Format: Trade Paperback, 336 pages
Publisher: Emblem Editions
ISBN: 978-0-7710-4490-8 (0-7710-4490-9)
Pub Date: June 16, 2009
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Excerpt from Chapter 3:
Wednesday after school, Mom and I took a trip to the Salvation Army. I trolled after her as she pushed the cart, piling it high with “practical” items like military-style sweaters with sewn-in labels that read “Made Specially for You by Grandma,” no-name purple jeans with Popsicle stains on the crotch, and some large floral vests. She had it in her head that vests were really “in.” Mom wanted to buy me a new outfit so Dad could take photos of me in the backyard beside the tomato patch. Before it got too cold, she said, and all the plants died.
“But they’re already dead,” I told her. We passed the lamps section, where everything smelled burnt. “I can smell them stinking up to my window.”
“That’s the smell of regeneration,” Mom said. “Next year, we’ll have better tomatoes than ever.”
I was installed in a musty little changeroom, where I pulled off my T-shirt and stared at myself in the tiny mirror affixed to the pipe on the wall. The big mirror was outside and Mom always made me come out so she could decide for herself if the clothes were “working or not.” I channelled ALF from Melmac and transmitted a message: No sign of breasts. Please send immediately. Sincerely, Bony the Bug Eyes. Over and out.
“Lucy,” Mom called through the curtain. “How’s it going in there?”
“Okay, but I wish we could go to Zellers.” I wanted to sit at the speckled Formica luncheonette counter at Zellers and get served a hot chicken sandwich with fries by one of the glamorous waitresses who wore frilly uniforms in a shade of pink that reminded me of watermelon bubblegum.
“Don’t be spoiled. Some kids your age just wear shirts made from rat hair. When I was a kid in Bulgaria I wore a smock made from camel’s ass. Not so pretty.” Then, after a moment, Mom said, “Anyway, did you hear about the neighbour at seventeen? Her husband went out last week to get an attachment for their blender. He didn’t come back that day, or the next. On day three, she gets a priority letter. Guess what it is?”
“Yes!” Her voice rose with excitement. “Exactly.”
Mom loved shocking bad news, the reversals-of-fortune type that cheap tabloid news shows liked to feature. In Mom’s stories, someone was always getting divorced after thirty years of cupcakes. Someone was waking up paralyzed after running a marathon the day before. Someone was getting a routine checkup when his doctors find a cancer the size of a basketball in the stomach.
“He’d sent her divorce papers,” Mom continued. “The guy, it turns out, was a big homosexual type. The note he attached said, ‘I need to feel men on my skin.’ Can you believe that?”
“Gay,” I said through the curtain, “is what they like to be called.”
“Okay,” Mom said. “So now you’re an expert?”
I slipped on a pullover vest embroidered with dogs wearing glasses. The glasses were attached to the dogs’ heads with real mini strands of pearl. Mom had raved about this piece when she’d plucked it off the rack, insisting that “they” — her unnamed group of fashion experts — would be wearing ones just like it come next week. I came out of the changeroom and stood in front of the crooked mirror. Mom came and stood beside me, taking me in distractedly.
“Having your husband leave you, just like that,” she continued, “it must be pretty devastating. Especially when it’s for another man. What do you think?”
“I don’t know.” I shrugged. I wanted to change the subject. “But I’ve heard of worse. Like the girl at number eleven who got a bad thought in her head and didn’t know what to do. Her family was very rich but never home.”
Mom handed me the next outfit. A matching pants-and-top set with a pattern of electrocuted cats. Behind the curtain, I took off the vest and threw it into the “passable” heap. I’d made three piles: Passable, Disgusting, and Ultra Grotesque.
“So this girl,” I continued, “she’s the type of person who naturally has a lot on her mind. But now she’s not coping. Her parents are totally absent. She’s so upset that she stops watching TV. That’s serious, isn’t it?”
“Lucy,” Mom sighed, “are you making this up?”
“Listen. One day out of the blue, she starts collecting sticks and dirt. Like, she starts going hunting, like a hound, and for what? For sticks. And all over the place — schoolyards, sandboxes, squirrel lots. The whole bit.” I tightened the drawstring of my pants. “All this dirt makes her feel a bit better. She’s suddenly got jars of it stacked in her room. Buckets of mud —”
“Her rich parents didn’t notice buckets of dirt in the house?”
“They had a cleaning lady,” I explained, “who was used to how rich people act weird. Anyways, this girl’s got a room filled with dirt. Rocks, sticks, mud, fibres from animals. Disgusting stuff. When she starts building the free-range ant farm, her parents wise up. They make her sit down with a shrink.”
“I would’ve just made her clean it up. And sent her to one of those science camps for special people.”
“Mom,” I sighed. “You’re missing the point. This girl was sick. She had a disease in her brain. You can look it up. It’s when you can’t stop collecting dirt and everything that’s in it. It’s a coping mechanism. Geraldo did a show on it.”
“Well, please don’t invite this girl over is all I can say. I have enough problems in the house as it is.”
I came out of the changeroom.
“My turn now,” Mom said. “But don’t think I’m crazy.”
I revolved in front of the mirror. “I won’t.”
“Your dad,” she began, “I think he has another woman.”
I remembered Dad in his hunting scene sweater, his face frozen in concentration as he stood in the entrance of the church basement, where he’d stopped to watch her — Crashing Wave, in her blue plastic heels, laying her hand on another man’s shoulder. I remembered how they had laughed. She’d given me her lipstick and told me “You and I have that natural Twiggy figure.” But Dad said they were just good friends.
Mom stared back at me, her mouth open, her hands folded over the shopping cart. Once upon a time she’d been Miss Sophia West, the beauty queen of suburban Bulgaria. She’d worn peacock feathers and posed in front of gold curtains, smiling with shiny red lips. Now she wore huge tortoiseshell glasses and had hair in her armpits. Now she wore lipstick only on special occasions, because she said it was boiled pig fat marked up 1,000 per cent. It belonged with all the other “rip-offs” — hairspray, leather shoes, and fashion magazines — she didn’t need now that she was “out of that game.”
“Lucy?” Mom said. “Did you hear what I said? Do you think he’s seeing another woman?”
I didn’t understand why Mom was asking me these questions. Or why she had so many doubts and worries. If she spent less time worrying, maybe we could do more fun things, like eat hot chicken sandwiches at the Zellers luncheon counter, instead of hanging around this changeroom wearing other people’s clothes and talking about crazy things.
“No,” I said, “Dad wouldn’t do that.”
Excerpt from Chapter 9:
When I was fifteen, I spent the summer working with Dad at the Sun and Waves travel agency. I couldn’t imagine Holden Caulfield ever working at a travel agency. But then it was also hard to picture Dad working in one. He’d probably take his time to help some blonde book a cruise, but more likely he’d just thrust a couple of airline tickets at an old lady with blue hair and tell her, “Here. You can go now.”
Sun and Waves was located at the far end of the Lawrence Plaza, one of those concrete bottomless squares that Dad said was built in the 1960s, when no one cared if buildings were ugly. At the south end of the plaza was a bus stop and a shoe repair shack that always smelled like horse shit, but Dad said that was actually the boot cleaner the shoe guy had to use for police shoes. On one side of Sun and Waves was a nails supply place, and on the other was a store that was completely empty except for some old chewing gum racks.
Dad worked with only one other person at Sun and Waves, and that person was his boss. Dad’s boss was a man, but his name was Marg Nutter. I think that’s why he was always in a bad mood, because he had a woman’s name.
Marg Nutter sat at the front of the store so he could greet his customers as soon as they walked in. But I think that’s another reason why Marg Nutter was always in a bad mood, because nobody ever came into the store. The customers were mostly phone-ins, old people who wanted to go to Boca Raton, Fort Lauderdale, Palm Springs, or, if they were looking for something more exotic, Varadero, Negril, or Guadalajara. Sometimes the old people got mixed and instead of “Guadalajara” they’d say “Guantanamo,” and then Dad would have to explain that it wasn’t that kind of resort.
Marg Nutter had offered to pay me less than minimum wage to deliver flyers to the high-rise apartment buildings surrounding the plaza. The only part of the job I was looking forward to was the exercise I’d get, because I’d read in one of Florence ’s women’s magazines that power walking burnt 567 calories per hour. I was also in charge of folding the promotional flyers Marg Nutter photocopied on a machine so low on toner that the leaves of the palm trees were almost invisible. They just looked like these long stalks, more like middle fingers than leaves, and when I folded the flyers I’d sometimes think, Yeah, Fuck you! Go to Florida!
“Lucy? What’s so funny?” Dad was talking to me from the front room.
I had started to laugh out loud at tiny jokes I told myself in my head. Once I started laughing it was hard to stop. I figured this was how smoking pot made you feel: your head all airy, as if your brain had dissolved into dancing dandelion spores. I also noticed that I laughed more on the days I’d eaten almost nothing. For instance, if I had two saltines for breakfast and drank two cups of coffee with two Sweet’N Lows, I’d be laughing at the swearing palm trees by about ten in the morning. But if I ate more than the top of a muffin or a piece of plain toast, the trees weren’t so funny — they were actually kind of depressing — and Marg Nutter’s voice, which sounded as if it was strangling through too small a space, became even more unbearable. Whenever I ate more than I’d planned to — sometimes Mom offered me a sandwich at a moment when I was feeling weak — I felt myself leaving my field of rye and the heaviness of the food spread through my body the way a bee sting on your hand can travel up the entire length of your arm, throbbing. Food didn’t give me energy, it sucked all my strength away. I didn’t know if the draining feeling meant “eat more” or “stop eating,” so I usually just stopped eating.
I covered my mouth to stifle the laughing. “Nothing, Dad.”
Around the middle of July I decided I would deliver only half of the flyers. Marg Nutter was paying me less than a chocolate bar an hour, so I felt justified throwing out the rest. I’d walk halfway across Lawrence Avenue, hitting up the two aquamarine apartment buildings where mostly pensioners lived, people who stood on the wavy concrete path talking to their dogs in creaky amazed voices. I liked walking on that path because there were no trees and the sun hit me in a totally absorbing way. I felt like a creature dipped in honey. That’s where I ditched the remaining flyers.
I’d just stepped off the path when a red car slowed beside me. I kept on walking tall in my shoes, which I’d bought for fifty cents at the Salvation Army. They were beige and made out of a dry leatherlike material as stiff as a chewed-up dog toy, but they were my only heels and I thought they made my legs look skinnier. The car was crawling along the shoulder beside me. The passenger window rolled down in intervals, as if the person inside had a weak arm or was still deciding whether I was worth talking to. When I saw his face my first thought was that he was famous. It was Archie from the comic books, with the ski jump nose and five freckles on each of his cheeks so uniformly round they could’ve been drawn in with a ballpoint pen.
“Hey, honey, do you know where Bathurst Street is?”
Then I remembered that Archie was a cartoon character, not a real man.
“Next major intersection, six blocks,” I said. “I’m walking there.”
Archie grinned. “That’s far. We’re lazy asses. We don’t walk anywhere. You want us to give you a ride?”
He was flirting. I forced out a laugh, rocking forward on my heels. I imagined Mom’s face right now, her tortoiseshell glasses superimposed on the bright clouds, her mouth yelling, “No! He does drugs! It’s not safe!”
I decided that taking the ride wouldn’t do any harm. I opened the back door and slid into the seat. The driver was a guy with blond hair cut into the shape of a police cap. Archie started asking me questions about where the nearest Taco Bell was, but I wanted to make sure Police Cap was driving toward Bathurst before I answered. Only when I saw that he was did I start listening to Archie, who was going on about how he’d just quit his job at a computer factory in Ottawa because they’d been “busting his balls” by not paying him overtime, even though he worked on Christmas and Boxing Day. “Two fucking years in a row!” He thumped his thigh and the Burger King cup between him and Police Cap spilled coins onto the hollow area where I figured the radio used to be. Archie turned around and smiled at me over the backrest of his seat before turning around again, so I knew he was checking me out. I crossed my legs and pulled my jean skirt down my thigh a bit. Diana Gaddick used to say that showing a little leg was good, but not so much that guys got the wrong idea. Archie turned around again.
“Say,” he said, “do you have rickets?”
“What?” I said.
“Hey, don’t take it wrong. You look cool. I just never seen someone as thin as you.” He turned to Police Cap. “You?”
“This is pathetic,” I said, “picking a girl up and then asking her if she has some kind of outdated disease. What kind of pickup is this?”
Archie looked embarrassed. “We were just giving you a ride,” he said. “Why did ya have to go make it all uncomfortable now?”
When they dropped me off outside of the Lawrence Plaza, I felt insulted. They didn’t want me. They hadn’t come on to me. If I looked sexy, I didn’t understand why they hadn’t tried to come on to me. Was I not pretty? As I weaved in between the parked cars in the parking lot, I studied my arms, how the veins popped, how the bone of my inner thigh jutted out through my skirt. I walked through the door of Sun and Waves, not even stopping to say hi to Dad or Marg Nutter, and went straight into the bathroom.
I stared at myself in the mirror.
My face had become long and thin, my nose as gaunt as my cheeks. I didn’t understand why I didn’t look like the ultra-thin models in the Ralph Lauren perfume ads, their ribs delicately visible through cotton sundresses. They were New England girls, I decided, whose grandmothers had names like Portia and Rosaline, and who always knew which fork to pick up when the salad came around. These were the girls who starved and flourished, their big eyes made bigger, their tiny noses made tinier, by the absence of food in their stomachs.
When a Jewish girl starves, I thought, something entirely different happens. Her cheeks recede and her nose grows — and so does her guilt. She thinks about her mother constantly: the ways she will make it up to her mother in the future when this eating “thing” settles down, compensate her for the hours spent staring into the pantry, wondering what kinds of carbohydrate combinations — rice and farfel, bowties and kasha, potatoes and rice — she can, by some nurturing magic, sneak into the glass of Lipton’s chicken bouillon that is now the extent of her daughter’s dinner.
I got on my knees and put my finger down my throat, feeling the smooth skin that reminded me of a raw scallop, slippery out of the grocery bag. But I wasn’t good at turning my insides out. Nothing came out. Then Marg Nutter knocked on the door and told me to take it outside, his customers shouldn’t have to hear me coughing up a lung. So now he was hallucinating a lineup of customers snaking out the door.
We were similar in a way, Marg Nutter and I: we both looked at what we had, what we were, and told ourselves stories to make the truth a little softer. Marg Nutter told himself he had a successful travel agency that was just going through a temporary slump. I told myself that if I weighed a little less, when I looked in the mirror I would finally see the girl I had always wanted to be staring back. Instead, I saw a line of hard pimples blazing across my forehead like a Las Vegas sign. Only this sign said, Move along, folks.
Nothing to see here.
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