BY SHEILA HORNE
A novel excerpt. Copyright is held by the author.
I walked down Arundel towards Danforth. It was a longer way to my apartment but brighter and busier than Browning Avenue, which could be dark and lonely at night. I was halfway down the street when I saw Peter Mackenzie coming towards me. I thought of running back to Mother’s house, but I didn’t have time so I slowed my step. My breath caught in my throat and something fluttered in my chest, the way it always did whenever I got a glimpse of him in the distance or heard his name. By the time we reached each other we were under the streetlight in front of the Booths’ house, which was ironic.
“El!” he said.
My heart skipped a beat. He was still cute. He still wore the John Lennon glasses that I’d loved when he got them at 15. His hair hung dark and thick to the collar of his green army shirt, which he’d probably bought at the Army Surplus store on Yonge Street. It was one of his favourite places to shop when we were teenagers. He must have noticed me glance over at the Booths’ house because he motioned towards it with his head.
“Are you going to her wedding?” he asked.
An image of Julie sitting at the dining-room table with her fiancé planning their perfect wedding flashed in my mind. I looked down at my pink-painted toenails peeking out from the opening of my shoes.
“I haven’t decided yet. I don’t even know why she invited me, we haven’t been friends for a long time.”
I changed my mind about taking Danforth Avenue to my apartment, turned and headed up Arundel towards Browning. I didn’t want Mother or Mrs. Booth or for that matter Julie to see Peter and me together — Mother, because she’d never liked Peter, Mrs. Booth because she was a blabbermouth and she’d tell Mother, and Julie, well . . . just because.
“Still not talking to Julie?” Peter said.
I nodded. I still wasn’t speaking to him either.
“Her mother invited all the neighbours to the wedding,” he said.
“Well I guess she wants to make a point to everyone.” I smiled and for some stupid reason stuck my hand out for him to shake. “It was great seeing you, Peter.”
We stood on the sidewalk in front of his house. He still lived at home with his parents, two houses over from the Booths. He ignored my hand.
“I’ll walk you home,” he said.
“No, it’s okay, you don’t have to.”
“I want to — we can catch up on the last five years. Besides, you look like you could use a friend.”
“Oh, just my mother . . . you know how she can be.”
“Heard about your boyfriend,” he said.
I looked up at the darkening sky. “Is there anyone who hasn’t heard?”
I was never lost for words with Peter, and before I knew it, no matter how much I tried not to, I slipped into that comfortable space we had as children and ended up telling him about Robert, Wasaga Beach and the horrible thing I’d said to Mother. Then I remembered I was supposed to keep the conversation on him.
“What about you?” I asked. “What have you been up to?”
He laughed. He had such a contagious laugh, it always made my head spin. He waited on tables at one of the restaurants on the Danforth, and he was in the middle of writing a movie script about life on a planet that had somehow rolled into our galaxy. He hoped to take it to Los Angeles and pitch it to a production company. But living at home with his parents wasn’t the best place to write, and it was taking longer than he expected.
I stopped in front of my building. We’d run out of conversation and it was getting a little uncomfortable.
“I’d better go,” he said.
He hugged me and I melted into him. I closed my eyes and imagined his hands and mouth roaming all over my body. I had been drawn to him nearly all my life and I didn’t want to let him go, but he stepped back and gave me a quick peck on the cheek.
“Bye,” he said.
I watched him walk away. Then for some strange reason — I’m not exactly sure why, maybe it was a second of insanity or the night air or a deep, sick need to mess up my life more than it already was — I ran after him.
“Hey Peter, wait a minute,” I shouted.
He spun around.
“You could use my apartment on the weekends.”
“You could use my apartment on the weekends to write. I’ll be gone every Friday after work and not back until Sunday afternoons. It’s small but I have a typewriter — it’s portable but it works.”
“You’d do that?”
“Sure,” I said, “why not, it’s not like you’re a stranger or anything. And if I don’t go away one weekend for some reason and need my apartment I’ll let you know ahead of time.”
He stuck his hands in his jean pockets. “You don’t mind?”
“Course I don’t.”
“That would be cool, El, you have no idea how much of a lifesaver you’d be.”
“If you wait a second I’ll get you a key.”
I ran into the building. When I came out he was sitting on the concrete step smoking a cigarette. I handed him the key. “It’s the first one on the left,” I said, pointing to my living-room window.
“Cool, I’ll do that starting this Friday.”
I nodded. “Okay.”
He walked away. I sat down on the step and stared at his back until he disappeared around the corner.
I could still remember the day I decided I loved Peter Mackenzie. My father had died the spring I turned 10 years old. He’d been sick for a long time. No one explained to me what was wrong with him. All I knew was that he had something called cancer. When I asked about it, Aunt Ruby put her hand on my face and looked into my eyes. “Don’t you worry your pretty little head,” she’d said and shooed me outside to play.
One afternoon during a game of jacks on the Booths’ front porch, Julie announced I had to marry Elvis. I no longer had a father. I would be poor. Mother was wasting our inheritance on her drinking and vacations. I threw the ball into the air, watched it bounce on a jack and roll down the steps. I got up and left. Julie watched me cross the street and sit down on the curb next to Peter.
“I hate Julie Booth,” I said.
Peter and two other boys on our block, Roy Fotopoulos and Ricky Poletti, were crouched on the curb in front of Ricky’s house trying to fry an egg on the street.
“What’s the matter?” Peter asked.
I looked at the egg, then at Peter. “She said my mother and I were going to be poor and I’ll have to marry Elvis.”
“Ah, she doesn’t know what she’s talking about,” Peter said. “Don’t listen to her.”
“Marry Elvis?” Roy laughed. “You’re stupid, you can’t marry Elvis. You’re not pretty enough and you’re not old enough.”
Peter scrutinized me. “Shut up, Roy. She is so pretty enough.” He put his hand on my shoulder and smiled. “You can play with us if you want.”
Ricky and Roy groaned.
“I say she can stay so she stays,” Peter said.
At that moment I fell in love with Peter Mackenzie and decided when I grew up I would marry him instead of Elvis. I soon grew tired of playing boy games and trying to cook eggs and bugs in the summer sun and I forgave Julie. Playing dolls, dress-up and jacks and going roller-skating was more fun than being with the boys. Not only that, Mother had returned from her treatment a different person. She bustled through the house and yard. She pruned trees and shrubs and painted fences. Meals appeared on schedule in the dining room. Our floors shone, sunlight poured through sparkling windows, and the chaos we had lived with for the previous two years disappeared.
The summer Ricky, Roy, Peter, Julie and I turned 16, Julie decided she loved Ricky. She thought him the most beautiful person on earth. He had a Beatles haircut and wore Beatle boots. He kept a package of Export A cigarettes rolled in the sleeve of his black tee-shirt and a switchblade in the back pocket of his black jeans. Ricky, Roy and Peter started a band called The Rundel Boys. Julie and I hung around them all summer. She wanted Ricky’s attention. I just wanted to be close to Peter. I spent every chance I had with him. We hung out in an old rusty car with no wheels in a ravine off one of the streets reading comic books, talking and listening to Bob Dylan on his transistor radio. After the owner of the car showed up and threatened to call the police, we sat on the boulevard at the corner of Arundel and Browning.
I knew I loved Peter the afternoon he did the bravest thing I’d ever seen. He stood in the middle of Arundel Avenue, a fork in each hand, while thunder rolled in the distance and lightning streaked across the sky. Julie and I circled him. Wide-eyed, we chanted and taunted all the gods as the rain drenched us. At that moment I promised myself I would never love or marry anyone else, ever. Mother dashed into the street, grabbed Julie and me by the ears and dragged us into the house.
“Ella,” she’d said, handing us towels. “Now what kind of behaviour is that for two young ladies?”
I pulled Julie towards the stairs.
“Ella,” Mother called after us, “I’ve told you many times to stay away from that boy. Do you hear me? Stay away from him.”
She might as well have ordered me to stop breathing. All I did was think about Peter. I thought about him during the quiet summer nights as I lay in bed with my bedroom window open, listening to crickets and frogs singing, bottles clanking in a house nearby and a man yelling “Shut up” to a screaming baby. I thought of Peter while I ate breakfast. I thought of him during mass when I was supposed to be listening to Father McEwan’s sermon. I wrote our names in my books and drew hearts around them. I even thought about him when I went bowling with Julie and pretended I was interested in her babble about the cute shoe-rental boy.
In the middle of the summer Mother announced she had made arrangements with Roy’s parents for him to walk me to the Catholic Youth Organization dance the following Friday evening. He would also bring me home.
“I’m not going,” I said. I couldn’t think of anything worse than going to a CYO mid-summer dance for Catholic teens, except Father McEwan coming for Sunday dinner or being stuck in purgatory with no one to pray for my soul.
“Well, Ella, birds of a feather should flock together,” Mother said.
I’d never heard that saying before, but it sounded like something Father McEwan would say in one of his sermons.
“And there’s nothing to argue about, you’re going. It’s time you met some nice Catholic boys instead of hanging out with them.” She pointed across the street. I knew who she meant: Peter. She blamed everything on him. Someone kicked over a garbage can, it had to be Peter. A street
sign disappeared, Peter. Someone’s car got dented, Peter. When Mr. Fotopoulos found a bag of pot in his garden shed, Mother insisted it belonged to Peter.
“Hey Ella,” Roy yelled two days later as I left Julie’s house. I turned around. Roy and Peter crossed the street.
“Roy’s taking a girl from St. Joseph’s to the dance Friday night,” Peter said. “How about you take me as your date?”
I nearly stopped breathing.
“You don’t even have to dance with me, I just want to meet some of those horny Catholic girls Roy talks about all the time.”
I stared at him. I loved him. I’d love him forever. He belonged to me even though he didn’t know it.
“No way,” I said, walking away.
“But El, I thought we were best friends.”
“Never, Peter Mackenzie, you’re a creep and stop calling me El!” I shouted. He was the only person I let call me El, but not anymore. I went inside and slammed the front door behind me. I loved him but I hated him.
Julie soon found out Ricky and Peter had talked Roy into taking them to the dance. She’d promised to help me mow our lawn for the rest of the summer if I took her.
“Who’s going to know I’m not Catholic?” she said. “It’s not like they’re going to check.” I must have frowned because she added, “Girls Scouts’ honour, Ella, I won’t say hell or God or shit. I won’t even talk. Besides, Peter and Ricky aren’t Catholic and they’re going.”
She had a point so I reluctantly agreed to take her. She practically danced down the street on Friday evening to Holy Name Catholic Church. I felt sorry for her when we went into the basement of the church and Ricky waved at a cute girl who was waiting for him by the door. He went over to her and they went into the hall together.
The dance was a disaster. Father McEwan sat on the stage keeping watch over the brightly lit dance floor. Father Bertolini played records while Sister Louise guarded the punch. Two other nuns strolled around the room. They each carried a little bell and a book about the size of War and Peace in their hands. Whenever they noticed a couple dancing too close they rang the bell in their ear, slid the book between them and reminded them to leave room for the Holy Ghost.
“I don’t get it,” Julie said. “If they don’t want people dancing close they should just stick to fast songs.”
Peter came over to where Julie and I sat on the bleachers. “You looked kinda lost sitting here,” he said. “Wanna dance?”
I took his hand and headed to the dance floor. I’d never had a problem talking to him but suddenly I couldn’t think. All I knew was that I loved him, and if God could see our thoughts as Sister Louise had warned, I was going straight to hell. The song ended, Father Bertolini put on a fast song and Peter escorted me back to my seat in the bleachers. I didn’t see him again until the end of the night. He stood on the sidewalk at the side of the church with Ricky, joking about the Holy Ghost.
“Roy’s at the back of the church,” he said.
“Yeah, having fun.” Ricky laughed. “What about you, Ella. You wanna have fun?”
He pulled out a bottle of whiskey and a pack of cigarettes from the inside pocket of his suit jacket, took a swig from the bottle and gave it to Peter. He took a drink and Ricky passed the bottle to me. I didn’t want Peter to think I was square. I wanted him to think I was as cool as the girls I saw going into his house when his parents were at the cottage, so I took a sip, gagged and passed it to Julie. Joey handed us cigarettes. God must have been watching from the roof of the church because the minute I inhaled, an ash fell and burned a perfect small, round hole in my new dress. I laughed. Mother had insisted I go to the dance to meet nice Catholic boys. One of those nice boys was at the back of the church with a girl, and I’d had my first drink and cigarette.
“Sorry about your dress,” Peter said on the walk home. “I can tell your mother it was my cigarette.”
I shook my head. I didn’t want to give her another reason to dislike him. “It’s okay,” I said. “ I’ll tell her that boys from the public school were outside the church.” I laughed. “It’s not really a lie, is it?” I crossed the street and ran up the steps to my porch. When I turned around to say goodbye he’d gone into his house. \
Just before school started Julie decided The Rundel Boys weren’t cool. At least not as cool as the Beatles. Besides, Ricky had ignored her all summer. She scratched him off her list of potential boyfriends and started hanging out in Yorkville looking for cool boys with a girl from her high school. I spent the rest of summer sitting on the porch, hoping to get a glimpse of Peter and wishing he’d ask me over to his house. But he never did. He just waved and said hi as he walked past me. Towards the end of summer while I watched Peter mow his parents’ lawn, Julie came out of her house hauling a suitcase behind her. I chased after her. “Where are you going?” I asked.
“I’m getting out of here.” She let go of her suitcase and stopped. “I met someone, he’s a lot older than me and my parents said I couldn’t see him anymore, so I’m going to San Francisco with him.” She picked up her suitcase and started down the street.
I ran over to Peter. He stopped pushing the mower, lifted his tee-shirt and wiped off the sweat rolling down his face.
“Don’t worry, El, she’ll be back,” he’d said.
He was right. Three months later she was home. Mrs. Booth took her to the hairdresser to have her waist-length black hair cut short.
“He left me, Ella, took off to Memphis with a stupid singer he met in a bar.” She raised her arms up towards the posters of The Who and the Beatles taped on my bedroom ceiling as though she was reaching for something. “The worst part, I had to call my parents to rescue me. Now I’m stuck here following their rules as long as I live under their roof. And the latest thing, I have to go back to school — that’s the deal — and no makeup for a year and I have to keep my hair short.”
I felt sorry for her until Peter stopped me on Danforth Avenue one afternoon as I walked home from school. I thought he was going to ask me on a date. No such luck. He wanted to know about Julie. Two weeks later they walked past my house holding hands. They went into his house. I stopped speaking to both of them. I hadn’t spoken to either of them until now.
I left for Wasaga Beach on Fridays after work and Peter would go to my apartment. When I got back on Sunday evenings he’d be gone. I taped the same note every week to the lid of the typewriter. It read: Hi, sorry, I don’t have much in the fridge but help yourself to anything you can find and the bottle of rye in the cupboard. I found variations of notes from him in his neat handwriting every Sunday night, thanking me for the leftover Chinese food and the use of my apartment and saying he’d see me sometime. He always signed his name and added the date. I soon found my record albums lined up in a neat row and my books shelved by authors’ names. I spent Sunday nights filing them by height the way I liked them. At first I thought he was bored and the writing wasn’t going well, or that he was trying to pay me back for the use of my apartment. But when I came home one weekend and found everything in the kitchen and bathroom cupboards rearranged, I left him a note that said, Peter, please don’t move things around, it confuses me. He wrote back: Sorry, I thought I was helping you. I won’t touch a thing. Other than that, our arrangement worked.
Mother greeted me one Wednesday night with, “Are you out of your mind?”
“You’ve heard about Peter using my place,” I said. I took off my shoes and placed them neatly against the wall. For a moment I saw myself at 10 years old, feet together, heels touching the white baseboard. The day my father had died, I’d stood in that exact spot listening to Mother play Beethoven and Bach on the piano. Every once in a while she stopped, took a sip from her glass of whisky and continued to play.
“How could you give that boy a key to your apartment? Honestly, Ella, you’re as crazy as Grams. Sometimes I wonder if you think.”
“Not that it has anything to do with you, but he uses my apartment on the weekends when I’m not there.”
“It has something to do with me when everyone on the block knows about it.” She turned and headed for the kitchen. “He doesn’t even have a job, Ella. He doesn’t work.”
I followed her. “It doesn’t matter if he has a job or not, I’m not dating him, I’m letting him use my apartment to write — and that’s a job, isn’t it? And he’s a waiter at a restaurant on the Danforth.”
“Oh for heaven sakes, neither of those are real jobs and they won’t get him anywhere in this world.” Mother picked up a dish of baked ham slices and handed it to me. “He’s flighty, he can’t get his life together. Why do you think he’s a waiter and didn’t go to university? Why do you think he isn’t married and doesn’t even have a girlfriend?”
My neck and shoulders tightened. “Not everyone has to follow what you consider the correct way to live, Mother. And I didn’t go to university.”
She gave me one of her deadly looks. “Don’t remind me.”
I trailed behind her into the dining room with the dish of ham and put it down on the table. We ate dinner in silence. I practically gobbled my food. She would never understand that there was much more to a person than status and a job.
I took my dishes and silverware into the kitchen and washed them. Mother came into the kitchen with her plate.
“I don’t think we should have dinner together anymore,” I said. I grabbed my purse and headed for the front door. “At least not for the rest of the summer.”
She ignored me. I slammed the door, ran down the steps and crossed the street.