Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Stations of the Breath - Part One

"Wear your inside out
Dreaming of mercy..."
- Peter Gabriel

"After the first death, there is no other."
-Dylan Thomas

You have to start somewhere.

So, as weird as it sounds, the start and middle and end of my story smells like powdered strawberries.

To be a little more clear, it smells like the powered strawberry flavouring that you drop into into a milkshake. It doesn’t resemble real strawberry in the least, but it smells like a good try. You understand what it’s supposed to be.

I took part in a musical in my first year of high school – grade 10 – as part of the lighting crew. I worked dragging sets on and offstage and I wasn't the guy who filled the fog machine with what we were calling ‘fog juice’ – what would you call it? - I was just one of the two guys who applied it onstage. One of us would walk backwards slowly with the machine at ankle-height, spreading the low-hanging and slightly oily mist along the stage so it would rise thick and lingering when the curtain went up.

We were doing this in May of 1984. The weather was already hot and humid. The auditorium was air-conditioned but the curtain made a tent of heat and strawberry-powder-scented-fake-fog that wasn’t particularly good for you. I don’t find that scent very often. I don’t make milkshakes and only come across it sometimes at Halloween at some of the more enthusiastic households where I take my son trick-or-treating, or at a few product launches and clubs I’ve attended when some organizer decided the best way to give the event a sense of occasion was to have some spotlights and fog.

I have to point this out because of the association. There’s no metaphor or poetry to it. It was just there. When I talk to one of the handful of people involved with that show at the time, I’ll remember everything around it and think about that scent. It’s not welcome, exactly. But it’s not worth dreading. It’s simply part of what happened at the time. It’s a fact, rather than an embellishment.

Jump ahead a few decades to meeting up with Kelly, who was part of my grade 10 theatre class. She was blonde and pretty and could easily pass for 18 years old when she was 15 years old and was a welcome guest at any party where somebody was needed buy beer without an age of majority card. She left the school at the end of grade 11 and I was heartbroken in a platonic sort of way – she had been one of a small cadre of friends in first year, which had felt very long and eventful, and she was wrapped up with all of the problems in the year that followed.

I have to say ‘problems’.

'Trauma' sounds melodramatic.

'Tragedy' always implies an accident to me, although the word is closer to what it felt like at the time.

Just referring to it as ‘the incident’ is damned cold.

So I'll call it 'the problems' for want of a better term. A shorthand summation for something too complicated to give it a name.

Back to Kelly. I was platonically heartbroken for a few weeks when I found out she'd transferred schools, and by half-way through that next year she was off my radar and I was little more than slightly amused to see her show up in our cafeteria for a visit.

Then I didn’t see her until 2011. That’s 27 years, for anyone who can’t do the math on short notice. It's a rather long time by anyone's estimation, and the statute of limitations on teenage embarrassment expired decades ago and we reconnected via Facebook, so when I was working for a few days in Whitby (where she works) we decided to meet at a Starbucks to chat.

A few Facebook messages do not a re-kindled friendship make, but…c’mon. Nobody has ever maliciously invited me for a cup of coffee. And I’d always liked Kelly; I was delighted to know that some of the more pleasant remnants of teenage memories still walked the earth. I’d been taking full advantage of the free wi-fi and knocking back cafĂ© au laits for around 45 minutes when she walked in and said “It’s been years Mike, and I still find you writing crap and hanging out in cheap restaurants.”

And I said “I don’t see you for literally – literally – more than a quarter century and the first thing you do is insult me. It’s gotta be you.”

So we hugged. It was warm and sweet. It was welcome.

We spent five or ten minutes talking about mutual friends and gave each other a rundown of spouses and kids and jobs and a few minutes worth of complaint about high school traumas with the distinct sense that anything that’s fallen away wasn’t actually worth worrying about (even at the time), but anything that still rankles even now has got to have been a legitimate grievance. This is a cute trick one develops with age; it’s sort of cross between self-righteousness and grudge-holding. It’s tons of fun and one of the few perks in meeting somebody decades after you last met.

I dropped a few names that she might know, she said she didn’t know them. I said something like ‘You’d left the school by then,’ and she said “Yeah. I couldn’t stand Ms. Archer” – one of our theatre teachers, and I recall that the dislike was mutual - “I didn’t think she should have been messing with our heads like that. We were too young for those kinds of workshops.”

I nodded in agreement. Then she said “And Zoe. I couldn’t stay after Zoe.”

And there’s nothing to say for a few seconds.

I'd suspected that was one of the reasons she left. They hadn’t been close friends as far as I remember, but there was a pall over everything for the rest of the year after Zoe and there was a lot of raw feeling. You dealt with it, or ignored it.

I’ve had a lot of chats like this since ’85. The numbers don’t really matter; people will bring her name up even now without quite knowing why, never in a positive way, never fixated-upon exactly but just to bring up something that happened and if we still can't understand why, so be it.

But this handful of people I just mentioned are those who I’ve known consistently over the years. Kelly surprised me (but not really) since we had been twenty seven years apart and Zoe's name was still written upon that time. Her mention wasn't a conversation stopper but an acknowledgement that only made sense to you if you’d been there and seen it.

So we changed topics, and it was lovely. Facebook is a waste of time but occasionally you connect with somebody you remembered well from with years before and you're not disappointed at the re-connection. That’s comforting. I can’t even say that I hadn’t thought about Zoe for a long time, but I just couldn’t guess that it would be one of the first topics between us, so much later.

Continued in Part Two


patti said...

I am caught.

I await the continuation.

Kirsty said...

Brings back memories and I look forward to the next instalment.

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