BY MICHAEL JOLL
Copyright is held by the author.
“I WAS a real tomboy once,” Tiiu said, pondering too late the wisdom of sharing with Warren the details of that summer.
We confide in strangers, she told herself, things we would never tell a friend. Which was Warren? Neither? Both? She was no longer sure. No matter: She had opened her big mouth, so she only had herself to blame for whetting his curiosity.
Warren wrinkled his forehead.
“I can’t ever see you as a tomboy,” he said.
The slim, graceful white-haired woman sitting on the swing on the front porch beside him smiled and took a deep breath.
“I was always a tomboy,” she said, “as far back as I can remember, which was about when I was five or six. I played with boys at school. Most of my friends were boys. Of course I knew I was a girl, but I didn’t want to be one. I never wore dresses or skirts. I played hockey and soccer, on boys’ teams. I changed at home so no-one knew I was a girl. I had to quit when they found out.”
“And when did you stop being a tomboy, Tiiu?”
“The summer I turned 11.”
“And I’m sure you turned into a very pretty girl,” he said.
“Flattery will get you everywhere, Warren,” she said. “But you’d be wrong. I turned into an ugly duckling, everything growing in fits and starts; legs, then arms, then my back. Lumps and bumps where there had only been skin and bones before. I definitely didn’t turn into Hans Christian Andersen’s swan. My neck’s too short.”
They sat on the swing for a few moments, pushing it gently back and forth with their feet, relaxing in silence, sipping beer from the bottle with the condensation running down the brown glass into their wet palms as if they had been doing it all their lives. Warren was like that, Tiiu had come to recognize: Quiet, relaxed, slow-talking. No need for unnecessary words. They had seen each other off and on during the gardening season for maybe 10 years without saying much of consequence or intruding into the other’s life.
“Tiiu Crawford,” she said when they first met, she working in her flower garden, he walking his dog in front of her house in the quiet, old Brampton neighbourhood in suburban southern Ontario.
“Werner Sundstrom,” he replied, “but everyone calls me Warren,” and they shook hands.
Warren, she guessed, was a little older than her. She took in his fringe of wispy grey hair and pink scalp when he doffed his Panama hat to mop his head with a handkerchief. The waistline of his stocky build suggested he had not skipped breakfast in a while. And she did not overlook the hint of mischief in his grey eyes that cancelled out the angelic smile in his round face.
“Tiiu’s an unusual name,” he remarked.
“My gift from my Estonian mother,” she replied. “And my maiden name, Saarinen, from my Finnish father. Crawford came at the altar when I married Doug.”
“Ah,” he said, but did not elaborate. He smiled, a flash of white teeth in his ruddy face, and replaced his hat before continuing with his walk.
Over the years, “Mr. Sundstrom” had given way to Warren, and “Mrs. Crawford” to Tiiu. He lived a couple of streets over, he told her once, close by Duggan Park, on Woodward. If he had mentioned the number, she had forgotten it. Other than that, they were friendly, not-quite neighbours who exchanged a few pleasantries before he continued with his walk. On hot days Tiiu looked forward to Warren interrupting her weeding and a chance to linger in the shade of the beech tree on her front lawn.
That afternoon, a little later than usual, Warren strolled by while she was on her knees, pulling weeds from her front bed. She looked up, pressed her hands into the small of her back, and stretched. With the aid of a gardening fork she levered herself to her feet.
“You always have such a lovely garden,” Warren said, stopping on the sidewalk.
“Thank you,” she replied. “Water, fertilizer and a word of encouragement for the flowers. Death threats for the weeds.” She adjusted her sun hat and removed her gardening gloves before smoothing the front of her floral print sun dress. “I’ve missed you this past little while. Have you been away?”
“No. I haven’t been round for a month,” he said. “It’s Maizy. I had no excuse to go for a walk.” He sounded lacklustre.
“What’s wrong with Maizy?” She stopped. Warren’s poodle cross wasn’t with him.
“She had cancer. She was 14 years old. It was time to say ‘good-bye’. I had her put to sleep at the end of July.”
“I’m so sorry,” Tiiu said. “You must miss her. Come to think of it, I never saw you on a walk without her.”
“She was a good girl, and I do really miss her. But life goes on, and we should make the most of it.” He didn’t sound as if he believed it.
“I’ve done enough gardening for today,” she said. “The flowers won’t thank me for not dead-heading them, but the weeds get a temporary stay of execution. Why don’t we take a seat on the swing in the shade while you tell me all about her? Can I get you a beer? I could use a cold one.”
When Warren finished telling Tiiu about Maizy, he rested his empty beer bottle on his knee and picked at the label with his thumb nail. He turned his head and looked at Tiiu. “So what happened that summer that caused you to renounce tomboyhood and embrace femininity?”
He put his bottle down on the deck, sat back in the swing, and waited.
“If you really want to know,” she said, “I’ll tell you, if you promise not to tell a living soul, cross your heart and hope to die.”
Warren chuckled. “I haven’t heard anyone say that for years.”
“It was our greatest oath when we were growing up, my sister and I.”
“I promise; hope to die.” He made an X over his chest, pushed the swing back with his feet, and let go.
“It happened so long ago,” Tiiu said, “but I still remember it as if it happened this morning. I had just had my birthday, a month before school finished for the summer. What started on Canada Day week-end, Dominion Day as it was back then, came to a head the Sunday of Labour Day weekend. That was 51 years ago.” She glanced at Warren. “You can stop counting on your fingers. That makes me 62.”
Warren’s easy laugh came from his chest. “Math was never my strongest subject,” he said.
“I taught high school math. That made me the least popular teacher in school. Now, don’t interrupt.”
He made like a zipper being pulled tight over his mouth.
“It was like walking through a door,” she said, “and having it slam behind you. No going back, only the unknown future ahead, and I didn’t like the look of it. Nothing was the same again.”
Tiiu pushed the swing back and released it. “We lived in the Fort William side of Thunder Bay then,” she said, “in a tiny, two bedroom, wood-frame house. My father passed away when I was very young. I don’t remember him, so it was just me, my older sister and our mother. She was a teacher.”
Her grandfather owned a farm well outside the city, near where Highway 11 and the Trans Canada split, Tiiu explained. By the time she was born, the farmland was rented out for pasture.
“The farmhouse was still there,” she said, “a bit ramshackle for sure, but we had electricity and indoor plumbing, a good well, and a septic system that worked. We spent our school summer holidays there every year. Then the summer I turned eight and my sister was 13, she announced that she was too sophisticated to play with me anymore. Sophisticated. That was her word. I had no clue what it meant. Or what she was hinting at.”
Tiiu fell silent, rocking gently on the swing with Warren with her eyes closed, picturing the old, red brick house farmhouse and the huge barn with its dusty hay loft, the wooden swing fashioned from two-by-fours and an old couch creaking on the rickety front porch, and the tractor tire dangling from a rope looped over a tree limb, corkscrewing in the breeze. She heard the fat flies buzzing in the heat, and the squeaky screen door banging behind them as she and her sister dashed in and out. She smelled the cookies and muffins they baked on rainy days, and the bumbleberry pie they helped their mother make.
“There were woods, mostly birch and alder, down by the water,” Tiiu said. “The lake was maybe two kilometres long, and not very wide. The water wasn’t deep, so it warmed up pretty well by August if we had a good summer.”
The Jorgensen family had a cottage carved out of the spruce forest across the lake from the Saarinen farm, she said. They had a raft in the lake, about half way across. The Jorgensens had three boys. Pelle, the oldest, was 13, tall, blond-haired and blue-eyed. “I’d worshipped him since forever,” she confided to Warren with a nudge in the ribs. Pelle had twin brothers, the same age as her. The four of them played together every summer as far back as she could remember. They swam in the lake, wrestled, had sword fights, hiked through the woods and tracked wild animals.
Boys, Tiiu had long since realized, had all the fun. Girls did none of that stuff. They had to play with dolls, and do tea parties, and wear dresses on special occasions, which happened all too often. They had to wear tops to their swim suits, or a one piece. And bows in their hair.
“My hair was short,” Tiiu said, “too short for bows, thank goodness, much the same as it is now, and pale, pale blond.”
Warren glanced sideways at her.
“It turned white when I was 40,” she said. “I gave up colouring it 10 years ago, after Doug passed away. Pelle’s hair was over his ears,” she said, “and way longer than mine. He looked more like a girl than I did.”
“I remember those days well,” Warren said. “It was hard to tell boys from girls.”
“Don’t interrupt the teacher, Mr. Sundstrom,” she said, giving him a playful tap on his wrist.
She had wanted to be a boy in the worst possible way, she said. She didn’t ever remember wearing the top to her swim suit back then. Ever. She wore shorts, which she usually swam in, or jeans all summer, and never took a dress or a skirt to the farm so she couldn’t be made to wear one.
“My mother made me wear a T-shirt if we had visitors, otherwise I looked no different from the Jorgensen boys; skinny, all knees, elbows and shoulder blades.”
Tiiu took an unladylike swig of beer, then a second and a third, wondering how much more she should divulge.
“And . . . ?” Warren regarded her with raised eyebrows.
“You promise you won’t tell anyone?”
“Hope to die.”
She punched him playfully on the arm, like they used to do as kids, and took a final pull of her beer.
“Okay,” she said. “But I’m keeping you to your promise.” She wished the light buzz in her brain would take a hike.
The first day at the farm that summer, Tiiu told Warren, she saw Pelle and his brothers on the raft. She ran down to the dock, pulled off her runners and dove in.
“It was Jesus cold in the water after the late spring,” she said. She reached the raft and hauled herself up. Pelle watched her with a stern eye as she stood there, doubled over, hands on knees, shivering with goose bumps, dripping water and panting from the exertion of the swim. She straightened up.
“Hi, Pelle,” she said.
“You can’t play with us anymore,” he said.
She glared at him. “Why not?”
“Because you’re a girl.”
“So what! It’s never mattered before,” she countered.
“Well, it does now.”
Tiiu turned to Warren. “And then he poked me in the chest, right on the bull’s eye. I think you know where I mean.”
“‘That hurt,’ I yelled.
‘See?’ he said. ‘You’re getting boobs.’
‘Am not!’ I yelled back.
‘Are so. If you weren’t, it wouldn’t hurt.’ He poked me again, the other side. I was mad as hell by that time.”
“Can’t say I blame you,” Warren said. “So what did you do?”
“I slugged him,” Tiiu said with a grin. “He never saw it coming. He staggered back with his hands covering his face, gushing blood and snot from his nose and blubbering like a baby. I remember thinking, ‘you’re worse than a girl. You’re nothing but a cry baby.’ Then I pushed him backwards into the lake.”
She turned to the twins with her hands on her hips. “Anyone else?” she demanded. They shook their heads. She dove in and swam back to the dock as fast as she could. Pelle never gave chase.
In the kitchen, her sister looked up from making a sandwich when Tiiu appeared in the doorway in runners and wet shorts.
“Am I growing boobs?”
Her sister studied her.
“Are you serious?”
“Yes. Pelle said I was, and he won’t play with me anymore because I’m a girl.”
“He’s right. You’re growing boobs. Satisfied?”
“Get used to it. They’re not going away. And another thing. You’d better start wearing a top around the Jorgensen boys or mom will be all over you like a dirty shirt. She’ll probably ground you.” She returned to spreading jam on her peanut butter sandwich.
Tiiu watched her sister with curiosity. “What’s the sandwich for?”
“What’s it to you?”
“Just wondered. It’s not lunchtime yet.”
“I’m going for a bike ride.”
“None of your business. A friend. Tell mom I’ll be back for supper.” She slipped the sandwich into a brown paper bag, stuck her tongue out at Tiiu, and slammed the kitchen door in her wake.
Tiiu didn’t swim out to the raft again that summer unless it was clear of Pelle and his brothers. In defiance, she refused to wear a top whenever her mother and sister weren’t around, and tramped through the fields and woods with a stick for a sword in her hand like she always had with the Jorgensen boys. But there were no Apaches, no Sheriff of Nottingham’s men, no highwaymen and no dragons to slay. Eventually she grew tired of pretending and being alone.
“So I sat on the dock with my chin in my hands, and sulked,” she told Warren.
“That must have been a long summer,” Warren said. He tipped his head back and downed the last of his beer.
“It was. The longest I ever spent there.” She lapsed into silence for a while, staring at the street, replaying the scene in her mind.
She turned to Warren. “You’ve never said where you come from.”
He grinned. “Much the same as you. Close to Thunder Bay.”
“You’re kidding. Why didn’t you say before?”
“You didn’t ask. My parents owned a truck stop and diner on the highway. Most holidays I bussed, or worked in the kitchen. Sometimes I pumped gas.”
“How about that! Then what?”
“I trained as a chef. I worked mostly in Europe. I ended up as executive chef for Club Med in St. Martin.”
“Smart choice. Topless beaches, I hear,” she said. She gave him a nudge with her elbow and a conspiratorial wink. She blamed the beer. The buzz was still there.
“It made it a little easier to tell the boys from the girls.” He grinned.
“So, why did you leave St. Martin?”
“I retired after my second heart attack. Overwork, stress, the usual. And way too much gawking.” He laughed.
Tiiu stared at her empty beer bottle for a moment, then set it down beside her.
“That’s what happened to Doug,” she said softly. “Heart.”
“I’m sorry, Tiiu. I didn’t mean to sound flippant.”
“You didn’t, and you weren’t to know. Doug was only 52. He built water treatment plants, overseas mostly. We bought this little bungalow as a place to stay between projects. I never dreamed I’d retire here. Funny how things turn out.”
They sat in silence for several minutes.
“So, you can cook,” she said, brightening the mood. “I’m getting hungry. I have hamburgers and buns in the freezer, and a bottle of wine somewhere. What do you say? If you do the barbeque bit, I’ll rustle up some salad.”
“I accept, gracious lady,” Warren said. The swing wobbled as he rose and helped Tiiu to her feet.
“I can finish telling you about that summer on the back deck. Deal?”
The last thing she needed on top of beer was wine, and would probably regret it, but it was Labour Day week-end, Warren was a gentleman and she could trust him.
“You’ll never believe this,” Tiiu said in response to Warren’s prompting.
“Try me,” he said.
Tiiu lowered her voice. “You know I told you my sister used to sneak off on her bike sometimes,” she said. “Not every day, but mostly when our mother wasn’t around. I discovered it was no bike she was riding. The friend was a boy. And he had a car.”
The last Sunday of the summer holiday, Tiiu’s sister took off on her bike soon after their mother left to visit friends in the village for the day, leaving Tiiu to wander around the farm. Early in the afternoon of that drowsy, cloudless and windless summer day, Tiiu was hacking her way through the jungle of the back forty, up to her shoulders in grass, Queen Anne’s lace and goldenrod, when she heard a car skid to a halt on the dirt drive in front of the house. The car backfired, and a cloud of blue smoke belched from the tail pipe.
Tiiu thought that was odd: There was no-one home, and she wasn’t expecting visitors. After the car doors slammed there was silence. When no-one called out, she headed for the house to investigate. The rust bucket of a car, its body held together with chewing gum and baler twine, sat in front of the farmhouse, the engine ticking as it cooled, and stinking of unburned gasoline and oil. She looked around the deserted yard, and checked the house. Nobody. Then she thought she heard voices coming from the barn.
She shut the screen door silently, tiptoed across the yard, and peered through a knot-hole in the barn board. Nothing and nobody had prepared her for what she saw: Her sister and some guy wrestling in the hay.
“I was about to run to my sister’s rescue,” Tiiu said, “when they stopped rolling around, stood up, and stripped off all their clothes.
“Honestly, Warren. I know what you must be thinking, and I knew even then that I wasn’t supposed to watch, but I couldn’t tear myself away. I kind of knew what they were doing. I remember being horrified, standing there with my mouth open, staring at my sister and this skinny, shrimpy guy with long hair going at it on the barn floor. I’d never seen him before. My sister seemed to be okay with it, but she was barely 16, for Heaven’s sake. And from what I glimpsed of him, he looked hardly old enough to get a drivers’ licence.”
If the incident with Pelle at the raft had been an omen, her sister had just confirmed it: Girldom, and its consequences, loomed much closer than the distant horizon.
Tiiu slunk away and hid in the woods for the rest of the afternoon, feeling sick and rather scared, alone with her new-found and unwanted knowledge. She heard the car leave a couple of hours later so she reckoned it was safe to go back to the house and confront her sister. She could decide later if she should tell their mother.
“I saw you this afternoon,” Tiiu said. “In the barn.”
Her sister’s cheeks flushed. “Oh, yeah? And what did you see, you little creep?”
“I saw what you were doing with that boy. I’m telling mom.”
Her sister grabbed a knife from the kitchen drawer and waved it at Tiiu. “If you tell mom, I’ll kill you,” she shouted. “I mean it. One night when you’re asleep I’ll stick this into you, and you’ll bleed to death.”
“If you’re pregnant,” Tiiu shouted back, “I won’t have to tell mom. She can see for herself what you’ve been doing behind her back all summer.” Tiiu slammed the door and fled to her bedroom.
“Mom never found out,” Tiiu said, “But I wanted nothing to do with boys until I met Doug.”
A soft evening breeze tempered the humidity. A few stars came out, dim in the glow of the street lights. Tiiu and Warren pushed their chairs back from the patio table, and sat in silence for a long time. When it had been fully dark for some time Warren glanced at his watch. “I should be going,” he said. “Thank you for a delightful dinner and evening. Let me help you with the dishes first.” He stood and held out his hand to help Tiiu to her feet.
“I won’t hear of it,” she said. “I can’t remember spending a more revealing evening in years.” Tiiu pushed him toward the door to the kitchen. “Now, be off with you, and I’ll see you again soon.”
At the front door Warren turned to Tiiu. “If you’re talking to Kirsti any time soon,” he said, “tell her I sent my love.”
“Give Kirsti my love.”
Tiiu stood in the doorway with her mouth gaped open.
“How did you know my sister’s name?” she spluttered. “I never told you.”
Her jaw dropped. She poked an accusing finger into Warren’s chest. “You? No!”
The corners of his eyes crinkled as he grinned. “Tell Kirsti I’ve never forgotten her, or that summer.” He paused for a second. “And don’t laugh,” he said. “I sold that old rust bucket for 50 bucks.”