The summer I was fifteen, the very last thing I wanted to do was to live on the farm in the hot shoebox of a pull-behind trailer with my mother who chain smoked and drank beer all day with vodka chasers and my father who didn’t believe I could do the work I asked him to give me. If I was going to be denied a job, paying or not, I wanted to be on the burnt, dusty prairie in the south end of the province with my failing grandfather, caring for him and helping my aunt with my three infant cousins. I would have gladly ridden the bus the six hours to get there, but for some convoluted (and, to my fifteen-year-old brain, inexplicable) reason, my mother figured it would be better for me to stay where I was. Because she hadn’t had ENOUGH of my miserable backtalk and horrid attitude, I suppose.
Of course, there was an ‘out’. I could go and spend time with my grandmother.
Wait, no, that wasn’t an out. Unless an “out” amounts to a canvas sack full of angry cats being drawn shut with your head inside. I mean, okay. I love my grandmother. Not because she is the romantic ideal of a cute little woman who taught me how to bake and sew and did a bunch of fun things with me. To be honest, she did show me how to do a single embroidery stitch (and then got Very Upset when I spent time at her neighbour’s house learning more embroidery) and she did let me help her take dinner out to the field once, before Gramps died. And the one time, she took me to Watrous, which was fun, in spite of her nearly KILLING US ALL by conveniently forgetting that when one crosses a double highway, one really ought to look for oncoming semi trucks from *both* directions.
To recap, I’m not really all that close with my grandmother. Her house is a
mausoleum museum, but with an archivist in charge who went slightly barmy after the war. Pick your war. Because every square inch of that house is full of stuff. Even under the couch. You can’t actually walk in the basement rumpus room any longer; it’s so full of used cardboard orange crates and empty detergent boxes. Everything that woman ever purchased is in that house, unless it’s the sort of thing that might rot, and then it’s in one of the three deep freezes. I don’t think my grandmother understands what ‘disposable’ means.
I watch ‘Hoarders’ sometimes, and it reminds me of my grandmother’s house.
In her cold room, you can find jello packets from the 60s, tins of …god only knows what…soup and pie filling and fruit, most likely, from the 50s, every take-away container she’s ever used…bags of flour, unopened, with Robin Hood ™ logos on them I’ve never seen. Flats of 2L plastic bottles of cola, cans of paint (lead, no doubt), and God only knows how many mouse carcasses. But. The basement of my grandmother’s house is cool, and there is an ancient pull-out bed down there, and an anachronistic television with four legs that gets basic cable if you’re lucky, and four channels (five if you speak French) if you slap it just right on the side if you’re not lucky. You could take a bag of chips and a litre of cola and sit on your bed and watch Orca all night if you’d like, as long as you turn the volume way, way down because the year you’re fifteen, your grandmother only *pretends* to be going deaf, and she certainly doesn’t like the idea of you watching television after 9pm. Certainly not something like Orca, or Star Trek, God forbid, which she proclaims is “gross. Just gross,” as she switches off the television and slaps you in the arm telling you, “nobody would want to see someone with a face like that! That’s worse than a car accident!”
And then you’d say, “but Gram! They’re Cardassians! Their faces aren’t ripped up, they’re BORN like that!”
And she’d say, “Well, it’s not nice to stare,” and then leave the room, and you’d know that there would be no more Star Trek for you if she could hear it.
But when you’re fifteen, having an entire basement to yourself, more or less, and one that isn’t 104 degrees and smelling like cigarettes and beer is pretty cool. So that’s where I chose to stay that summer. My grandmother thought it would be a good idea to introduce me to some of the local kids my own age, since she’d frowned on my hanging out with my best friend from that town ever since my best friend from that town had grown breasts and kissed a boy.
So I was introduced to the son of my grandmother’s former boss. His name was Scott, and he was a dreamboat. He had golden-red hair, amber-brown eyes, freckles, and a car. Scott was 16. I thought Scott was the be-all and end-all of young men that summer, and was Very Glad my grandmother had seen fit to introduce me to him. Scott was also a perfect gentleman, and had a job at the grocery store during the day. He would not phone after me when he was at work, and often not when he wasn’t at work either. Scott played hockey (which I forgave, because of his freckles) and baseball (which I forgave, because of his rump), but didn’t much like swimming (much more difficult to forgive, rump or not) or reading (uhhh…the hair! Yes, we’ll forgive the not reading because of his red hair!). He was polite and he smelled good.
Scott had a friend called Matt, who was lean and tall and dark-haired. Matt had a low, pensive voice, and his eyes were blue. Matt didn’t say much, and he didn’t have a car or a job, and his father wasn’t the bank manager so they didn’t live in a huge, sprawling split-level on the edge of town (they lived in a darling Victorian-style two-storey home a couple of blocks from my grandmother’s house). Matt *did* call after me, and asked me to do stuff with him, which, in a small town, amounted to loitering in front of the movie theatre, drinking coca-cola from glass bottles and watching all the stuck-up small-town girls strut by in ridiculous shoes. I invited him to my grandmother’s house once, to borrow a book he’d expressed interest in reading, but when my grandmother flew into a fit of pique and screamed at him to ‘get out! get out of my house! get out, you!’ and then at me to ‘what is WRONG with you, letting him see the mess this house is!?’, we vamoosed.
To the local high school. Where Scott met us, and owing to his having been on every school team there was to be on, he had keys, so we slunk into the stuffy stillness of a school gymnasium in midsummer. We played basketball all afternoon. Scott got most of the baskets, and made fun of Matt when he missed every lay-up. I missed a few lay-ups myself, but both of them were very encouraging. I didn’t tell them that I’d attended basketball school for two summers and had done well on my school teams, and I may have played a little on the purposely crappy side because I didn’t want the competition and I loved the encouragement.
There were afternoons we spent at Scott’s house, all three of us, hanging out in his bedroom listening to the radio (there was one particular song that had a chord progression I was in love with, and after I explained in mind-numbingly advanced musical theory detail the reason why I loved it, they would both shut up as the four-bar progression approached, and continue their discussions afterward). I hoped that Scott would notice that I was a girl, and that I liked him. I thought of what it would be like to kiss his red, full lips, to feel his muscular arms around me.
But at night, I dreamt of Matt. When I’d explained in mind-numbingly advanced musical theory detail the reason I loved that chord progression, Matt had listened raptly, and had asked pertinent questions. Scott had pointed out the puck he got from a Blades game. When I’d played a few bars of something I remembered from Jazz band on the piano in the school gymnasium, Matt told me he played Saxophone. Scott had hit him in the head with a basketball.
…to be continued…