The compensation of growing old…was simply this; that the passions remain as strong as ever, but one has gained-at last!-the power of taking hold of experience, of turning it round, slowly, in the light.
I saw my first naked lady when I was seven. The Joannes, three of them, were walking ahead and found her first, a centerfold from a nudie magazine planted on the snowbank. I had fallen behind because I’d lost a pink mitten. It had been attached to a string threaded through the arms of my winter coat. Usually, I let the mittens flop under my wrists and wave as I walked. In my earlier tussle to become queen of the snowbank, my mitten had fallen victim and was lost somewhere. It had to be found, but none of the Joannes were willing to retrace their steps. I backtracked and found the fleshy yarn limp and soggy, lying solitary on a blackened snow boulder. I shoved it into the front pocket of my snow pants and trekked back to the girls.
The Joannes, three girls whose different sizes matched their personalities, were shouting and pointing at the ground as I slipped and skidded up the street. In puffy snow pants and special rubber boots with no grip, my pace was slow.
The boots were red, with a thin line of white covering the toe and a fringe of fake fur at the neck. My fingers would ache when I tried to close the large brass buckle on the side. My mother bought these horrid boots for three dollars and fifty-nine cents at Beams Department Store. I wanted thick-soled moon boots with rainbows on them. They cost too much and could only be purchased at a quality shoe store. Beams Department Store reeked of chemicals and plastic. Everything was made in Japan.
I remember the price of my hideous red boots because I had to count out the money to the cashier, and it was all in coins. My mother did regular sweeps of my father’s jackets and collected the coins to purchase items outside the budget. Money was tight. Mother was tighter. She saved the pennies, but I had to count them out. If I made an error, my mother made me start over. An elderly gentleman with long nose hair clicked his tongue at me as I held up the line. I got the correct amount the fourth time.
Mother believed the red boots were practical. No need to change into shoes when a rubber shell could encase them. But the galoshes had no grip and the snow would slide down the gaping top.
So, I slipped and skidded and fell on my knees, trying to get to the Joannes.
They hollered in unison, their voices carrying on the approaching cold front. I harrumphed up the street, passing Kim Park’s house. Her grandma was sitting in the window like a cat. I waved. She didn’t.
Kim rarely came out to play and had only once had a friend over—me.
After a morning of learning “Oh Canada” in French, and sending prayers to the Queen and the Lord, I drew a funny cartoon and sent the note to Kim, and she responded. Mrs. Robinson shrieked when she caught us. She made us write out, one hundred times, on foolscap paper, “I will not waste paper.” Kim taught me how to complete the task quickly. After we handed in our lines, Mrs. Robinson sent us to the office to pick up dittoed copies of a class assignment. She was lazy and cruel.
Going to the office meant three things, and none were pleasant. The secretary knew we had done something wrong in class and would make us sit on the bench and stew. The principal would open his door and give us a loud, unfriendly chat. And kids would make fun of us at recess, and possibly for life.
We survived the office and enjoyed sniffing the purple-inked copies as we walked back to class. That’s when Kim invited me to her house. She decided it was a day for getting into trouble. I didn’t understand her comment until later.
In those days, I would call my mother once I was at a friend’s house. A time would be set, usually to return home before dark. I never got to call my mother the day I went to Kim’s. When we entered her home, her grandma greeted me by pointing to the living room; she turned and shouted at Kim. I gathered I wasn’t welcome, but I couldn’t leave. Grandma attacked Kim and ripped at her blouse, revealing Kim’s creamy, caramel shoulder. I looked away, but wished I could linger, taking in her rounded shoulder blade. Grandma beat Kim with a stick, right in front of me. Kim never cried out. After she dressed, she apologized with watery eyes. This was how she lived, she explained. Her punishments were written on her skin. How I wanted to kiss her, and tried when Grandma shuffled away. She agreed, with the caveat, “Not on the lips.” I never went to her house again, but Kim remained my best friend at school. Sitting together meant we knew how to keep secrets.
But on that snowy morning, when I eventually slip-ran into the huddle of Joannes, who were staring at the snowbank. I came up beside Joanne Smith (the average), a girl with brown hair and brown eyes and unexceptional in every way. Joanne Smith pointed. I gawked and gasped and went beet red. On the ground lay a naked lady with large breasts, saucer-sized pink nipples, and a deep belly button that looked like mine. She was wearing white cotton panties with a happy face just above her crotch. On the top of her head sat a stack of platinum blonde. Below the hair was a pink face with large, watery, black eyes. Those eyes might have had eyeshadow, but the magazine paper was beginning to degrade.
“She’s an angel,” I said without thinking.
“Nah, she’s a model,” said Joanne Cyslop, taking off her mitten.
Joanne Cyslop (the giant), a red-headed girl with a dead father, was going to pick up the glossy paper, but Joanne Maythou (the squirrel) screeched, “Don’t touch it! It’s a sin!”
We kneeled around the fallen woman and tried to figure out how she’d gotten in the snow. Joanne-the-giant said, “She probably fell from a hobo’s jacket.”
“Nonsense,” said the squirrel. “This is an act of God. It’s a warning.”
“I think a kid dropped it on purpose,” said Joanne-the-average, pointing to the edge of the page. “It’s been ripped from a magazine.”
As we came up with possibilities, Bubba Dawson and Duncan McDonald, two boys from our class, came around the corner. The inseparable boys sauntered over like Winnie-the-Pooh and Piglet, but any other resemblance to the characters stopped there. Duncan was a bully looking for trouble. He demanded to know what we were doing. Joanne-the-squirrel, her back to the boy, held up her arms to obscure the view and announced that there was an ungodly woman on the ground. She told the boys to run and save their souls. The bait was laid unintentionally. Duncan pounced on the squirrel and shoved her face into the snow. Bubba squealed and jeered until Joanne-the-giant punched him in the chest. Bubba was flattened.
While the kids rumbled, Joanne-the-average and I decided to rescue the lady. I was the blocker, preventing the violence from nearing, while Joanne slid her hand under the sheet. I remember the woman’s belly undulating and one breast shearing away. Saving the lady failed.
Joanne-the-giant grabbed the remaining soggy bit of flesh and smushed it into Duncan-the-Pooh’s face, knocking him to the ground. Bubba Dawson, winded but recovering, sat up and shouted, “Rabbit!” We all piled on top of Duncan McDonald as hard as we could. Bubba made sure he was on the top. The scream from the bottom was murderous. We knew we were in for it and took off.
The Joannes and I jumped onto the plowed street and ran. Joanne Maythou’s house, squirrelly like the girl, was only a block away. We ran and slipped to a small, wood-framed, green bungalow with two separate front doors, side by side, screened for summer weather. We always wondered why there were two doors. The squirrel had no answer except to say that they used them both.
We divided and entered the home altogether. Duncan and Bubba arrived shortly after and pelted the front with snowballs. They might have continued had Mr. Maythou not been home. He was a little man with a puffy face. Joanne said her dad had kidney problems and was off work. I thought that meant he sat on the toilet all day. Later, I learned that his condition had stunted his growth and shortened his life.
When the boys threw ice balls, Mr. Maythou’s face went from ruddy red to purple. He grabbed his hockey stick and charged out the door in his stocking feet. He looked like a mad Canadian leprechaun. We watched the boys take off towards McKellar Park.
We couldn’t stay at Joanne-the-squirrel’s house. Her dad returned with wet feet and a snarl, and booted us out using only expletives.
We lay on the front lawn in the snow. We didn’t make snow angels or snow fairies or forts. We just lay cold and wet. I remember this moment because of two things. I was thinking about the naked lady, and I realized I had never even seen my mother naked. The closest I got to seeing my mother’s skin was as a cameo in a threadbare nightie. The second thing I remember was a warm wetness between my legs. I blamed it on the mitten in my front pocket.
It was Joanne-the-giant who introduced me to a new term. She said, “That magazine lady sure looked fine in her birthday suit.”
I didn’t get it. Then it was explained, and I felt stupid. Of course, we’re all born naked.
The Joannes stood up and decided to head up Keenan Street towards our school. We had to avoid Duncan. We thought about going to the corner store for a visit with Mr. Picarelli. Joanne-the-squirrel refused, saying her father wouldn’t let her buy candy from a divorcé. The issue was moot. We didn’t have any money.
We proceeded to the school and found three more naked ladies lying in the snow. Two blondes and a brunette. All had curly hair. I remember thinking I wasn’t pretty because I had straight hair. I carried this thought through most of my life.
I scooped up the naked ladies, while the others decided what to do with them. Joanne-the-average suggested we throw them in the garbage. Joanne-the-squirrel disagreed. She said we should burn them like witches. I was devastated, but couldn’t speak. The Joannes agreed it was a brilliant idea, and came up with a plan that meant going to my house.
I could get matches, as both my parents were smokers. Joanne-the-squirrel said she’d make a stake, and Joanne-the-giant would dig out the snow from behind a bush at the back of my house.
I entered my house through the kitchen door. My mother was leaning on the stove, a cigarette in one hand and a Black Tower pamphlet in the other. Mother changed religions as often as we moved. She had rosary beads in her drawer. For a while, she took us to an Anglican Sunday school. Then she joined the Jehovah’s Witnesses because the prayer groups came right to the house. Mother gave us mini Bibles for Christmas. Dad burned them in the fireplace. Matches were easy to find in the house.
“Going to the washroom. Can I leave my boots on?” I asked.
Mother didn’t turn her head, just waved her cigarette at me. I ran down the hallway. My sister opened her bedroom door and the tinny sound of “American Woman” warbled out from her Longines Symphonette Slumber-Matic radio sitting beside the bed.
I stopped in my tracks.
My sister was wearing a polka-dot poncho and bell-bottom jeans. She had streaks of white icing in her hair. Later I learned she was applying a frosting. Dying her hair turned into a disaster. The bleaching agent ate through her hair.
“Freak!” my sister yelled as she ran across the hall to the washroom and slammed the door.
“Leave your sister alone!” my mother shouted.
I replied, as every falsely accused child does, “I didn’t touch her!”
I swished and squeaked across the hardwood floors into the living room, grabbed a box of matches, and exited via the front door.
In the back, the Joannes were sitting around a stake with naked ladies affixed to it. Joanne-the-squirrel said she should have the honor of lighting it. We agreed.
The first wooden match snapped. The second had the head scraped off. On and on it went. The squirrel wouldn’t let anyone else try. We made suggestions.
“Shut up!” she yelled.
We kept making suggestions.
Joanne-the-average told the squirrel to take off her jacket and get her arms free. Joanne-the-giant said, “Rub the match firmly but gently over the sandpaper.”
The squirrel listened. The match was struck and burned bright. She held it up high for all to see—and burnt her fingers.
What I remember is the jacket igniting. The Joannes backed off and screamed. I raised my red rubber boot and stomped on the nylon. The singed material stuck to the bottom of my boot like a scar. I carried it all winter.
The fire was out. The squirrel ran home with the remains of her jacket. Later, her dad got on the phone and demanded money; I had to cough up my Christmas money.
The remaining Joannes retreated, leaving me with the naked ladies and blackened snow. They were safe. I folded the images and tucked them into my jacket. I kept them hidden in my room, in a little-girl handbag with pink daisies. These women fueled my fantasies.
I grew older, the handbag was tossed, but the women stayed with me. They were my go-to girls. My loving girls. Decrepit, wrinkled, color fading. I still have them.
Half-full plastic cups cluster on the windowsills in every room. Lyall squeezes the last drop of amber liquid out of the clear tube and announces that the keg is dry. He hands the cup to Christa, who tips it back for a mouthful of foam.
She adds the cup to the collection closest to her, wipes her mouth on the back of her wrist, straightens her skirt down over her knees, sways to the heavy beat pouring out of the speakers, and looks out across the sea of faces.
Elizabeth is laughing.
Shoulder length chestnut hair hanging in her face and a rosy-cheeked boy leaning in close. She loops her hair over her ear, looks in Christa’s general direction, smiles and winks.
Lyall grabs the keg and pushes his way through wave upon wave of friends and friends of friends clogging up the small house. Kevin steers Christa into Lyall’s wake and she feels her legs step one in front of the other, has the distinct impression they belong to someone else. She tilts her head back and laughs and the sudden movement throws her off-balance. Kevin catches her and keeps her moving. She rests her head on his chest, allows him to push her as her legs stumble on.
“Where are we going?”
Between his forefinger and thumb, Kevin waves a thin white roll of paper. She tries to touch his face in a gentle you’re-so-great sort of way, but misjudges and pokes him in the eye.
Once outside, Lyall drops the empty keg on the ground and they walk to the barn. Christa shivers and scolds herself for wearing a sleeveless top, short skirt, bare feet. What was she thinking?
Elizabeth. She was thinking of Elizabeth. The girl who always wears miniskirts and sleeveless tops. The girl with the deep brown eyes and smile on the ready. The girl who chews Juicy Fruit and drinks iced tea with a wedge of lemon. The same girl who walks past Christa every day with hardly a second glance.
She wore virtually nothing to a party on the last day of autumn to impress a girl who probably doesn’t even know her name.
Kevin props her up against the side of the barn and fiddles with the joint. Through half-mast eyes, she watches the orange glow eat slowly at the paper as Kevin inhales. He offers it to her and she shakes her head slightly, feels the world spin. He offers it to Lyall, who inhales deeply. Music drums into the night, punctuated occasionally by laughter and the clanking of bottles crashing into a bin. She watches Lyall until he finally exhales and coughs several times. Kevin laughs and says something that she can’t quite make out, so she watches the boys smoke and wonders if Elizabeth is still talking to that boy.
Kevin takes several quick puffs and the orange glow waxes and wanes, then he steps closer to her, so close in fact that she thinks he might kiss her, but instead, he puckers his lips and blows a steady stream of thin grey smoke at her face. She sucks it in, then coughs and splutters until she thinks she just might throw up. Both boys laugh.
Kevin puts his hand on her back. “You okay?”
She rights herself, nods, smooths her hair with the palms of her hands, grateful to the barn for keeping her upright.
“Going back inside?” Lyall asks.
Kevin shakes his head and Christa follows Lyall with her eyes all the way back to the house. Maybe Elizabeth will come out, but she doesn’t, so Christa peers across the field, follows the tall grass until it disappears into the grainy edges of darkness. She looks deep into the blackness and her eyes struggle to focus. She closes them and then Kevin is kissing the side of her neck. She tilts her head, encouraging him to continue, imagining Elizabeth kissing her instead.
“Want to lie down?” he whispers.
She opens her eyes and finds him inches from her face. They kiss and her body tingles all over. He slips his hand into hers and they creep away from the barn into the dark field until they are well away from the party and hidden deep in the night and the tall grass. Her legs are like jelly and she’s glad when he suggests they stop. She lies on her back and tries to focus on the stars, but instead, they spin wildly.
Kevin strokes her bare arm and she gets goosebumps. She turns toward him until he leans back and she climbs on top. She’s clumsy about it, has to hike her skirt up over her knees to straddle him, pushes his t-shirt up and kisses his skin. He smells slightly metallic, like beer and wet dirt, and for a moment, she wonders what Elizabeth smells like.
Kevin reaches under her shirt and fumbles with her bra strap. His urgency is reflected in her own beating heart as his fingers fiddle with the clasp until he finally pulls hard and it snaps. She laughs and he promises he’ll give her money for a new one, then he slips her bra up and over her breasts, holds them full in his hands. It feels so good she can’t breathe properly and she presses her hips down onto his and leans in. Kevin gently rolls them both over so that once again, she’s on her back. She lets him run his hands over her body, lingering at the top of her skirt and sliding up the inside of her thighs. She imagines the wandering hands are Elizabeth’s.
Christa closes her eyes and the night comes into sharp focus. Cold air presses at her and Kevin’s breath is warm and damp against her neck. Her skirt pulls and stretches at the seams as Kevin scissors his legs between her own. The rough-cut grass pokes insistently into her back, scrapes at her shoulder blades. Party noise chatters in the distance.
These are the things she will obsess about later in the soft comfort of her bed. The elements that etch into her memory forever. The details she’ll describe to her best friend next week when she finally summons the courage to come clean, and then again a couple of years from now during a drunken game of truth-or-dare. Kevin’s warm insistence. The field in a blanket of cold and the persistent scratching of grass on her back. The wish that it was Elizabeth rolling around in a field with her – not a boy named Kevin.
Kevin sits up and Christa slips off her underwear, bunches up her skirt around her waist. She watches in the shadows as he pulls a square packet out of his pocket, unzips his pants and pushes them down to his ankles. She lifts her shirt above her head and discards it and the broken bra to the side. She looks up and the stars swirl around until Kevin stills them with his warm hands on her body.
She looks at him and she is aware of everything and nothing at the same time. Her ears tune in to Kevin’s breathing and she smells his earthy scent. She centers her mind on the strange new feeling between her legs and feels the full weight of him crushing her into the ground.
If she’d been less focused, she might have grown concerned when the voices from the house got louder. But the party is little more than background noise until the loud grumble of a car engine thunders through the night and lights slice through the dark, a spotlight on Kevin jerking between Christa’s open legs, seemingly unbothered by the sudden audience.
Christa wishes she could disappear.
Kevin stops moving and winks at her. He turns his head slightly around, raises his hand in the air and waves. She’s frozen. Unable to move from under his weight and thankful that his body saves her from being caught directly in the high beams. There are hollers and whistles and she thinks she can pick out Elizabeth’s easy laugh twittering above the whooping boys. Kevin turns back and smiles at her. She waits to see what he’ll do.
Lyall shouts, “The back door’s unlocked.” There’s more laughter and cheering, followed by the sound of car doors opening and closing. Kevin leans down and kisses her and she kisses back, eager to forget about the lights and the cars and the people. Especially the people.
The lights draw away, leaving them in the cool shadow of the field and suddenly, Christa wishes she wasn’t there. She places her hands on Kevin’s back and pulls him closer, keen for him to be done, for this to be over. Keen to go home to her bed and dream of Elizabeth.