Authors: Elisabeth de Mariaffi
Dancing on the Tether
Kiss Me Like I'm The Last Man On Earth
He Ate His French Fries in a Lightâhearted Way
Ajaccio Belonged to the Genoese
Everything Under Your Feet
Jim and Nadine, Nadine and Jim
The Astonishing Abercrombie!
How to Get Along with Women
You Know How I Feel
This one is for Nora and for Desmond
Dancing on the Tether
Zelda comes up the laneway on her bicycle, going slow because it's dusty and because sometimes a pickup pulls out quick, the driver not expecting anyone to be walking or cycling way out here. She can see Tim about halfway down the drive working on the Ranger, his head down in the engine and she leans her bike against the fence and takes her schoolbag, which was hanging across her chest for the ride, and lifts it over her head and lets it hang from just one shoulder and walks up behind him.
I need to ask you a favour.
He doesn't look up. He says, Pass me that screwdriver there, babe.
Zelda hands him the screwdriver. Seriously. Tim.
He pulls his head and shoulders out from under the hood and turns, flips his chin at her.
Take your shirt off.
Tim. She steps toward him a little and rocks back and forth on her heels.
I need something.
So do I, baby.
I need you to do something for me.
He puts the screwdriver down, leans his head down too. Lifts up his eyes to look at Zelda. You know you're no fun.
He's squinting. There's a lot of cloud but it's bright cloud. Zelda doesn't answer right away and he picks up the screwdriver again and goes back to work on the V belt. There's some wind and the hood shakes a little, propped up there. Tim stays bent over. Zelda wonders if the wind were strong enough, could the hood fall down on his shoulders.
Tim lived with them, Zelda and Mary, for six whole months back in the winter and spring. He used to take Max for walks and he let Zelda tag along and showed her how to get Max to drop one stick before you throw another. He got up and made macaroni and cheese for breakfast when Mary was out working late the night before and once when he was rolling up a joint on the kitchen table, Zelda knocked over a glass of milk and soaked his rolling papers and he didn't even lose his shit.
Zelda says, I need you to drive me up north.
Fuck. Gimme that impact driver.
She finds it and gives it over.
I want to see where I was born.
Who knows where you were born, Tim says. He strips the belt out nice and clean, tosses it down, reaches back for the new one. Zelda picks it up and hands it to him. She doesn't say anything for a while. Tim's shoulders rock a little.
You know I'm not even fucking your mom anymore. Go ask someone else. Ask Ray.
Ray's a jackass, Zelda says. That makes Tim feel okay and he brings a greasy hand up to rub his beard and hide it.
Ray brings over these big cheap cowboy steaks and pretends like they're something good, Zelda says. Mary can't even stand him half the time. She just needs someone around to, I don't know.
I know, Tim says. I know what she needs him for.
They stand there a minute with Tim still leaning under the hood but he looks at her and his hand drops and he bounces the impact driver against his thigh a few times.
Mary says Thunder Bay.
Zelda gives it to him. His shoulders give a last hard shudder. He straightens up and stretches his neck to the side, reaches for the prop and lets the hood fall back into place.
What do you really want to go up to Thunder Bay for?
I'll fuck you, Tim. If you take me.
Tim throws his tools into the box and he latches it and turns around and points a finger at her. No you won't. You say you will but you won't.
You're just too old for me, Tim.
They walk around the back of the house and up onto the porch. He has a big wooden table up there under the overhang and he slides the toolbox under the bench and they sit down. He takes a booklet of Zig-Zag out of his shirt pocket and raps the end of it against the tabletop and Zelda opens up her bag and takes out her stuff.
So? Zelda says.
So what? You got any tobacco, or just that shit?
Take me driving, Tim, Zelda says. You love my shit.
She'd been down to Turkey Point with Lorna Gallant and some boys they know. This was a few weeks earlier. One of the boys had a sky blue Impala and they parked it at the bottom of Ferris Street and went and sat around on the shore and let the wind push at their shoulders. Mary closes the bar on Wednesday and Thursday nights, so she doesn't notice if Zelda comes home late. Even if the school calls to say Zelda never showed up, Mary doesn't answer the phone. She turns it off so she can get some sleep.
It was maybe the last really good day. The rocks were all hot to touch, but the air off the lake was sharp and getting colder. Lorna wanted her sweater from the car. Zelda lay back and let one of the boys pile pebbles into her belly button. They were talking about music. When she saw that Lorna had gone up to where they'd parked, she rolled over and stood up and followed her. For God's sake, she said, Don't just leave me there. These weren't even boys they particularly liked.
They came back down to the water together and took off their shoes and socks and stuck their feet in and played around, wringing their hands and making a lot of exaggerated talk about how icy it was. Their toes got blue, wading, and when they came out the sand was wet and caked onto their feet and they didn't have a towel to clean them with, so they had to wait before they could put their shoes back on and this made them even colder and they laughed louder than ever. One of the boys had brought some beer and they made a fire on the beach and pried off the bottle caps with a penknife. Zelda said she knew a girl who'd done the same thing using her mouth instead of a knife and broke her front tooth. The boy with the pebbles put his arm around Lorna and started singing a song he knew about being drunk in New York City, but he hadn't brought a guitar or anything. When the sun started to go down there was an argument about leaving.
In the car on the way home, Zelda pulled Lorna into the back seat so they could ride together, and they slung their legs over each other and took turns braiding each other's hair. The boys slouched up front and played with the radio and rolled cigarettes. There was a Perly's Ontario mapbook, dirty on the floor and after Lorna went to sleep, Zelda got herself busy looking at it.
Thunder Bay is about the farthest you can go without leaving the province. You drive all the way up the number six to Tobermory, then you hop a boat to Manitoulin. The boat is called the Chi Chi Maun. On the other side of the island there's no boat, just a road that cuts over bits and pieces of water until you hit real land and all that big space between towns. The towns called Spanish, Blind River, Marathon, Wild Goose.
Tim gets up and takes the bag of pot from Zelda. My fee, he says. He goes inside for a minute. When he comes back out he's wearing a plaid shirt and carrying a pack of Djarum Black.
Cloves'll punch a hole in your lung, he tells her. Lighting up her smoke.
Zelda thinks about that and pulls hard on the clove. The buzz comes up through her nose like something sharp, horseradish, and she shakes her head and sniffs and feels the smoke settle into her chest.
She roasted a rabbit once, the week before, and was surprised by the range of organs left by the butcher, tidily laid out in the cavity. The lungs had been something spongy, only light. Like mousse, Zelda thinks. Or meringue, before you bake it.
Mary reckons up. There was the incident with Max. That, and whether or not they could now be expected to recover. After she got Zelda calm and in bed, Mary tried to talk to Ray about it. He was down in the dark, watching some sitcom rerun and drinking from a bottle of scotch. He set the bottle on the floor next to his armchair and Mary sat in the chair opposite, half-watching the show, half-thinking how to say something without getting to Ray, getting his hackles up. Ray talked to her but looked at the screen and reached down for the bottle, unscrewed the cap, poured and replaced the cap, all without moving his eyes.
You always make it so I look bad, Ray said. You always make me the bad guy.
That's not true, Ray. Mary's voice slow and even. Kind, but not too kind: a mix of tenderness and remorse. Important that nothing sound like confrontation.
What I said was the opposite of that. That he's just a dog and it's my fault, you know, because I didn't train him, but there you go. He chews shit and you can rub his nose in it, but it won't pay you in the end, to get Zelda so upset, do you see that? She had a blue and white pack of cigarettes down in her lap and she opened and closed the lid without looking.
It was after two. The whole ordeal had gone on for an hour, with Zelda near hysterics and Mary holding onto her and then the dog whimpering in the kitchen for nearly another hour after that. They'd come in from the car, Ray already in a black moodâZelda after Mary's attention all night at the arenaâand they found the mess and Ray took off his belt. A lot, a lot just to hold Zelda back, and Mary's whole body cold with it. Not crying, just cold and sick. And then Zelda finally asleep and Mary wanting only to lie down on the kitchen floor herself with the dog, or to bring Max with her to Zelda's room and curl up in bed, curve her body against Zelda's with the dog down at their feet.
If they hadn't come home, if Ray had been working; if she'd been working. Ray had his own place still. If she'd held his hand back and not Zelda's.
Mary looked at Ray and thought about whether or not she could go upstairs. Was he likely to follow her up or just keep drinking here until he passed out. The key is to get the nod. Something between forgiveness and permission. You don't feel safe until you get that.
Is Ray gone, Zelda wants to know in the morning.
No. He's here. He's sleeping.
After Zelda leaves for school, late on her bicycle, Mary cleans the kitchen: every piece of cutlery, the burnt-milk saucepan, the bowls hardened with yesterday's cereal and Lipton noodles. Ray gets up and she can see he's still drunk. His eyes haven't changed. He might just as well be sitting in the dark basement again. She hears him get up and pee and then she hears the buzz of the electric razor and he stands in the bathroom and shaves his head clean. When he comes out to the kitchen he says, Hey Max. Hey boy, we're pals, right, and the dog flattens his ears and lies down and rolls on the floor at his feet. Ray looks up at Mary with his dead eyes and says nothing.
Then: Don't look at me like that. He jams his feet down into his boots and pushes hard enough at the screen that he may as well snap it. The house stinks. She walks around opening up the windows and drags the vacuum upstairs so she can get rid of Ray's black hair lying in a spray all over the bathroom floor, but she doesn't plug it in. She goes into Zelda's room and pulls a red hoodie out of the drawer and puts on her jeans and drums her hands against her thighs and calls out so the dog will come. She wants to see how he's walking. She closes up all the windows again.
For a week she and Zelda were on their own, Ray up in Walkerton nailing shingles. They got down to making dinner together, Zelda laying a rabbit out in the roasting pan and Mary carving potatoes into little balls and rolling them in parsley. At least with Tim there weren't fights. A pothead and a partier, but he held his job and liked to cook pancakes on Saturday mornings. They didn't have much to say to each other. He liked the dog. He sat and watched Mary read the paper with the sunlight warming her feet on the white couch.
Max comes over now and Mary leashes him up and then she locks the door and they start down the street. When they come to the corner she stops a moment and looks over at the market. There's a few people huddled outside, drinking coffee from styrofoam cups with their collars wrapped high around their necks, and they're smoking cigarettes and she remembers how sometimes on a cold day smoking can make you feel better.
Mary! one of them yells, a guy she serves at the bar. He doesn't have a name. His name is jack-and-coke.
Her hands are in her pockets already, keeping warm, so she knows she doesn't have any money for coffee or for cigarettes, and instead of crossing the street she turns Max left and they walk off down Powell and toward the river. It's a long walk. When they get to where the trail opens up she takes Max into the woods and they go through where it's muddy, following tire tracks left by a few mountain bikes earlier in the day. The sky is grey and bright and heavy. Max pulls on his lead. There's a slap down along the water and Mary looks up and sees the ass end of a beaver disappear under the surface and Max whines and she realizes he must have been watching it for some time.
They come out into a little clearing where the bikers have patched together a few ramps by digging out the hollows around tree roots. Off to one side there's a pile of old liquor bottles lying under a tree and Max pulls to go over for a better smell. A thin path branches off the clearing near the bottles and Mary gives it a look to see if it's wide enough for them to follow without Max getting full of burrs. There's another, smaller pile of bottles and some other junk as well, a few old rags of clothing, some cracked plastic toys, a baby's cup. Mary lets her eyes follow the trunk into the branches, up to a mobileâforty or fifty pieces of dollar store ribbon, each dangling a fork or a knife or a spoon off the end, and set far enough apart so as not to get tangled in the wind. Every time the branches move, the cutlery ripples and Mary stands there awhile, watching this, and thinking how the stainless steel must have glinted back in the summer sun.
The beaver is gone. There's no sound, not even the wind or the rustle and clink of the mobile. She leads Max back out to the clearing and hooks his leash around a stump, then goes over to the first pile and crouches down and picks up a couple of Sauza bottles and throws them hard as she can into the woods. The leaves lift off the trees: there's a bunch of crows hiding out in the branches and they flap away, crying out. Mary's chest loosens a little and she picks up a few more bottles and throws them too. They explode over the other side of the clearing, all over the trail and the makeshift ramps, Max dancing on his tether and whining the whole time.
They drive for about an hour and then Tim pulls over at a McDonald's and orders a Big Mac in the wrapper and he buys Zelda a Coke and an apple pie. They eat and he drives. Zelda sucks on her straw. It gets noisy against the crushed ice at the bottom of the cup and she tosses the whole thing down onto the truck floorâmaybe this will get a rise out of him, but it doesn't. She kicks at the cup a little. Tim steers one-handed with a cd case flat and open between his knees. He pushes the disc into the player, snaps the case shut and tosses it down into the door pocket. Cranks up the volume. They're driving with the windows down.
It wouldn't be that much further just to take me where I'm going to, Zelda says, loud over the music. I'm going anyway. You got nothing else keeping you busy.
The road is clear and open ahead of them. 2:05 p.m. by the clock on the dash. Zelda adds an hour in her head, since a knob broke off back in the winter and Tim hasn't bothered to fix it forward after daylight savings. The air coming in the window doesn't do much to cool her. She might go to sleep.
Tim says, If you miss the six o'clock you'll be stuck overnight in Tobermory. That's as far as he'll take her. So he says.
She doesn't have a plan for after Manitoulin and Tim knows it. She doesn't say anything back. She leans out and looks to see if he's watching her, the tip of her sunglasses in the side mirror. He is. Her shoulders square and sharp. There's a line to her jaw that's like Mary. She rubs the plastic bracelet up and down her arm.
Empty road behind them and nobody in front either. She checks to make sure he's still looking. In the sky it's sun and no clouds, the scrub on the roadside burnt back flat.
Weather moves fast the further north you go, Tim says.
Someone laid an inukshuk out on the high median and it's the only thing there.
Zelda reaches down and unclips her seatbelt. The mechanism clicks and then she's up and over the gear shift and straddling him, her back against the steering wheel, his driving arm pinned under her body. The truck swings sharp across the median and then back toward the gravel shoulder.
Tim's foot hard on the brake.
Jesus Fuck Jesus!
His shoulder hits the door and Zelda goes out onto the road. He sits there a moment with his door wide open then kills the engine. Gets out and leans his hands on his knees.
He spits once.
Zelda pulls herself up, looks down hard at the painted yellow line, and walks toward him. She's got a sore shoulder and for a moment she stops and rubs it with one hand, but she can walk.
What the fuck! You threw me out in the ROAD!
The truck with two wheels on the shoulder. When Tim straightens up she draws back both arms and pushes hard against his chest and he takes a step or two backward.
What was that shit? What the fuck do you think you're doing?
If she was a boy he'd knock her down.
Zelda says, What if a fucking car had been behind us?
He looks behind them. Nothing on the road.
I don't need your help, she says.
When they get back in the truck Tim leans over and jams the tongue of Zelda's seatbelt hard into the buckle.
Ow, she says. She throws her leg up on the dash and taps with the toe of her boot on the windshield. He puts on the signal and pulls out. When they've gone fifteen miles or so, the Fifth Wheel comes up on the right and he puts the signal back on again.
I'm taking a piss, Tim says.
I'm coming, Zelda says. The two of them walk into the store to get the bathroom key. Zelda picks up a pack of Sesame Snaps.
I'm not buying you fucking candy.
You gotta buy something or they won't give you the key.
Tim smacks the package on the counter and digs around in his pocket for quarters. Zelda leans over and grabs the key to the men's. They go straight to the back of the store and Zelda opens up the door and holds it for Tim and then follows him through. He unzips. Zelda watches him peeing.
What'd you do that for? Tim says.
Jump on me in the truck. He shakes off and zips up.
I love you Tim.
Fuck you Zelda.
Okay. I want to keep you. Maybe I can do something you like.
Tim. Zelda throws the taps on. Wash your hands, she says. Tim steps up to the sink and pushes her aside with one hand, not hard.
You got Ray.
He runs his hands under the water and turns the taps off.
Ray's doing fucking rails on the fucking kitchen table at night. Zelda steps sideways, clear of the paper towel dispenser, and hops up to sit on the sink.
And Tim, she says. He hits Max.
He hits the dog?
He beat him with a belt. We came home and he'd chewed up a patch cord and Ray went fucking nuts and took off his belt and beat him with it. He was screaming.
Tim turns away and rams the handle of the paper towel holder up and down a few times, then rips off a long sheet.
Ray was screaming?
What did Mary do?
She was holding me back.
Jesus fucking Christ, Zelda.
I want to keep you, Tim.
The door handle rattles and from the outside a man yells Phyllis, you in there?!
Zelda jumps off the sink. She pulls her sweater over her head and throws her arms up around Tim's neck. She still has her t-shirt on and it lifts off the waistband of her jeans with her arms up high like that. She's not wearing a bra.
What do you weigh, Zelda, ninety pounds? Tim says. Her skinny legs and the ribs sticking out under her breasts. She tries kissing Tim's neck and he shakes her off a little.
Phyllis I said that you in there?!
It's not fucking Phyllis, fuckhead, Tim says and outside the man slumps off to try the next locked door.
Zelda pulls back and runs her hands under some water in the sink, then rubs them through Tim's beard. Her hands are warm and his wet beard feels good to her. She waits until she knows he's looking, pulls the front of her t-shirt up to the shoulder and holds it there.
When Zelda gets home Mary is there, vacuuming in her purple slip. The slip is satin with black lace trim along the neckline and down at the hem, where it grazes Mary's thighs.
This place is a fuzz palace, she says. She has music on, and there's the noise of the vacuum and Mary singing along This here's a story of Billy Joe and Bobbie Sue... Zelda goes into the kitchen.
Slip is the wrong word. A slip is something you wear under clothes, under a suit, to prevent static cling. It goes with a blouse and a hat, gloves even. It goes under.
She goes to the fridge and pours herself a glass of half grape juice, half ginger ale and then gets out a spoon and adds a scoop of vanilla from the freezer. The ice cream has frost crystals over the top of it and Zelda has to dig down underneath to get to the part that's good. She takes her drink and sits down at the table.
It's really a nightie.
Mary comes into the kitchen and says, What am I, Susie Homemaker? and sits down too and Zelda lets her have a sip of her drink and then she gets up and makes Mary one, too, just the same except with more ice crystals in it. There's getting to be almost none of the good part left.
Zelda says, Ray coming over?
There's animal hair everywhere, Mary says. I could spend all day cleaning, and sit down for an hour and look at it all clean and by the end of the hour it would be like this again. Just like this.
If he comes, do you think he'll bring those steaks again? Because I might be vegetarian. I've been thinking about it. You know, because the only way to eat a steak is real rare, and that seems sacrificial. To me.
Do you think there's much point? Mary says.
To being vegetarian?
To cleaning up. To making the fake house.
Zelda brings her hands up to her face and combs her fingers through her hair. She gets the smell of the clove cigarette and Tim's truck and the McDonald's pie, his wet beard against her fingers.
I was thinking that if you change what goes in your body, then maybe you change what it does, Zelda says.
Think it can go backwards? Mary says.
Like how? Zelda says. There's a little foamy cream down in the bottom of her glass, a bit of white froth that hasn't totally sunk into grape-colour. Where's Max? she says suddenly.
I locked him outside in the back. He was attacking the vacuum cleaner. He's okay. I took him for a long walk.
He's okay, Mary says again.
Her long hair hanging loose over one shoulder. She draws her leg up onto the chair and hugs her knee and lets her chin rest on it. She looks at Zelda.
Zelda sees Mary's top lip is stained purple from the drink, the same colour as the slip. Nightie. Whatever.
We could just move more, Zelda says. You could throw away the vacuum and whenever it gets too hairy in a place, we just vacate.
Vamoose, Mary says.
Can I let Max back in now?
Vacate, Mary says. I wonder.
Kiss Me Like I'm The Last Man On Earth
I met Asher Katz in the spring of 1984, when I was ten years old and he was already eleven. He came loping over the parking lot at my grandmother's condo on Bathurst Street, a shiny black condom machine hoisted on one shoulder and a toolbox in the other hand. He was wearing a Run DMC t-shirt and a yarmulke and his jeans were hemmed up high so his bony ankles stuck out. His father was the Vending Machine King of Lawrence West.
What do all these alte Kakes need with condoms? my grandmother said. We had just come in from Open Window bakery and she had a shopping cart with a caraway rye and nothing else in it. I spent all my Saturdays with her, grocery shopping and sitting around at her place while she gave voice lessons to adults who had regular jobs during the week.
It's for the laundry room, Asher said, and I pictured all my grandmother's old Jewish neighbours standing around in their underwear and girdles, helpless with boredom in front of the dryers. Location location location, Asher said.
My grandmother was probably the only gentile in that building. She was married to a Viennese Jew thirty years her senior and nailed a Mezuzah to her threshold so that no one would ask questions. Outside the condo she had an aggressive anxiety about being mistaken for a Jew that was left over from her days as a Hungarian refugee. Once when she was sitting on the Bathurst bus an old man pushed up his shirt sleeve and flashed her his Auschwitz tattoo.
Where is your number? the man said. She took this for a come-on and called him an old cocksucker.
I couldn't see a lot of difference between my grandmother and the other old ladies in that building: she baked the same cookies and spoke the same Yiddish-inflected German. She played mah-jongg on Wednesday afternoons. Inside the apartment there were only a few religious icons. On the shelf she had a velvet-covered pocket bible that had belonged to her mother and there was a rosary in her jewellery drawer. In the bathroom she had an electrified portrait of the Virgin Mary. Mary was peeling the flesh back from her ribcage like a cardigan. Inside glowed a tiny red lamp: her bleeding heart.
Because we were both kids and that building was adults-only, Asher and I fell in together almost defensively. He'd been working the machines since he was seven and made his rounds every Saturday like other kids with their paper routes. I don't remember anyone introducing us. The day we met, we all stood outside the elevators with both arrows, up and down, shining orange. When the doors opened, my grandmother went upstairs with a red-haired woman named Marijke Smirins and I followed Asher down to the laundry room. I stood under the machine and braced it with my shoulder while he used a plug-in drill to screw it to the wall.
Asher was a Latvian Jew. I knew about Latvians because my public school downtown hosted Heritage Language. Every Saturday and all summer long, the teacher parking lot filled up with beaten-down old Volvos and VWs and Pontiacs bearing the SVEIKS bumper sticker. Latvians, my father said low in his throat whenever we saw one of these cars driving down Bayview Avenue, his voice a mix of disapproval and disbelief. He looked upon nationality as a matter of character. How could anyone could choose their heritage so poorly?
SVEIKS always looked to me like the kind of word that should be painted across the side of a Viking ship. It looks Swedish.
It means Latvia, my mother told me.
It means Hello, Asher said, tightening a bolt on the machine. Jesus. He was good at swearing in the way experience has shown me all Eastern Europeans are. He liked to bring the Messiah into it when he could. I thought it sounded dirty and ravenous coming from him. The way Asher smiled I could tell he would do it just to please me.
I asked him if he went to Heritage Language and he didn't even look up. I'm a Jew, he said. I don't go to Russian school. I go to Hebrew school.
You mean after school?
No, that's my school. Hebrew school.
My own family was ethnically Catholic at best. My parents ran their lives on very practical terms. Ours was a secular existence for the most part and I had only recently begun to understand that there were whole worlds outside of “Catholic” and “Jewish,” the only two categories I'd ever had contact with. My Girl Guide troop met in the basement of Bethel Baptist church; once a year we paraded in on a Sunday morning to commemorate Lady Baden-Powell's birthday. After the service we ate tiny white-bread sandwiches with all the congregation ladies and one of the other girls told me she was United.
Is that Catholic? I asked. She frowned and bit into a deviled egg.
Asher's account of Glencairn Chabad was news to me: a religious school that replaced regular school.
Is it like French immersion?
The machine was on the wall now and Asher grabbed a corner of it and shook, to make sure it was fastened nice and tight.
No, he said.
But you learn Hebrew.
And pray and stuff?
So is it like Sunday school?
Do you still have to do math?
Asher dropped his wrench back into the toolbox and snapped the lid.
It's like French immersion, he said.
I had gone to Hungarian school just once, at the Magyar HÃ¡z on St. Clair West. It was a dark room filled with rows of desks; in the desks, children traced stencils of the Hungarian alphabet. You had to follow the dotted lines to form the letters. That makes it sound as though the Hungarian alphabet is somehow its own thing, like Cyrillic or Kanji, but it's no different from the Latin alphabet I had already mastered in public school. What the dotted lines were really teaching was the kind of stylized, uniform cursive that every Hungarian kid is expected to learn: penmanship, Soviet-style. My mother, seeing herself as progressive, was horrified at the thought of confining me to a dark room and the mindless drudgery of stencils.
We have so little good weather in this country! she said to my father. It was her way of saying that kids should be allowed to play outside after school. As a result my Hungarian cultural training was restricted to the banter and dirty language of Uncle Bug-Eye IstvÃ¡n, who came for lunch every second Sunday, and the occasional evening out at the CsÃ¡rda, a supper club for Hungarians where my parents liked to go and listen to Transylvanian gypsies.
The Latvian school kids were not so lucky. From the ages of four to twelve, their Saturdays were consigned to Latvian Heritageâand its Language. It disturbed me to think of another child sitting at my public school desk, perhaps using my coloured pencils, perhaps even thinking of it as his own desk, while I took advantage of the precious little sun and fresh air that a country like Canada offered. While I rode my bicycle around and around our paved-over front yard, I was always half thinking about that Latvian kid sitting in my desk and what he might be up to. In grade three I made a koala bear out of papier mÃ¢chÃ© and got so worked up over its safety, vis-Ã -vis the Latvians, that my mother had to drive me to school on a Saturday morning to retrieve it.
She stood in the door holding my coat, while I walked across the classroom to the art table. The Latvian teacher stood there, too, with her arms at her sides. In my desk there was boy about three years younger than me. He was tracing a stencil. The art table was jammed with papier mÃ¢chÃ© animals. I grabbed my koala and hugged it against my hip. The Latvians looked at me. They didn't seem surprised to see a public school kid on a craft rescue mission. A girl in the front row sucked on the tip of her blond braid.
In the car I looked down at the koala in my lap. It was about a foot-and-a-half long with a blotchy red mouth. I had spent days building it up with paste and newspaper, also spreading the paste over my arms and hands. When it dried, it made my skin look wrinkled, like I was old.
I wedged my fingernail up underneath the buttons and picked off the koala's eyes.
Russians, my mother said from the front seat.
From what Asher said, Glencairn Chabad sounded like those schools they made movies about in the 60s, like the Summerhill school or Waldorf, except instead of blonde hair and English accents the kids were all brunette and wore Star of David necklaces. I liked how everyone shared a common identity: the big white and blue flag, the special holidays, the packed-lunch sandwiches that all looked the same. In my own east-end neighbourhood, everybody had names like Fitzgerald or Mackenzie or Halliday or Jones, and they lived in brick houses with hamsters and guinea pigs or a wall of pet birds in cages. At my public school downtown, my best friend My Le was a Vietnamese girl who had lived the startling and delicious experience of watching a man's dangling legs get sliced off when her own refugee boat scraped up against another boat in the Saigon harbour.
It's not all the same, Asher said. There's orthodox kids and immigrants and Israelis, he said. There's fights at lunch. Some people live in Forest Hill.
I didn't know where Israel was so he hauled out a book of maps to show me. I told him how when we were driving up Bathurst Street, my Uncle Bug-Eye IstvÃ¡n liked to lean out the car window and yell, The Arabs are coming! The Arabs are coming! whenever he thought an old lady was driving too slow.
Asher wasn't more than an inch or two taller than me and he still had his little-boy skinniness, all ribcage and big teeth at odd angles, but he approached grown-ups with a balanced irreverence. Where I was normally never allowed to go even as far as the smelly garbage chute in the hallway by myself, somehow if I was with Asher, my grandmother was only too pleased to wash her hands of me. The two of us roamed the neighbourhood for hours, checking stock in Asher's machines and buying cheese danishes at Open Window. I liked to go to Lawrence Plaza and try on high heel shoes and make him sit and watch me hobble up and down the aisles at Shoe Company. He threw his legs over the side of the armchair and held his head in his hands. I'm so Christ-fucking bored, he said.
It was the closest we came to flirtation. We'd leave the plaza and walk down the street, kicking each other viciously. Because my grandmother's apartment was an opera studio on the weekends, we usually ended up back in Asher's basement.
Asher's house reminded me a little of mine. It was clean, without all the stuff lying around I saw in other people's houses. His parents liked antiques and, aside from the basement, there was no wall-to-wall carpeting, just rugs on a wood floor. In the kitchen there were some plates hanging on the walls, and in the living room a lot of black and white photographs of aunts and uncles and great-grandparents back in Russia. There was a dining room with a big table and a blue tablecloth and a menorah on the window ledge. I'd been to a Jewish wedding once and sat at the kids' table and remembered that the bride had worn a pink dress and been carried around on a chair. Asher moaned about Friday suppers but to me it sounded really nice. God and Asher's family seemed like a tight-knit bunch. When we went to church on Sundays, my father closed his eyes during the homily and took a little nap.
His family had something else mine didn't: a clarity, a cut-and-dried vision of who they were versus everyone else. We all left Europe after the war, his people and mine, but there was a subtle difference in what happened next. Asher had escaped something. Not all the Hungarians tried to get out; we even knew some Hungarians in Toronto who decided to go back. When my uncle outside Budapest proudly showed off his Czech-built Skoda, a car he'd spent seven years on a waiting list to own, even I knew that he was a participant in the system.
I told Asher how my mother and grandmother had crossed the forest in the middle of the night to escape Hungary before the Revolutionânothing like escaping the Nazis. He shook his head and agreed.
One day Asher and I were sitting in my grandmother's kitchen eating plum dumplings rolled in sugar. My grandfather was sitting in a big chair in the living room listening to Wagner. He was actually my step-grandfather; my real grandfather had been a maniac and my grandmother divorced him when she got to Canada.
My grandmother was standing by the stove. She nodded toward the living room, where her husband was relaxing with his eyes closed.
Without Wagner, she said, he would have been a dead duck!
She said he had been interviewed by a Wagner-loving SS officer in Vienna in 1938. What were the chances of an opera-loving Jew and an opera-loving Nazi falling into the same interview room together? My grandfather had a little notebook where he recorded every opera he'd ever seen; he and the SS agent had a really good talk. At the end of the interview, there was a loudspeaker announcement. Anyone holding a PolenpaÃ had to proceed to the train. Polen means Poland in German. A PolenpaÃ is a ticket to Auschwitz. The SS officer looked at my grandfather, who was holding his ticket. He handed him a second pass, a ticket for a boat to Shanghai.
My grandmother pulled two more dumplings out of the pot. When we were living in High Park, she said, he disappeared one night. She gestured to my grandfather with her spoon. Early in the morning I found him lying out on a park bench. He'd taken a lot of pills, you see.
His mother went to Auschwitz, my grandmother said. He never forgave himself.
She looked at Asher: They all have to try it once.
Where I went to school downtown, there were no other Hungarian girls at all and only two Hungarian boys, GÃ¡bor and KÃ¡lmÃ¡n. Like all the full-grown Hungarian men I knew, their conversation started and stopped with opening a woman's legs.
I swore I'd never marry a Hungarian, my mother said as she arranged tomatoes and peppers on a plate for Sunday lunch.
My father of course was not just Hungarian; he was Transylvanian. This made him superior on many levels. The Transylvanians, he said, were the true Hungarians, Mongols left by Genghis Khan to colonize the Carpathian Mountains. These Mongol ancestors had left us with a language that bore no resemblance to those of our Slavic neighbours, an affinity for the training and riding of horses, and eyes so shallowly set that many of my aunts and uncles looked Asianâa fact I proudly pointed out to my friend My Le. My great-great-grandfather's likeness was embossed on the side of the biggest cathedral in Budapest. Strong as ten men, my father said, showing me a picture of the brass relief: a man in a rowboat, single-handedly saving the city from a flood.
I wanted to believe all these stories. The problem was that Hungary wouldn't cooperate. I didn't understand the politics but I knew that having money and buying things was good. When we went to Eastern Europe we had to line up at the border and bring used clothes for my cousins to wear. The biggest sin of communism was poverty.
At school I hid my ethnicity, sneaking the spicy salami out of my sandwich and eating plain rye bread and butter for lunch. When kids on the playground sang their own versions of popular songsâI was Born in the USSR! So I moved to the USA!âI felt implicated. We'd taken a trip back to Hungary the previous summer. In the small towns my relatives lived in identical, state-constructed apartment buildings and we walked from one aunt's house to the next, the old ladies lurching from side to side in their housedresses, gnarled feet in identical plastic sandals. On Saturday mornings they got up early to stand in line for bread and potatoes and sugar at the grocery store. We drove from village to village. When I got tired of looking at stork nests and sunflowers, I lay down in the back seat and listened to Bruce Springsteen and Laura Branigan on my Walkman.
In the country, things got a little more stark: Eat your soup! my mother hissed as I sat staring at dinner, a single chicken's claw groping out of a bowl of hot water.
When my grandmother's next student arrived, she put the rest of the dumplings on a piece of wax paper and Asher and I walked over to the plaza and back. It was only about two in the afternoon. Neither of us had any money and we sat around in the soft-carpeted basement of Asher's backsplit on Fairholme Avenue. Aside from all the regular basement stuffâtelevision, card table folded against the wall, a few naugahyde chairs including a red La-Z-Boy out of which I had just flipped backward onto my headâthere was a separate area that functioned as a storage space for the vending business. Little cartons of laundry soap and dryer sheets, plastic bottles of cheap perfume and stacks of packaged candy lined a crawl space that was only separated from the rec room by a low-slung saloon door.
Asher was sitting cross-legged in a beanbag chair. He flipped the remote. We were watching “When Doves Cry” on MuchMusic: Prince is in this steaming bathtub and then he gets up and you're supposed to think he's naked, but really he's got something around his waist that the camera wasn't meant to catch. MuchMusic was a brand new thing. There weren't any shows, just videos. Outside it was raining.
I am bored as shit, I said.
I looked over at the swinging saloon door and the stockpile of goods behind it. I always wanted to play store, or at least chew the gum and poke pinholes in the condoms, but Asher took his lower-management position to heart. He pulled a ledger out of the storeroom and tried to show me how he kept track of sales.
You're killing me, I said. I dropped off the La-Z-Boy onto the ground and lay there with my tongue hanging out sideways. I died. Your boringness made me die.
I'm not playing stupid House, Asher said. He was a little irritated that his bookkeeping had failed to impress me.
I didn't say House! I sat up and leaned back on my hands. Who said House? Who was talking House?
We should play Escape, I said. We should play Houdini.
Asher looked thoughtful.
We can play Lock-Up, he said. He said he had some rope left over from an old Hallowe'en costume: maybe that would come in handy.