I was taking the long bus ride home in the August heat, standing beside a white girl, and pushing her hair off my brown face.
With every bump and jolt of the bus, I was getting closer to the girl. Her rose-scented perfume invaded my nose and hurt my head. The bus was packed with bodies and odour. I peered through the window and saw people stomping the streets of Toronto. I watched the cars passing by and wished that I had taken my car to the conference. But I would have had to park it in the underground garage, and I hated doing that. The smell of it made me sick.
“Ouch,” I said.
The pain in my toe brought tears to my eyes. I looked down quickly to see the white girl trying to shuffle her cheap canvas shoes away from mine, which was imported from Spain.
“Watch where you put your clumsy feet,” I said.
“I’m so sorry, I’m very sorry,” she said.
I examined my shoes, checking for any scuffs. Finding none, I decided to get away from the girl. Lugging my briefcase, I moved to the back of the bus, searching for a seat.
As I moved, the bus stopped and emptied out. I had no problem finding a seat. I forgot to buy the Globe and Mail before I got on the bus, so I chose a seat which seemed the most interesting.
I sat down, facing a girl who was talking so loud to the man sitting beside her, I couldn’t help but overhear.
“I’m sick and tired of having your disgusting friends over at my house,” the girl said.
“They come over, they steal food from my fridge, they fart on my couch, they hog the TV, then they steal money from me – I’m f***ing sick of it Ray.”
I thought the man named Ray was going to hit the girl. Instead, he lit a cigarette, disregarding the no smoking sign at the front of the bus. He turned to the girl and slowly blew smoke into her face.
“Lay off me,” he said.
The girl’s face twisted in disgust. She turned away from the smoke, tossing her hair in Ray’s face and moved her eyes to look out the window behind me. I watched the blonde hair settle on her bare shoulders. The hair covered her tattoo of a red rose.
Her hair was frizzy and had dark roots. Her face was tanned but looked unattractive with the scowl on it. Even from where I sat, I saw the clumps of navy blue mascara on her lashes, and a thick navy blue line on her bottom eyelid. I looked at her eyes. I felt like I had seen those eyes before.
I looked at her long straight nose, full cheeks, and smallmouth. Then I looked back into her eyes. I was sure I knew this girl. My mind whipped through all the classes I’ve had and faces I’ve seen in the classroom. I thought of the faces in my U of T classes and at all the hip-house, reggae and dance parties I went to. I tried to remember all the people I had worked with at Simpson’s . . . at Druxy’s . . . at Toys R Us . . . I thought of all the friends I had in high school – but most of the people I remembered knowing were black. My eyes hovered over her dark roots and I thought I must know this girl from way back when I had no other choice but to associate with girls like her.
Startling me, the girl looked my way. I was caught and embarrassed, and I quickly looked away. I hid my eyes, not wanting her to recognise me before I figured out who she was.
Ray threw his cigarette butt to the ground and crushed it with a cowboy boot. The girl looked at him and he snorted.
“Whad you looking at?” he asked her.
She stuck her face in front of his.
“Don’t f***ing talk to me like that,” the girl said.
“Stay out of my face, Kim. You’re a crazy bitch,” Ray said back at her.
Kim . . . her name is Kim, I thought. My mind searched again, trying to make a match. I thought about my old, old, old neighbourhood, where most of my memories didn’t make me smile. I remembered hanging out in the laundry room on a rainy day and sitting alone by the broken swings at Cosburn playground. My world was black and white then, but I was the only black thing in it.
I had been at Cosburn Public School for one day when at lunchtime, I was called a “n*****” and shoved into the boys’ washroom. They locked me inside. I was scared to call for help. If a teacher came to rescue me, I was sure I would get in trouble for being in the boys’ washroom. I sat on the ground and cried.
I heard the door unlock. I jumped up and got ready to make my escape. The door opened and a girl was standing there, jiggling keys in her hand.
“You’re lucky I was able to steal these,” she said. “I gotta put them back now.”
She turned to leave. I followed her down the hall and into an empty classroom. She casually tossed the keys on the desk and walked out. She turned and looked at me.
“Thank you . . . thank you very much,” I said.
“You’re welcome,” she said, smiling. “Well, now we can be the best of friends.”
Twenty-three years later, I stared at her angry face, shouting at Ray, and I remembered. Now she was five inches shorter, with brown hair and those green eyes. Her face was softer then, almost sweet-looking, but her mouth was just as mean.
“Do what I say or you’ll have hell to pay,” Kim said.
“What?” Kim asked, giving me a dirty look.
“How much would I have to pay hell?” I asked her.
Kim scrunched up her nose and jumped off the washing machine.
“Shut up Susan, just do what I say.”
I remembered us in the laundry room of 51 Gamble Ave. building. It was the kind of building where no one smiled, and no one took deep breaths of the air because it always smelled like garbage. The six-floor dingy apartment building was where my mother, father, sister, brother and I lived on the third floor in a two bedroom apartment. Me and my “sole mate” Kim were playing in the laundry room like we always did on a rainy day. My short black hair was braided into little plats with green, yellow, red, blue, and purple barrettes to keep the ends together. I leaned against the dryers watching scrawny Kimmy pacing in front of the washing machines which were practically her height. She was holding an empty garbage bag. I loved watching her hair swing back and forth as she walked. She had so much that I didn’t have. She had friends at school, even though none of the other girls liked her. I felt lucky that she had chosen me to be her best friend. Without her, I would have no other playmate but my little sister. I was Kim’s shadow.
“Come on Susan, it’ll be easy. We can sell them and buy candy.”
I turned away from Kim and jumped on top of the dryer. I knew that Kim was too short to get to me.
“I don’t want to Kimmy, don’t make me.”
“Come on, Susan. Do it for me, I’m your soul mate.”
“Why don’t you do it?” I asked.
“Come on Suzie, I can’t do it. You’re naturally better at stealing, anyways.”
“What?” I said, not understanding what she meant.
“Just do it, Susan. I already told Bradley that I had clothes for him to sell. I’ll make him stop bugging you, Suzie, I promise, but you gotta do it.”
The idea of not being bugged anymore by Big Bradley was tempting me. He had been pushing me in dog shit, locking me in the boys’ washroom, and pulling my pants down at recess so everyone could see my underwear, for years.
“You promise?” I asked.
“I promise,” Kim said, drawing a cross on the right side of her chest in the air.
I jumped off the dryer, thinking that Kim’s promises meant nothing. I really had no other choice.
“I’ll guard the door,” said Kim, handing me the garbage bag, and running over to the door.
She opened it a little bit.
She turned around to see me hesitating by a dryer and looking at her.
“Do it now dummy, someone’s coming.”
I pried open the door of a dryer that wasn’t spinning anymore. I reached my tiny brown hands in and grabbed all the clothes I could hold. I stood up and kicked the dryer door closed with my foot then put the clothes in the black garbage bag.
Kim gestured for me to come to the door.
“Let’s get out of here,” Kim said.
I was startled by the bus driver yelling for quiet. He was stopped at a red light and was turned around in his seat, yelling down the aisle towards Kim and Ray, who were in the middle of arguing.
“F*** off and we’ll quiet down,” Kim yelled back.
The bus driver and several passengers turned around shaking their heads.
Ray and Kim were silent now. Ray sprawled out his arms and rested them on the top of the seats. His legs were open so wide that I couldn’t help but look at them. Seeing nothing of interest, I observed the filth covering him. His legs were long, skinny, and covered by grimy blue jeans. His long-sleeved shirt looked foul and was covered with his straggly hairs. His hair was as long as Kim’s and looked like it would be as blonde as hers when clean. His face was pale and clean shaven. I avoided looking at his eyes. I looked at Kim instead, amused at how she had changed. She looked like cheap, white trash, I thought.
I surveyed her plastic-looking white heels. A jean skirt was pasted to her thighs. She wore a pink halter top which squished her sagging breasts together. I tried to remember what had ever happened to our friendship.
I could remember my last lunchtime at Cosburn Public School. I walked past my screaming, fighting, laughing, classmates towards the fence which surrounded the school. No one talked to me, no one played with me at recess, and no one ate lunch with me. I looked around the playground for my “sole mate” Kim and found her talking to Bradley and a group of boys. Kim looked up and mouthed for me to wait for her. Bradley looked at me too, and then I saw him give Kim three quarters. Crossing the field, I went over to the broken swings and waited while eating my lunch.
I was finishing my salmon sandwich when I saw Kim running towards me.
“What?” I asked, wiping my mouth clean.
“Bradley says he wants to be your friend.”
I scrunched my paper lunch bag and stared at her. I couldn’t believe what I had heard. Bradley, wanted to be my friend? Bradley was the coolest boy in school. He was in the eighth grade, and a lot older than most of the other kids, even in his class. Why would he want to be my friend?
“I don’t believe you.”
“He does, he does,” Kim said. “He wants to talk to you. He’s happy that you stole those clothes for him – he wants to thank you.”
Kim could still see the disbelief on my face.
“He even wants to bring you to the Spot.”
I was amazed. I knew where the Spot was. Beside one of the other buildings on Gamble Ave., there was a long stairway which was entered from outside – when you reached the bottom the door leading to the underground parking lot of the building across the street. But no one used the outside entrance very often, so now the area was Bradley’s and his friend’s spot. People knew that lots of kids played there, so many of them avoided the stairway or coming through the door at the bottom. It was where the boys hung out and shot caps, or pelted eggs at people in passing cars – the street wasn’t too far from the stairway. No girls were allowed in the spot.
“Come on, Susan, please, please go. I promised Bradley you would. I don’t wanna look like a liar.”
“Are you coming too, Kimmy?”
Kim shook her head.
“I wanted to watch, but Bradley says he only wants you there.”
Kim turned around and looked at Bradley, standing with his friends, across the field. She turned back to look at me.
“Come on, Susan. Bradley wants to know now. I promised him you would. I kept my promise to you, Suzie. He won’t bother you again; he wants to be your friend.”
I watched Bradley smile at me across the field. I smiled back. I agreed to go.
After school, Kim ran with me to the Spot. Standing on grass, we reached the top of the stairs and looked down. We saw him sitting on a bottom step with a friend. They were smoking cigarettes and whispering to one another.
“Bradley, Susan’s here,” Kim hollered down to him.
He lifted his blonde head and looked up at us. Stamping the cigarette out with his running shoe, he pushed his friend up the steps, and he ran past us, saying hello to Kim. Then he waved us down.
Kim gave me a shove that pushed me onto the steps.
“Go now, Susan. Do everything he says and I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Kim went skipping away. I could hear the sound of change jingling in her pocket.
I slowly reached the bottom and sat down on the last step. Bradley came and sat beside me. I avoided looking at his eyes. I looked on the ground and saw fired caps, and cigarette butts, and bottle caps. I could smell the underground garage. I kept my eyes on the door. My eyes were adjusting to the dim light. I could see him looking at me out of the corner of my eye.
He seemed to be waiting for me to turn my head, so I did. I saw that his eyes were grey.
“Did Kimmy tell you that I wanted to be your friend?” he asked, and I could smell the cigarette smoke on his breath.
“Yeah,” I said. “I didn’t believe her though.”
“Well-I-. . . ” I felt confused. Didn’t he know how mean he had been to me? “You’re always bugging me and playing mean tricks on me.”
“That was before, but I like you now,” he said. “And I’m sorry for all that mean stuff I did before.”
I just hoped he meant it. I wanted to believe him.
“I think you’re cute,” he said, grinning at me.
I grinned so hard that my face hurt. No boy had ever told me I was cute before.
“Yeah,” he said smiling at me. “I think you’re the cutest girl in the school.”
Wow, I thought. He was being so nice to me. I didn’t know what to say.
He stood up and dropped to the floor on one knee.
“Will you be my girlfriend, Susan?”
I laughed at his silliness.
“Okay,” I said, like how that sounded.
I knew that Minnie Mouse was Mickey Mouse’s girlfriend. I knew that Daisy Duck was Donald Duck’s girlfriend. Bradley would treat me nice. I liked how it all sounded.
“Good,” he said, getting up and pulling me to my feet. “That means I have to kiss you.”
Before I could say anything, he pulled me towards his mouth. His lips felt cold and wet. I didn’t know what to do, so I tried to copy him. I could feel his tongue getting inside my mouth and I pulled away.
“Don’t . . . I don’t like that,” I said.
He let go of me.
“Okay, okay. We don’t have to kiss,” he sat down on the step. “Let’s talk.”
I wiped the wetness from my mouth and sat down beside him.
“You’ve seen a porno film before, right?” he asked me.
“No,” I thought for a moment. “What is it?”
He looked surprised.
“Well, it’s these films where all these girls that look like you, are doing it with people.”
“Doing it!” I said surprised, and giggling nervously. “Where did you watch that?”
“Well, my Dad has a whole bunch of them at home. I watch them all the time.”
He kept staring at my face and smiling. I smiled back.
“Do you wanna see something?”
“Okay,” I said.
He stood up. I heard the zipper before I saw his pants falling to the ground. He stepped out of his pants and was standing there in his underwear. I looked, fascinated, as he pulled his underwear down and then stepped out of them. He threw his clothes beside me on the step.
He seemed to be watching my face. I don’t know what he saw, but he seemed to like it.
I was shocked. Just below the edge of his shirt, I saw it. It looked like an elephant trunk, except it had this little hat like the Smurfs wear at the end. His hat was a pale pink, a different colour from the trunk, which was just about the same colour of his pale legs. I couldn’t stop staring at it. I had never seen one of those before.
I rose up quickly and backed away.
“Yeah,” he said.
He moved towards me. “You’re my girlfriend. You’re suppos’ to touch it.”
“I really don’t want to,” I said, trying not to look at it anymore.
“You have to, Susan,” he said sharply. “Do you want to be my girlfriend?”
I nodded `yes’.
“Don’t you want to have as many friends as I have? Don’t you want me to never bug you again?”
I nodded yes.
“Touch it then, Susan.”
I slowly reached out my hand and touched it, and then drew my hand back quickly.
“You have to keep your hand there Susan, hold on to it.”
“Hold on to it like you would a popsicle stick. And sit down.”
I sat down. I reached out for it again, this time wrapping my hand around the trunk. I could hear him breathing so heavily. He sounded like he was sick.
“Are you okay?” I asked, looking up at him.
“Yes, yes,” he said, catching his breath. “Can you pet it Susan, pet it and you’ll see it grow.”
Grow? I asked myself. I pulled my hand away again.
“Susan, don’t do that,” he said angrily. He started to speak softer. “Just keep touching it. It feels good.”
I petted it, and I could hear him making sounds like an animal. I almost thought I was petting Kim’s cat. But this boy groaned, and the cat purred. I was feeling like this wasn’t right.
Bradley started moving his hips; he stretched his hands down and grabbed my shoulders. He was hurting me and I couldn’t move. I was scared.
“I think I have to go home now,” I said and stood up quickly.
I backed away. I hid the hand that touched him behind my back.
Bradley looked shocked. “You can’t, Susan.”
“I have to.”
I turned to run up the steps. Bradley grabbed my shirt and pulled me towards him. My back hit the door.
“You can’t go, Susan, I paid three quarters for you. You aren’t going anywhere.”
His eyes looked so mean. He moved towards me. He reached. I screamed as loud as I could.
My mouth was wide open, but no sound was coming out. I felt the tears on my face. I was crying. I looked around and saw a TTC ad, empty plastic seats, and Kim . . . trying to push Ray’s sleeping head off her shoulder.
My memory unsettled me, and I had to make sense of it. Three quarters . . . and the old man had chased him away. Three quarters . . . and I had begged my mother to never let me go back to Cosburn Public School again. Three quarters . . . and I went to a different school, made a few friends, and never saw Kim again.
I could still feel Bradley’s penis in my hands.
I glared at Kim, wondering how I could have forgotten.
“Do I know you?” Kim asked.
I hesitated, looking her up and down with disgust.
“Yes, you do.”
Kim looked shocked.
“I doubt it” Kim said.
“Yes,” I said, looking into her eyes. “Yes, you do . . . and you owe me three quarters.”