Friday, April 11, 2014

Alice In Cunterland

Alice was the name of my closest friend in high school. I had one other friend before her but that only lasted a year. I knew Alice for 10 years and I say this because it is an achievement. Alice had a beautiful singing voice like a Disney princess and both parents who loved her and a cat. I had a cat too. I sat beside her in tenth grade Canadian History and we became friends because we had nothing to add to the conversation of the philipina gangbangers sitting in the back who were bragging about being on the pill and the “Sex Olympics”. (Side Note, Dear Reader: One of those girls learned that her father had a second family back in the Philippines and she had another sister from a different woman. I guess they have the "Sex Olympics" in other countries, too. The father brought them all to Canada and enrolled the new sister in the same school. This was probably weird for everyone. The gangbanger cried in the bathroom, tried to commit suicide, had a pregnancy scare and then her boyfriend never ended up marrying her. So I guess we all had it tough. I still see the boyfriend around the old neighbourhood, or rather I hear him. He rides a custom chopper and it makes a helluva sound. He also wears a helmet that makes him look like he’s about to invade Poland. People are funny.)

That year, Alice and I partnered on a project. I thought that she would be a good partner because she wanted to be a lawyer. I was later to learn that Alice’s best feature was her vivid imagination. I did all the work and when the duotang came back with a mark in the 70s, Alice grabbed it and threw it at me to register her disgust with my performance. In recent years, I think often of this moment. I wonder what I would have done if I had decided – like I should have done– that this bitch was batshit kra’ and dropped her fat ass on the ground. That was another thing that made Alice unstable: she believed she was fat. Here’s what I do know: She had lustrious brunette hair and beautiful mahogany red-brown eyes. She had a beautiful smile and was polite to elderly people. She had good manners at the table. She had huge breasts for such a young girl and in a Catholic school uniform that made her look top-heavy in photos. Whatever. She had a wonderful ability to make me laugh, make up songs, crank call people without them feeling stupid, and generally be hilarious. Alice made me laugh harder and longer than anyone I have ever met before or since. In those first years, I liked Alice a lot. But slowly, and then all at once, cracks began to show. Alice became anxious about a few things and then very anxious about absolutely everything. In a regular house, you would take your kid to the doctor, but the role of crazy was already being played by her mother so no one really noticed what was happening. But I noticed.

I spent a lot of my time on Alice-management. She had a very narrow band of comfort and it took a lot of talking to convince her to do things. Or put another way, she asked a lot of questions for seemingly normal teenager girl behaviour like going to the mall, or a restaurant. Alice couldn’t use public toilets or watch movies that were about space (she called them “mechanical”). She became increasingly convinced that people were obsessed with her, that she was the victim of outrageous jealousy, when in fact she was a very jealous person. In retrospect, this is hilarious. She believed in psychics and was very certain that she would win the lottery. The writings of Nostradamus and the Marian sightings in Europe took on special significance in her life. This became a drag, but because I was trained to put up with a shocking amount of shit from those around me, I simply added Alice to the list. The greatest thing about Alice was that while this was happening she was telling people I was a lesbian. I was later to learn that this – the possibility of the sexual “other” - was a fetish of hers. She would find boyfriends who could only come while rubbing their dicks on a blanket, or by locking her in a closet and calling her fat until she cried. One guy gave her a black eye and she considered him the love of her life. She wondered if anyone would ever fuck her the way did, by ripping a vagina-sized hole in her track pants and banging her in front the television. Alice was a real piece of work but I was too young to know it.

Alice grew up, filled out, lost weight, whatever it took to make her feel good and she suddenly started to have a multitude of boys calling and hanging around. This made her more nervous and unbalanced, not less. There was a parade of new randos in her life all the time, she wasn’t very picky. When she arrived home from school she would talk for hours, often into the early morning, on her princess phone by her bed causing all sorts of trouble. For this reason, likely, Alice did not manage to get into the same university as me. Mine was slightly better regarded but essentially the same, and this bugged her. She began to pick at my school, the fact that I took the subway and she was rich enough to have her parent’s buy her a convertible. The fact that some of the magnificent historical classrooms were not retro-fitted for air conditioning and her school did. But her rage didn’t stop there. One day, she was excitedly telling me about a new game she had invented called “Popping”. It was where you lured an unsuspecting street person to your car with the offer of a cigarette or the request of directions, only to throw a cup of pop in their face. At which point she drove away quickly. Then she cackled gleefully recounting the one person who managed to grab onto her (new) car and really gave her fright. It was followed in short order with a story about rolling a sleeping homeless person off a park bench and onto the ground. This moment burns in my mind as surreal, and I never really saw Alice as normal after that.

Alice took lying to a whole new level. She could have written the phone script for Mean Girls, where the main character uses double line to manipulate and control her Army of Skanks. She would hang around racist bigots and convince them that a friend of hers was crazy, calling her “the spotted animal”. Then she would gossip about the racist bigots to the friend. She used to get so caught up that she would forget who she was talking to and let the cat out of the bag.

After university Alice went to nursing school. She lost more weight, dyed her hair bleach blonde and wore blue contact lenses to clubs. She was never comfortable in her own skin. Then she turned her rage on me. I don’t remember the last interaction I had with Alice but it strikes me it was end of summer at a beach house. She had brought a pair of proto-rapists with her and they proceeded to steal my alcohol. She was still interested in showing off the convertible but by then it was old news. No real words were spoken but we grew apart anyway. On the evening of 9/11 – with the world in pieces - I received a voicemail from her announcing that she had predicted the attack and the coming apocalypse of World War 3 in a series of prophetic dreams, ultimately culminating in her shooting a black girl.

When my grandmother broke her hip, was diagnosed with dementia, and then diagnosed with cancer I tried to call Alice's family home to see if she could offer her professional opinion about the treatment they had recommended and the facility she was in, but Alice did not return my calls and her mother was uncomfortable to speak to me. I had mistakenly believed that Alice could see past herself long enough to help an old woman who had shown kindness to her. I was wrong. Additionally, her mother was a woman who I had travelled to Portugal with, a woman I cared about and respected. I was very sad that I would never see her again. It was like two losses at once. I later learned that Alice thought I was calling to be her friend again, in her extreme narcissism she could not fathom there would be anything else going on in my life. 

Eighteen months ago I became friends with someone on Facebook who was also friends with Alice. I accidentally saw a current photo of her in the feed. It wasn’t anything big, just a girl in skinny jeans and boots standing in a hallway. What I noticed immediately was that she had lost that vibrancy that I remembered, the liveliness that had attracted me and others to her in the first place. She looked very plain and maybe a little sad. I quietly unfriended the mutual.

Rarely, but on the odd occasion, I wonder about her life and I wonder about her family. When I bought my classic car, I imagined her reaction. The old Alice I knew, the one who used to smoke cigarettes and listen to the Resevoir Dogs soundtrack on repeat in the tape deck on cold spring nights at the end of senior term would have freaked out and demanded we go “for a boot”. She would have been happy for me, she would have chipped in for gas. But the woman who lives today is unknowable to me, and it reduces the experience somewhat, I won’t lie. I sometimes drive near her house on the way to Canadian Tire and I think, I wonder if she is down the street? But for anyone who has achieved a certain number of years, you know that you can’t go home again.

Friday, March 7, 2014

My mother, the once and future Cree Indian.

My mother was born in a hallway of St. Joseph’s hospital during a heatwave circa WWII. All the doctors were at the front and the place was understaffed, only new nurses running around panicking. My grandmother, Stelle, remembers hearing “Can we get a doctor here?” right before she went unconscious and was delivered of a baby girl, her second child, my sainted Mim. By the time he got to the hospital, her father Charles had dirty hands, so he put her in a curled newspaper to get a good look at her. She was cute alright but she kept leaning her head to one side. Everytime he moved it, her neck was retract and she would squeal and her little head would fall slightly to the side. This bugged Charles and so he brought her back to the hospital only to discover that she wasn’t the only one. It turns out that a nurse had delivered her – not a doctor – and that this same nurse had delivered all 35 babies that same night. And whatever technique she had used gave all the babies rye neck. The treatment was quite simple. One person pins the newborns shoulders to a flat table and the doctor carefully moves the head back and forth a few times. But the cure of stretching the sore muscle was almost worse than the ailment; my grandfather said the screaming would make your knees weak. Since the mother’s were still recovering from birth, the fathers had to come to the hospital everyday for weeks to have this done. But some of the father’s couldn’t be in the same room as it was happening, it was too much. So they asked Charles to hold their babies shoulders while the doctor worked. Pretty soon Charles was holding all of the babies, nobody else had the nerve. What’s really funny is that they let him do this with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth. The treatment must have worked because my mother has the best posture of anyone we’ve ever met. But sometimes, when the seasons changes, she gets a terrible pain in her neck…

Shortly after her birth she needed to have her birth certificate registered, and Charles went downtown to get it done. When he walked into the office the registrar handed him a piece of paper that asked him to list the basic details; name, date of birth, location and … nationality. And below that it listed a hodge-podge of ethnicities and country names. It said something like

Check the box: English, Germany , Irish, Scottish, Italian, Isle of Man, Lithuania

Charles walked back to the front of the line and interrupted the registrar. 
“Where’s the box for Canadian?” he grumbled. 
Oddly, there wasn’t one on the paper. 
“Where’s the box for Canadian?” he said a little louder. Charles believed in the power of volUME! 
The registrar, understanding the problem but not wanting to deal with it, began to stammer and called his manager. The problem was that Charles had no intention of identifying himself as Irish, to some – especially those in a strictly protestant town – saying you were Irish was like saying you were poor and stupid. Besides, it wasn’t true. My mother was Canadian. The manager called his supervisor and on it went all afternoon. Words were exchanged and paper may have been thrown but by the time Charles left the government office my mother was officially listed as “Cree Indian”. The last choice on the list, the closest in Charles’ mind to Canadian.

Within weeks letters began to arrive at the house addressed to my infant mother; threatening letters advising that she return to the reservation, that she would not be allowed to go to school off the reservation, that she would only get her benefits if she returned to the reservation. (A quick point of process here; there is no Cree reservation within 200 miles of where I am sitting. There is a Mohawk reservation, and when I did my grade 7 project on First Nations I learned that the majority of people in Southern Ontario were of the Algonquin persuasion, and you can even google a map of all the First Nations in Ontario, but none are listed as Cree. I have always, always wondered where they intended her to go because apparently the letters weren’t clear.) Charles ignored the letters. If you’ve been reading this blog you know he had plenty of practice ignoring government letters. When my mother turned 6 and it was time to register for school, there was a problem. They advised that she was “out of district” and could not register at the local catholic school. The same school, mind you, attached to the same church to which Charles had just finished donating money. I am not sure what happened, no one really talks about it, but Charles went back downtown to the government office and after a long afternoon of shouting and paper throwing my mother had a new birth certificate issued.

I think it’s romantic to imagine you have a secret double life that no one knows about, the life you were meant to life. In this life there is only authenticity and wonder, no pain and sorrow. This life comes at the expense of your real life, the one in which you build character and burn the fat off your soul, or add to it. The secret is precious because you keep it and once told it becomes different. Because words are things. So, what is in a name? Surely not something so weak and vexing that it that can be re-written or spelled incorrectly on a government form. What really is a nationality, if it can be interchangeable with another as time passes and borders are re-assigned? Only the meaning that you put into it. It only means something valuable or awful if you give it that power. I was on my second drink at tex-mex bar when the waitress walked up, “If you don’t mind” she said, “Can I ask what nationality are you?” I side-eyed M and she blurted “Irish!” which is hardly true but the waitress said “Oh! Because when I saw you order the tequila, I thought you were Greek”. WTF