Quick Aside: This is long and might be one of the posts better listened to. If you have time, give a click.
Some comments before the excerpt…
So. The other day, I took my car out to run some errands. While stopped to wait for the traffic to break, I noticed a familiar figure running down the sidewalk.
It was Stephane, my upstairs neighbour, whom I’d hardly exchanged a word with since the night of the giant fire, back in the fall.
Stephane stopped at my car, and I unrolled my window to say hello. Crossing his arms, he rested them in the opening, sqatted, and poked his head inside.
“How you doing,” he asked, with a huge smile.
“Made it through the winter,” I said with an equally huge smile.
“Yah, me too,” he said, laughing, and off we both launched into our catch up chit-chat.
Just as I was about to be off, he knitted his brows and mentioned my blog. Like just about everyone I run into in Halifax, I’d strong-armed him into subscribing and seemed he’d been staying on top of my weekly posts through the winter.
“Hey, I’ve been reading your blog. It’s, it’s kinda personal, isn’t it? Some of those stories you tell, like the kiss and that other one about your son and his girlfriend. It must be hard to write that stuff.”
Hmmm. Sort of never thought about it that way from the reader perspective. And now, Stephane had made me think about it. What must be like for an almost stranger to know so much about my life? And what was the reason compelling me to share such personal, intimate details?
What I write is Creative Non-fiction, which is a fancy term to describe the creation of a story gleaned from truth. But even further, it’s a memoir.
Writing guru Mary Karr explains in her book ‘The Art of Memoir’ that “a fiction writer starts with meaning and then manufactures events to represent it; a memoirists starts with events, then derives meaning from them.”
The structural timeline in my memoir is this year in Halifax, and my blog posts are in the queu to be laced together, along with stories from my past, as the events from which I will derive meaning.
While I plug away at this task, examining and writing my truths, I take inspiration and guidance from a wise quote by one my favourite authors, Barbara Kingsolver, “Don’t try to write what other people want to hear from you; figure out what you have to say. It’s the one and only thing you have to offer.
So naturally, the lens through which I view and derive meaning is personal. It’s memoir. But it’s also what I want to say.
I try to make the cookie crumbs of present-day living into meaningful posts and the past into reflective excerpts that each work as complete stand-alone, in the context of a blog delivery method.
In writing a memoir from these events, my ultimate goal to meld the past and present into a collective that holds greater meaning. And maybe in doing that, I might arrive at some insights that resonate in their universality, along with a few nuggets that my readers can laugh, cry or just hold tight to for a moment.
Call it a “sum of the whole being greater than its parts” aspiration. And it’s what I can offer.
So this excerpt is more a shard. I’ve not fully attached all its to meanings. It’s about a friend that I once loved who, as it turned out, knew me better, I think, than I knew myself. Only I never understood that until now. If I had, I could have, should have and would have done better by her.
Enough from me. Read on, or maybe for this post, click the recording and give a listen.
Second semester English class.
Instead of rows, our teacher Mr. Greeley has the desks running along the sides and back of the room, leaving in the middle a big empty void.
The set up squishes us close enough to pass notes, copy test answers or whisper to each other without fear.
The first class and every one after that, she sits next to me, at the back of the room. Her name is Em, and soon, I learn we share the same boredom threshold, twisted sense of humour and a disdain for arrogance, bravado and senseless rules.
Two classes in, she rechristens our teacher, dropping the mister and adding a snarly, tarty-tone to a long, drawn out rendition of his name, “Greeeeeeeeeeeley.”
She says it with a sneer and narrowing of her eyes that slays me, every time.
A month into the semester, when we’re comfortable with each other, she brings the instructions from a tampon box to class. She reads how to insert a tampon into a vagina in my ear whenever Greeley’s back is turned.
In time, we become a perfect pairing, much the same, but with complementary roles. Me, I’m the covert silent side-kick. And Em, she’s the overt purveyor of action. She’s an irresistible combination of comic genius, rogue rule-breaker, and smart, with a straight ‘A’ average that keeps her under the radar.
English becomes my favourite class that semester. I grow to expect at the very least a game of dots, passed back and forth between us, and at best, a few witty, hilarious barbs aimed at our teacher.
One day, we arrive at class, there’s an old wooden coffin in the middle of the room. It belongs to the theatre arts class.
When we’re seated, Greeley tells us he will use the coffin to demonstrate something or other about the book we’re reading. Em and I tune him out and play dots.
But then, while Greeley is talking, he decides to step onto the edge of the coffin and walk along its sides. It’s made from thin wood, and the width is more akin to tightrope than solid surface, and he’s wearing shiny black patent leather shoes with the kind of heels that make clickity-clack noises on tile.
Em and I lift our heads up from the game of dots, anticipation in our bellies. Things might get interesting
Immediately, Greeley starts to wobble as he struggles to get his balance on the skinny edge. His eyes grow wide, belying the obvious. The tightrope act was probably one of those things that seemed a good idea at inception, but not so much at execution.
Every student in the room watches, eyes are riveted on the obvious accident, waiting to happen.
One step. He waits. Two steps. He jiggles and wobbles.
He raises his foot for the third step, but before he can set it down, his arms start frantically wind-milling to keep him aloft. His shiny-shod foot starts waving back and forth in the air, like he’s the coyote or Fred Flinstone in that last-second scramble before catastrophic fall.
He drops, smack on his ass.
We’re paralyzed into stillness, holding our breath for what’s next, and Greeley’s labored inhalations and exhalations are amplified thousand fold.
Winded, embarrassed, he scrambes to his feet and walks to the front of the classroom.
I glance at Em, and her mouth is shaped like an “O,” ready to go. I both dread and feel an excited tingle in my neck about what may come out of it.
“Greeeeeeeeeley!” she finally shrieks, “Greeeeeeeeeley split his pants!”
Jabbing her index finger in the air, she points to the white underwear, clearly visible where the seat of his pants has ripped apart, and the room erupts.
Without turning, he whips his hand to his backside and clutches the fabric on either side of the torn seam. He teaches the rest of the class that way, holding his pants together, but he never says a single word to Em.
I invite her to my house.
When Em arrives, I take her up my bedroom. With two pesky younger brothers, it’s the only place in the tiny townhouse I live in that I can get away from them.
It’s not really my room though. I do have a bed, a single, with my purple-hatted Donny Osmond poster hanging above it. The bed is tucked in front of the closet door, a couple feet from from my mother’s big double. So really, it’s my mother’s room, which I am reminded of every time her boyfriend sleeps over, and she kicks me down to the basement to sleep with my sister, who doesn’t like me one bit.
On the bedside night table, the mustard yellow telephone rests in its cradle. We’re between calls.
When we make the calls, Em random dials, and then holds the receiver between our heads, so we can both hear. She also does sll the talking.
Don’t get me wrong. I love pranks calls, but I won’t make them because I am afraid of getting caught.
“Hmph,” Em had said after I told her this, but before we started, “don’t you know you have to have your line tapped by a cop first and then you have to be on the phone for at least a half hour so they can trace the call? As if we’ll get caught.”
We don’t do the bad kind of calls, like the ones where you order pizza to someone’s house or say nasty stuff to the popular girls at school. What we do more of the “is your refrigerator running—you better go get it” type of calls.
The last one, the guy had an accent and swore at us with the “f” word, and we’re still rolling on the bed laughing and making fun of him when the phone goes off on its own.
– Ring. Ring. Ring.
Startled, and to be honest a bit worried we’ve been found out, we both sit up, and I pick up the phone.
There’s no congenial hello back at me. Instead, a loud, German-accented voice shrieks through the line, “Is Em there?”
“Yes,” I say.
Sensing an emergency, I sit up straighter and say to the caller, “She’s right here.”
“I don’t want to talk to her. I’m her mother. Tell her I’m going to kill her!”
The dial tone buzzes in my ear. The woman’s hung up already.
Sober, I put the phone back in its cradle and turn to Em.
“Em! You have to go home. That was your mother and she was mad and she says she’s going to kill you.”
She flops backwards on the bed and casually throws her arms up above her head.
“Em!” I repeat in earnest, “Your mother. She was crazy angry.”
Em snorts, rolls her eyes and says, “Nah. She’s not mad. My mother’s just crazy. Ignore her.”
I’m gob smacked. Mad mothers, I know well, particularly the type who wield words as weapons. But open defiance of mad mothers, I do not know at all.
My admiration grows.
As the perfect foil, I’m neither off-put nor scandalized as I discover more of Em’s eccentricities, ballsieness, and utter lack of limits. In fact, I love it, and I love being with her. She’s funny and smart, and she’s so like me.
At home, she too is rendered mute by stifling, irrational constraints, illogical freedoms, and an underlay of unrelentingly pointed, targeted criticism. We commiserate using our humour to balance the crazy in our lives, left to our own devices to find the love and guidance a girl might need to muck her way through teenagehood.
What could we do but hang onto each other?
We start smoking cigarettes. We perfect the art of binging on junk food during our spares. We discover dope makes us laugh far more than we already do.
We get older and start to hit the bars with fake ID, hitch-hiking our way to and fro on Fridays and Saturdays.
One night, the two guys who offer us a ride won’t let us out of the car, and I frantically peel my nail polish as I sit in the back seat, thinking I’m leaving evidence should we go missing. When they finally let us out at a stoplight, and I tell Em what I did, she laughs at me and says, “Aw, they were goofs. I wasn’t worried.”
We go university together in town, not because we want to, but because commandeering mothers and absent fathers have rendered us terrified to leave the town. Inside, I’m desperate to be anywhere but home and in Waterloo, and I suspect Em is too, though I never ask her the question and its’ something we just don’t talk about.
At nineteen, we aren’t smart enough or are capable to acknowledge our fear, let alone figure out why it’s there. And since neither have anyone looking over our shoulders to give us the nudge that might help us get through it, we pretend never wanted to go anywhere else, anyway.
Em flunks out in first year, and I flunk out in second. I become a hairdresser, and she talks about going into real estate.
One day, she buys a car.
It’s a Volkswagon Bug, and the heat never works properly and neither do the wipers, so in the dead of winter, while she drives, every ten minutes or so, I thrust my upper body out the window and scrape the windshield to clear it of ice and snow.
Somehow, we stay alive, unnoticed by anyone, but going down together.
Parentless with parents, we don’t know how to get to the next place. She explodes outward, and I implode inward, and we become magnets with shifting poles, alternately attracting and repelling each other as we struggle to figure out how to grow up, in spite of everything.
I am married three years now, and not long after the birth of my first son and her first daughter, Em stops returning my calls, and I don’t know why.
I’m busy anyway, and eventually, I stop calling.
Two more sons, a divorce, and a decade and a half later, she hardly enters my thoughts.
I’m 43. It’s Oktoberfest, and I’m at the Concordia Club’s massive festival tent. I’ve lost my friends. Tired of wandering, I stop for a moment to get my bearings, and a waitress, wearing a dirndl and carrying three pitchers of beer, walks toward me.
“Karalee?” I think I hear her say.
She walks closer, and I recognize a thinner, older, hollowed version of Em. She sets the pitchers down, stands in front of me, and then, she cups my face in her hands.
“You’re beautiful,” she says and pulls me into her arms, like its been fifteen minutes and not fifteen years.
We hug, and I start to bawl.
Em and I pick up, in the spirit of where we left off, before the calls between us had stopped, single moms, with half a dozen kids between us.
It’s automatic to assess the sames and differences when you’ve been apart from someone. And while I am stalled in my career, caught in what is probably a destructive relationship, and three years estranged from my mother, Em is working two jobs, beginning her MSW, thinking about buying a second house and has logged ever more years estranged from her own mother.
But Em is still as crazy as ever, and I’m still thrilled to watch from the sidelines.
“Gimme the scissors,” Em demands.
“What for? The legs are already so short I can see your butt.”
“I want him to see what he’s missing. I’ve got these too, you know,” she says, as she squishes her breasts in and up, creating a chasm of cleavage.
She gives me an “if looks could kill” sort of glare and dives for the shears, grabbing them from my hand. Then she lops off a chunk of fabric and hurls it to the floor.
A good half-inch of her bra is showing above the jagged edge of her t-shirt neckline, along with a lot of boob.
She thrusts out her chest, arches her back and swings her arms up in the air.
“Ta da!” she shrieks. “How do I look?”
“Like a hoe,” I say, not missing a beat, and we laugh.
– Ding dong. Ding dong.
The doorbell, a ding-dong backdrop to our maniacal laughter, rings a third time.
– Ding dong.
Em’s spike heels clack on the hardwood as she parades past me. All I see is jiggling flesh in the retrofitted outfit.
At the stairs, she pauses and screams, “JR, your father’s here,” and then she flings opens the door to her ex-husband, with a flourish.
Later, after JR’s been whisked away by his dad, we flop on her bed together and laugh, like we’re still fifteen.
My phone rings. I know it’s her, but I answer anyway.
“What are you doing?” she shrieks at me ,without a congenial hello. “You can’t go back with him. He treats you like shit, and he’s not going to change.”
“It’s different this time,” I say lamely, pretending to actually believe my own words. And before she can comment, I rush to the finish I’ve been afraid to say, “We’re moving in together.”
“Are you crazy?” she screeches with such fury that I worry she may snake through the phone and choke the living bejeebers out of me.
“What’s wrong with you? Can’t you see he’s playing you? He’s emotionally abusive. A cheat. Don’t you have any self-respect or self-esteem?”
Pot and kettle, is all I think, too stupid or too stubborn to recognize what Em and I really are to each other, the mirror that can show us what we still are not skilled enough to see for ourselves.
I hang up before I let my ugly come out.
She rings me back, but I don’t answer, and the beep tells me she’s left a message.
I never listen to the message or pick up when she calls back. She calls and calls and calls, until eventually, she stops.
I never see or speak to her again.
It took me a hardly a month after he’d gone to remember everything Em had tried to tell me. And it took me one second more to understand what she’d said, however ferocious its delivery, was based in truth, love and deep, abiding friendship.
Of course, Em had been right, about everything. But more than that, I’d known it myself. Deep into my 40s, still stuck in the same loop, abandoning Em by killing the messenger was an easy sacrifice to make if it let me to stave off facing truth, a little while longer.
I wanted to call her, to run into her, to tell her that, yes, she’d been right, and I was sorry, so sorry to have cleaved her from my life. But more ashamed of my own Sophie’s choice than about righting my wrong, I waited on fate to fold our lives together again.
And the forward motion of life went on, as it does, until eventually, I found a place where I almost forgot about her.
Then she returned.
It is summer. I’m visiting my friend Ruth in her new home when the prior owner of the house drops by to pick up some mail.
I pay scant attention as they chat, until Ruth makes introductions. The man grins, as if he knows me.
“Karalee, don’t you remember me?” he asks. “I’m Em’s brother.”
I search his face. Yes, a slightly older, slightly weightier version, but it’s Glen.
“Oh my God! You used to own this house? That’s the weirdest coincidence ever. How are you? How’s Em?”
“Right,” he says, and without missing a beat, he gets to it. “Em. Well, she passed on, three years ago actually. Cancer.”
Five days later, I am sitting in the corner at my favourite coffee bistro. A group enters, and something makes me take note of them. Once they get their coffee, they stride over and stand in front of me.
A man steps forward then speaks. “Karalee,” he says, “I can’t believe it’s you. You look exactly the same. “
I wrestle memory to place him.
“It’s Paul,” he says, “Em’s brother. I live in Toronto now, but I’m in town just for today. It’s a miracle I’ve run into you. I need to tell you about Em.”
But I already know. I already know that Em is dead.
They leave, and I sip my coffee as I realign the trajectory of my life without Em walking the earth, for real and forever.
Em always thought she would die young, and that it would be cancer that did her in. Whenever she’d say that to me, I’d pooh poohed her and change the topic. But the impossible, the improbable, the unthinkable had been real for almost three years.
So now, what is there to do save release the certainty I’d been harbouring that one day fate would bring us together, like it had before, and close the door forever to a future day when we might careen into each other, and I would apologize, beg her forgiveness and fling myself into her arms—and that she would forgive me and we would celebrate and then she would be my crazy Em, and we would flop on a bed and have a laugh and then just like that, we’d re on again.
Em is with me, still lodged under my skin and knocking about in my head, as inexorable in death as in life. My attempts to lay memories of her to rest in a peaceful place continue to fail me.
Its likely selfishness that keeps her with me, a hanging on to assuage the guilt, regret and remorse that in some weird way, serve to candy-coat my callous, shameful dismissal of her in lieu of facing truth.
There is no saying sorry or I love you to Em now, and in spite of the obvious, in spite of the reality that death rendered amends moot, the desire to do so will not go away.
So I ask her, out loud, standing in Halifax, in my cave, in my bedroom, “Em, what is it then that I can do?”
And of course, she cannot tell me.
I sit at my computer because all I know to do is to write, and maybe that might be the way to allow whatever it is that she may have to say or what I can learn to come through.
At my desk, my ten fingers rest in their place of comfort, the keyboard. Slowly, I begin to tap out words, and I end up drafting a note I’d had no intention of ever writing. It is a note for someone with whom I recently parted, in that throwing out the baby with the bathwater kind of way I still seem to do.
Through the day, I keep returning to the note, writing, rewriting, editing, reediting, until the day is finally through, and I’m back in bed, and I turn out the light.
The next day, after I wake up, and I’ve had my coffee and returned from my run, I sit on my bed with my computer and reread the note. It’s short, to the point, succinct. And I recognize it for the lifeline it is to a place, different from the one Em and I shared, back when we didn’t know any better.
At some point, if you’re lucky, maybe there is a way to accept and draw strength from other’s for what is hard to do. And maybe this note that I never knew I wanted to write is one of those junctures.
I imagine Em, now, on the bed beside me, flopping backwards and throwing her arms above her head, and I hear her voice in my head, yelling at me in exasperation, “Just do it already.”
It’s because of and for Em that I click send.