, because it was. The first part of the reunion, which took place at the school itself, was especially tough. I feel like I spent a good chunk of the afternoon wearing my I’m-so-emotional-right-now-but-I’m-trying-hard-to-smile grimace, so if we ran into each other and I seemed flustered and weirdly toothy, that’s why. It was just a lot of people, and a lot of energy, and a lot of complicated feelings all at once, you know? And by “complicated” I mean “run the whole spectrum of emotions from great to achingly terrible.

The “great” moments include running into friends that I haven’t seen for years and years and spending hours starting every sentence with, “Hey, remember when?” For example: hey, remember when John Winter told the drama teacher on her last day at the school that she had a beautiful body and he wanted to make love to her? Remember how our mascot was Johnny Rebel, the Confederate soldier, and we had a Confederate flag hanging in our foyer, and NO ONE THOUGHT THIS WAS A PROBLEM UNTIL 1999? Remember every fucking crazy thing that Jason Baker ever did?

I was also super happy to be able to see a bunch of my old teachers, including my two favourite English teachers of all-time (one of whom occasionally reads this blog, YEAH, YOU KNOW WHO YOU ARE). Some of my old teachers barely remembered me (or else didn’t remember me at all but faked it pretty convincingly), but most of them seemed glad to see me. One of them, a music teacher, took me aside later in the night and said that she was really, really happy to see that I was in a good place with my life, and that was kind of gratifying because it meant that at least one of my teachers had noticed how miserable I was back then.

Another high point was finding this extremely adorable (if I do say so myself) picture of me from when I was fourteen:

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This was from a writing “mystery tour” that happened in my first year of high school. It was a small group of students, and I was one of only three ninth graders invited along. They took us to various exotic locations around Waterloo Region (including the West Montrose Kissing Bridge and the boiler room of our high school), and at one point a photographer from the local newspaper showed up and took a picture of me sitting on a giant pile of tires behind Paleshi Motors in Elmira. The whole idea was that we were supposed to be inspired to write amazing things by all the places that we visited, and maybe that worked out for some people, but not me. Every word I wrote that day was terrible, and even as I was writing them, I knew they were terrible.

But you know what? My English teacher thought that I was a good writer, and that’s how I ended up being asked along on the trip. And now I look back at this picture and I think, Whoa, someone actually thought that I was a writer, and look, there’s me writing like a real gosh-darn writer lady.

Plus I am just super adorable. LOOK AT HOW SERIOUS MY FACE IS.

The less-than-great moments were watching the “documentary” that someone had made about the Integrated Arts Package and hearing people talk about how the program had absolutely, definitely, for-sure been a wonderful, life-altering experience. Because I guess the fact is that I’m jealous of those people, jealous in a gross, green-eyed-monster kind of way. I wanted to have been able to say that I, too, had come out of high school feeling brave and confident and talented. I wanted to be able to go on record saying that the Eastwood arts program was the best thing that had ever happened to me in my whole stupid life, but it wasn’t. The fact was that I couldn’t get my shit together, and not a whole lot of people there really seemed super interested in helping me get my shit together, and that was that. And, I mean, I did get my shit together later, and I have a great life now, and everything worked out fine, etc. It’s just that I feel sad that I missed out on this apparently amazing time that everyone else was having.

Except that not everyone else was having an amazing time – you just don’t find out until afterwards that pretty much everyone else was, in some way, miserable, too.

At one point on Saturday, while we were still at the school, I texted a friend and referred to Eastwood as the “pit of despair.” And like, I was kind of joking? But also kind of not?

I mean, I guess maybe that’s the thing – maybe high school is supposed to be a pit of despair, you know? Maybe that’s what these reunions are really about – reconnecting with people who went through this terrible, hormone-fuelled hell at the same time that you did. Maybe reunions are supposed to help you realize that everyone was so wrapped up in their own self-loathing that they had no time or energy to notice how much of a loser you were. Maybe you were fine all along and you just didn’t know it. Maybe.

Your high school classmates are like people that you lived with through a war, or a natural disaster, or some other awful event. You might not have a whole lot in common, and maybe they wouldn’t be the people that you’d pick as your friends if you were given a choice, but they understand something about you that not many other people do. Just the fact that you were able to push through and survive and make it out the other side with all of your faculties intact somehow binds you together, even if nothing else does.

I guess that one of the main things that I took away from the reunion was a realization that so many of these people would have been willing to be my friends, if only I’d let them. At the time I didn’t think that I was building walls and pushing people away from me, but of course I actually was. And I’m not saying oh God imagine what could have been, but still. I keep thinking about the part in A Tree Grows In Brooklyn, when Francie graduates from the eighth grade and discovers to her astonishment that all of her classmates, none of whom were her friends, suddenly want to write in her yearbook and know what her summer plans are and where she’ll be going to high school:

“They’re nice,” Francie thought. “I could have been friends with them all the time. I thought they didn’t want to be friends. It must have been me that was wrong.”

I mean, I guess that’s the thing about walls, emotional or otherwise – they make excellent defences, but they can be isolating, too. If you’re smart enough, you’ll let the good people in and keep the bad ones out, but Jesus, who’s that smart? Especially when they’re fifteen?

I guess what I really want to say is this: high school. It fucking sucked, and maybe it didn’t have to. But it did, and that suckiness got me to where I am now.  And my life now is pretty sweet, so there’s not much point in regretting any of it, or feeling bitter about it. I mean, okay, maybe I still regret some stuff, but on the whole I’m a lot more at peace with everything. And that’s pretty cool.

My only disappointment with the reunion was that they didn’t play this song:

Because you know what? I would have fucking nailed it.

Nostalgia Machine: On Re-Watching Girl, Interrupted

1 Apr

Those of you who are fairly new to my blog may not know this, but on days when I’m not busy kicking the patriarchy square in the nuts or deconstructing inaccurate Facebook memes, I like to indulge in a little bit of nostalgia. Well, maybe a lot of nostalgia. Then I tweet extensively about my my indulgences, and sometimes end up writing about them here.

Which is all to say that I re-watched Girl, Interrupted the other night and now I want to talk about it.

I saw Girl, Interrupted in theatres, when it first came out, and it gave me a lot of Feelings. Actually, it gave me one main Feeling, namely that I basically was Winona Ryder’s character, if slightly less gamine and winsome. I mean, I was a depressed teenager who had a) frequently contemplated suicide, b) felt lonely and isolated, and c) wrote obsessively in serious-looking leather-bound journals. Of course I identified with the film version of Susanna Kaysen.

Every single scene, every thought, word, and action in that movie struck me as being perfectly, achingly true. Every time Winona Ryder looked at the camera with her wide, tearful eyes, every time her mouth trembled with emotion, every time she stared sadly off into the middle distance, I thought, yes. Yes, I get this.

Then, a few years ago, I bought Girl, Interrupted on DVD, fuelled by memories of how important it had been to me. But after watching it for less than an hour I had to turn it off. It was awful, unbearable even. The performances were overwrought, the dialogue ridiculously, almost comically, dramatic. I was embarrassed that I’d ever even liked this movie, let alone identified with the main character. I put the DVD back in its case, stuck it on the shelf and didn’t touch it again.

Or rather, I didn’t touch it until earlier this week, when Catherine, my sister and frequent accomplice in nostalgic endeavours, suggested that we watch it. Sure, I said, figuring that I could hate-watch it and then later make fun of it. Maybe we could even invent a drinking game, like, take a shot every time Susanna cries over how hard it is to be a white, middle-class American. Hilarious, right? I mean, right?

Except that on re-watching Girl, Interrupted, I discovered that it had, in the last five years, somehow gone past bad and straight back to good again.

At its core, this film isn’t really about mental health, or suicide, or Susannah Kaysen’s stay at the famed McLean Hospital. I mean, of course it is about all of those things, at least peripherally, but at its heart it’s about friendship. Specifically, it’s about a sort of intense, parasitic friendship that seems to exist only between young women, those deceptively bright, canny girls just on the cusp of entering the adult world.

And maybe this isn’t the type of friendship that every girl experiences. Maybe this is just me, projecting my own pathetic history onto the blank canvas of Winona’s smooth, perfect face. Maybe I’m the only one who sees this when I watch this movie. But I know that this is a type of friendship that I’ve engaged in not just once but over and over, and maybe I still do, to this day. It’s possible that it’s a pattern that will play out for the rest of my life, or at least until I grow up and finally get some sense knocked into me.

Can you believe that I’m thirty and still talking about growing up in the future tense?

The dynamics of this specific type of friendship are as follows: half of the friendship, let’s call her Girl One, is a strong, loud, brash character who doesn’t give a shit about what anyone thinks, says whatever’s on her mind and gives very little thought to the consequences of her actions. The other half is someone, call her Girl Two, who is almost the photographic negative of the first – quiet, reserved, terrified of how other people see her.

Think Peppermint Patty and Marcie from Peanuts, except amplified, grotesquely exaggerated.

When I say that this friendship is parasitic, maybe what I really mean is that it’s symbiotic. As a lifelong Girl Two, I’ve always thought that I needed Girl One more than she needed me, but I wonder, now, whether that’s true or now. Maybe we’ve needed each other in equal amounts. I’ve needed someone to act out all of the things that I would never, or could never, dare to do, someone whose own loud voice might give me permission to raise mine, someone who would never sugarcoat whatever they wanted to tell me. But perhaps my friends, in turn, needed someone to occasionally hold them back, someone to steady them, someone who would listen to them and not pass judgment.

The truth is that I don’t know why or how much these other girls loved or needed me, but I do know that I loved and needed them with an intensity that sometimes bordered on obsessive. Because these girls, these loud, strident girls, had both a popularity and notoriety (not that my teenage self could differentiate between the two) that I could only dream of. People either fiercely loved or passionately hated these girls; as for me, they didn’t even bother to notice that I existed.

But these girls noticed that I existed.

And the fact is that as much as I like to think that I’m the type to stand up for what I believe in, the type to shout down the misogynists, the racists, the homophobes, the transphobes, I still sometimes need someone to give me a push. I need someone to raise their voice first, show me how it’s done, teach me not to be afraid. Because for whatever reason, these gifts don’t exist inside of me, or if they do, they lie perpetually dormant, and need to be awakened again and again and again.

On my own, I am not good at challenging authority. Not really. I need other people, people like Angelina Jolie’s character Lisa, to egg me on. And, much like Winona Ryder’s Susanna, I’m not always good at figuring out when the Lisas in my life have gone too far. I put too much trust in them, and then end up places, sometimes frightening places, that I never intended to be. I let myself be blinded by love, or at least by longing and envy, and don’t notice that some of these Lisas are downright bad news. Or rather, I don’t notice until it’s too late.

So yeah, maybe at thirty years old I do still get Susanna. Maybe there are more layers to the similarities between us than I’d originally thought.

And all that absurd dialogue and overwrought acting? This time around, they seem to me to be a painfully realistic portrayal of how teenagers actually behave. When you’re in your teens, everything that you feel is so intense, so immediate, so overwhelming that you can speak only in terrible, laughable clichés. My mother has always said that teenagers are like toddlers with better language skills, and now, watching my son struggle to express frighteningly huge emotions with his sadly inadequate vocabulary, I’ve realized how right she is.

I’ve realized that when I watched Girl, Interrupted a few years ago, what embarrassed me the most was the idea that at one time I might have spoken or acted in any way that resembled Susanna. Surely, even as a teenager, I’d been too smart, too articulate to ever behave so pretentiously. But the truth is that I was ridiculously, probably amusingly, pretentious. I just didn’t recognize this trait because all of my peers were just as overwrought and dramatic as I was.

All of this is to say that I’m now back at a place in my life where I can like, maybe even love, this movie, if only because it seems like a neatly preserved time capsule of how I thought and felt half a lifetime ago. I remember what it was like to be where Susanna was. To suddenly find yourself at the end of high school faced with choices, choices, choices, and yet not to see any of them leading anywhere. When I was a teenager, I lived in terror of being “normal,” because I worried that choosing a normal path and ending up with a normal life would make me just as grey and miserable as all of the adults that surrounded me. There would come a time, of course, when having a normal life and a nuclear family and a nine-to-five job would seem wonderfully, almost exotically appealing to me, but that came much later. When I was in high school, I didn’t understand that opting out had its costs, some of which, it turned out, I wasn’t willing to pay.

And sometimes I miss my teenage self, because even if she lacked her own voice, she still somehow managed to be totally steadfast and uncompromising in her beliefs, even if those beliefs made her feel miserable and isolated. But mostly I’m just glad that I’ve learned how to trade off one thing for another, to give a piece of myself away in order to be able to keep a different part that is more necessary, more valuable. I’m grateful to the Lisas in my life who have taught me when to stand up mouth off and, somewhat by extension, when to sit down and shut up. I’m thankful for every time I’ve had to learn the lesson that it’s important not to trust the Lisas out there too implicitly, and that I need to learn how to think for myself. It’s a hard lesson, and one that it feels like I’ve had to learn often, but it’s a good one.

Mostly, though, I’m glad that I’ve found my way to where I am.

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My Uncle Eric

26 Mar

When I was a kid I had this uncle, Uncle Eric.

Maybe you’ve heard of him? His name was Eric Donkin, and for a while (quite a while, actually) he was kind of a Big Deal in Canadian theatre.

Here is a picture of Uncle Eric as Julius Caesar:

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Pretty badass, no?

He wasn’t really my uncle. He was actually one of those family friends your parents force you to call auntie or uncle or cousin. His father had died over in England when he was a baby, and he and his mother had emigrated to Montreal when he was only 11 months old. His mother, who I called Nana Donkin, had met my grandparents not long after arriving in Canada and soon became their close friend. She used to babysit my mother and her siblings, and Eric had been like a (significantly) older brother to them.

Anyway, Uncle Eric was very well-established as an actor by the time I met him – he was already in his mid-50s when I was born and living in Stratford with mother and his friend John. Or rather, Nana Donkin lived in one large, gorgeous Victorian house in the middle of town, and Eric and John lived in another right next door.

My mother referred to John as Eric’s partner, and Nana Donkin called John his chum. My grandparents simply referred to John as Eric’s friend. None of the adults I knew ever spoke aloud what must have been obvious to everyone: that John was Eric’s lover, and, had gay marriage been legal back then, he likely would have been his husband.

As a kid, you don’t question language or titles a whole lot, I guess. So when my mother told me that John was Eric’s partner, I thought she meant business partner. I figured that they lived together because they had a lot of businessy stuff to do, and probably they were both bachelor-types who liked having the company of a roommate and friend.

As I grew older, I didn’t think to question John and Eric’s relationship. They were never demonstrative, never open about their love for each other; probably because both had grown up in a time when that just wasn’t done. Even when I was old enough to know what being gay or queer meant, and old enough to know that you couldn’t legally marry someone of your own sex, and certainly old enough to know that gay people often referred to their significant others as their partners, I still didn’t put two and two together.

It wasn’t until I was fifteen and attending Uncle Eric’s funeral that I realized that he was gay.

I was (and still am) a theatre nerd who, at the time, had dreams of someday sweeping across a Stratford stage in a period gown, loudly and beautifully enunciating my way through one of Shakespeare’s more famous monologues. So I was understandably a little overwhelmed by the fact that I was sitting in a private family-only box at the Festival Theatre listening to Richard Monette and Martha Henry eulogize my uncle. As I sat there entranced, drinking in every theatrically-spoken word, I had a lightbulb moment.

Someone, I can’t remember who, was reminiscing about performing with Uncle Eric at Montreal’s Centaur Theatre. She told a story about how one night, after whatever show it was that they were doing, all of the chorus girls ran into Eric’s dressing room and covered him in bright red stage-make-up-y kisses. Eric had just laughed and said, “I think I’m playing for the wrong team.”

There was, like, a record scratch sound that went off in my head.

Whoa. Hold up. What team were we talking about? What was she saying?

I leaned over and whispered to my mother, “Mom? Was Uncle Eric gay?”

“Shhh. Not now, Annie,” she said, distracted.

“No, but really,” I said, my voice entering “inappropriately loud” territory. “Was he gay? Why didn’t you tell me?”

“Annie,” my mother hissed. “We’re in the middle of a memorial service. We will talk about this later.”

How had I gone my entire life not knowing that John and Eric were in love? Why hadn’t anyone every told me?

It seriously still blows my mind by the time Eric died in 1998, we, as a family, still couldn’t talk about the fact that he was gay. And it’s not like my parents were in any way conservative or homophobic – they were usually very open and liberal about everything. We’d already discussed the fact that being gay was normal, that it was just fine and dandy to love or date or co-habitate with someone of your own sex. I had gay friends at school; my father had taken me to my first pride parade when I was 14.

Every single one of us said that it was okay to be gay, but we never talked about the fact that Uncle Eric was in love with a man.

Later, after eating miniature sandwiches at John and Eric’s home, after letting John show me the pond in their backyard that Eric had built and proudly stocked with goldfish, after I’d hiding myself in a corner with Eric’s copy of The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy in an attempt to avoid having to talk to family, I grilled my mother about Eric. At fifteen, I was loud and somewhat abrasive, and I think I might have accused her of being a complacent middle-aged homophobe. For some reason, maybe as a way of transferring my grief and surprise at Eric’s death (he’d died suddenly of a heart attack during a rehearsal for Much Ado About Nothing), I was strangely upset about the fact that she’d never told me that Eric was gay.

“I don’t really know why, Annie,” she said. “I guess we were afraid of Nana Donkin knowing, and I thought if I said the word gay to you, you would repeat it in front of her.”

“She must have known, though. How could she not have known?”

“Well,” said my mother, not looking at me, “I think that it’s possible to stop yourself from knowing something if you really don’t want to know it. You have to remember that she grew up in a different time, and this wasn’t something that was acceptable back then.”

I’ve been thinking about Uncle Eric a lot today, what with the hearing regarding Proposition 8, which would ban gay marriage in California, that are happening at the US Supreme Court right now. I’ve been wondering how different things would have been if John and Eric had been allowed to marry. Surely, then, we would have had to talk about it. Surely we wouldn’t have been able to tiptoe around the issue the way we did.

Surely one of the number of articles and obituaries that I’ve read about him today would have mentioned John, his partner of dozens of years, if they’d been married.

There are people, nice people, who want to convince you that it’s possible for LGBTQ folks to have equality without necessarily having marriage equality. They want to ban gay marriage not because they’re homophobic, but because it goes against The Bible (which is obviously what should be informing American laws, because who needs separation of church and state?) and is somehow Morally Wrong. They’re totally fine with people being out of the closet, and starring in sitcoms and getting up to hilarious gay shenanigans, so long as they can’t get married.

And I think it’s great that so many people who, a generation ago, would have publically been against gay anything are now only against gay marriage. I do, actually, think that that’s a big step forward. But I believe that it’s wrong to say that the LGBTQ community is fully equal in a society that affords one, huge, particular right to straight people only.

And you know what? Remembering Uncle Eric has reminded how easy it is for straight allies to stay silent when their voices are needed the most. All of us, my whole family, could’ve spoken out against the casual, insidious homophobia that John and Eric faced. But we didn’t, and it’s hard for me to figure out the how and why of that.

Fifteen years later, I can’t help but be upset and embarrassed by the ways we let Uncle Eric down. I can’t help but re-examine my life to try to figure out the ways I’m letting down other oppressed groups that I call myself an ally of. I suspect that there might be more ways than I can think of.

For now, please enjoy this clip of Uncle Eric in The Mikado:

Three Memories

17 Mar

1. It’s a grey, dreary Saturday afternoon in early August, 1997. I’m at my friend Liz’s apartment; she’s throwing me a party for my fifteenth birthday. It’s not a big party – more of a get-together, really, with a handful of friends sitting around on Liz’s living room floor. Somebody has brought the obligatory cake, and there are gifts, too, but those are beside the point.

My real birthday present is that Liz has somehow convinced her mother to rent Trainspotting for us. Not only that, but her mother has actually left us alone to watch it.

I have been dying to see this movie ever since it came out the year before. I own the soundtrack (well, I own a taped copy of the soundtrack that my friend made for me). I have postcards showing scenes from the movie stuck on my wall. I’ve cut out every interview with Ewan MacGregor that I can find and pinned them to my bulletin board. My friend Emily somehow saw Trainspotting in theatres (in spite of the fact that she was too young for its R rating), and I’ve made her give me a play-by-play of all of its scenes.

I am so fucking ready for this.

I sit there and watch the fuck out of that movie, my fingers dug deep into the grey pile of the living room carpet. I drink in everything, even, maybe especially, the things that I don’t understand. I don’t flinch away from the achingly awful, sometimes sickening parts that I later won’t be able to watch as an adult. I watch this movie like I’ll be writing a final exam in which 100% of my grade is based on a essay regarding Mark Renton and his life choices.

I am fifteen. I am a virgin. I’ve never even smoked a cigarette, never mind fucking around with heroin. I don’t cut class. I don’t break my curfew. I try so hard to be good.

But in my whole life I have never had something speak to me the way Mark Renton’s opening monologue does:

Choose Life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family. Choose a fucking big television, choose washing machines, cars, compact disc players and electrical tin openers. Choose good health, low cholesterol, and dental insurance. Choose fixed interest mortgage repayments. Choose a starter home. Choose your friends. Choose leisurewear and matching luggage. Choose a three-piece suit on hire purchase in a range of fucking fabrics. Choose DIY and wondering who the fuck you are on Sunday morning. Choose sitting on that couch watching mind-numbing, spirit-crushing game shows, stuffing fucking junk food into your mouth. Choose rotting away at the end of it all, pissing your last in a miserable home, nothing more than an embarrassment to the selfish, fucked up brats you spawned to replace yourselves. Choose your future. Choose life… But why would I want to do a thing like that? I chose not to choose life. I chose somethin’ else. And the reasons? There are no reasons.

Because already I know that I’m not going to choose any of those things. I don’t know what I want in life, but the list of things that I don’t want is long and involved. I’m fifteen, so compromise doesn’t yet exist.

I am going to take the fucking world by storm, and I am not going betray any of my values along the way.

2. It’s a bright spring day in 2003. I have recently sort of, maybe started dating my friend. We have been on one, maybe two dates, but we haven’t kissed yet. He comes over to my house and we watch my favourite movie, The Red Violin. I lean against him and put my head first on his shoulder, then on his lap. I am so tentative, so nervous.

I am so in love with him.

Afterwards, he walks me back to the Dalhousie campus. I have to go work at the school call centre, where we try to convince alumni to donate money to the university. We end up wandering over to the stairs leading up to the Grad House (a misnomer of a pub where undergrad students are totally welcome) and I stand on the second step, so that I’m the same height as him.

Suddenly, he leans in and kisses me, then grabs me and spins me around until we’re both dizzy and giggling.

“Well, that makes things less awkward,” he says.

I bury my face in the front of his coat. I can’t stop smiling. In that moment, everything is sharply, painfully perfect. It doesn’t matter that in a little over two months’ time we will end up lost in a blind alley of shortcoming and fears and hurt feelings. It doesn’t matter that our friendship will end, not even with a bang, but slowly, painfully, spluttering and gasping to its death over the course of the next two years. It doesn’t matter that he will break my heart, not just once, but over and over.

It doesn’t matter, because even if someone had told me all of the awful things that were to come, I still wouldn’t have traded that one wonderful moment for a calmer, happier, but ultimately emptier world.

3. It’s a hot, sunny summer day in 2004. I am wearing a brown tank top and a skirt that my aunt bought me for my birthday. The skirt, which hits just below the knee, is cream with a brick-red pattern of swirls on it; it’s made of jersey cotton, which means that it moves with and clings to my body in the best way possible. The waistband is a thick elastic, in the same brick-red colour, and it dips down into a v in the front. I love the cut of this waistband an unreasonable amount.

I am walking next to Citadel Hill in Halifax. I have my discman in my purse, and I’m listening to my roommate’s copy of Hawksley Workman’s (Last Night We Were) The Delicious Wolves. Specifically, I am listening to Striptease. The sun is hot on my face and shoulders. My hair hangs long, dusty, tangled down my back. I am swaying my hips, wiggling my shoulders.

For the first time in a long time I feel perfectly at home in my body. I feel sexy, in a dirty, earthy way. I feel like someone who might be desirable.

I look down and notice that my skirt has slipped enough to show off the top of my black thong. I barely pause for long enough to hike my skirt back up, and then I keep going.

renton_tracks