I am taking the long bus ride home in the August heat of 2010, standing beside a white girl and pushing her hair off my brown face.
With every bump and jolt of the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) bus, I am getting closer to the girl. Her rose-scented perfume invades my nose and hurts my head. The bus is packed with bodies and odour. I peer through the window and see people stomping the streets of Toronto. I watch the cars passing by and wish that I had taken my car to Seneca College where I am teaching my last semester. But I would have had to park it in the expensive lot and I hate doing that. The last time, a seagull put poo on my car.
“Ouch,” I say.
The pain in my toe brings tears to my eyes. I look down quickly to see the white girl trying to shuffle her cheap canvas shoes away from my summertime boots, which are Keens made in China.
“Watch where you put your clumsy feet,” I snap at her.
“I’m so sorry, I’m very sorry,” she says.
I examine my boots, checking for any scuffs. Finding none, I decided to get away from the girl. Lugging my brown satchel, I move to the back of the bus, searching for a seat.
As I move, the bus stops and empties out. I have no problem finding a seat. I forget to get the Globe and Mail from my dad this morning before I leave on the bus, so I choose a seat which seems the most interesting.
I sit down, facing a girl who is talking so loud to the man sitting beside her, I cannot help but overhear.
“I’m sick and tired of having your disgusting friends over at my house,” yells the girl. “They come over, they steal food from my fridge, they fart on my couch, they hog the TV and then they steal money from me. I’m fucking sick of it, Ray!”
I think the man named Ray is going to hit the girl. Instead, he lights a cigarette, disregarding the no smoking sign at the front of the bus. He turns to the girl and slowly blows smoke into her face.
“Lay off me,” he says.
The girl’s face twists in disgust. She turns away from the smoke, tossing her hair in Ray’s face and moves her eyes to look out the window behind me. Some people weave to the front of the bus, probably to complain about the smoking. I watch the blonde hair settle on her bare shoulders. The hair covers her tattoo of a red rose.
Her hair is frizzy and has dark roots. Her face is tanned but looks unattractive with the scowl on it. Even from where I sit, I see the clumps of navy blue mascara on her lashes and a thick navy blue line on her bottom eyelid. I look at her eyes. I feel like I have seen those eyes before.
I look at her long straight nose, full cheeks, and smallmouth. Then I look back into her eyes. I am sure I know this girl. My mind whips through all the people I know in Toronto and faces I have seen in the offices, classrooms and on the streets. I think of the faces in my University of Toronto Ph.D. classes and at all the hip-house, reggae and dance parties I go to. I try to remember all the people I work with at Seneca . . . at Humber . . . at George Brown . . .at Ryerson…at Trebas…at the University of Toronto… I think of all the friends I had in high school, but most of the people I remember knowing are Chinese. My eyes hover over her dark roots and I think 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 looks my way. I am caught and I am embarrassed. I quickly look away. I hide my eyes, not wanting her to recognise me before I figure out who she is.
Ray throws his cigarette butt to the ground and crushes it with a cowboy boot. The girl looks at him and he snorts.
“Whad you looking at?” he asks her.
She sticks her face in front of his.
“Don’t fucking talk to me like that,” the girl whispers viciously.
“Stay out of my face, Kim. You’re a crazy bitch,” Ray screams back at her.
Kim . . . her name is Kim, I hear. My mind searches again, trying to make a match. I think about my old, old, old neighbourhood, where most of my memories did not make me smile. I remember hanging out in the laundry room on a rainy day and sitting alone by the broken swings at Cosburn playground, even before O’Connor. My world is black and white then, but I am the only black thing in it.
I go to Cosburn Public School and one day at lunchtime, I am called a “nigger” and shoved into the boys’ washroom. They lock me inside. I am scared to call for help. If a teacher comes to rescue me, I am sure I will get in trouble for being in the boys’ washroom. I sit on the ground and cry.
I hear the door unlock. I jump up and get ready to make my escape. The door opens and a girl is standing there, jiggling keys in her hand.
“You’re lucky I was able to steal these,” she says. “I gotta put them back now.”
She turns to leave. I follow her down the hall and into an empty classroom. She casually tosses the keys on the desk and walks out. She turns and looks at me.
“Thank you . . . thank you very much,” I say softly.
“You’re welcome,” she says, smiling. “Well, now we can be the best of friends.”
Twenty-three years later, I stare at her angry face, shouting at Ray and I remember. Now she is five inches taller, with brown hair and those green eyes. Her face was softer then, almost sweet-looking, but her mouth is still just as mean.
“Do what I say or you’ll have hell to pay,” Kim says.
“What?” asks Kim, giving me a dirty look.
“How much would I have to pay hell?” I ask her.
Kim scrunches up her nose and jumps off the washing machine. “Shut up, Donna. Just do what I say.”
I remember us in the laundry room of the fifty-one Gamble Avenue building. It is the kind of building where no one smiles and no one takes deep breaths of the air because it always smells like garbage. The six-floor dingy apartment building is where my mother, father, sister, brother and I live on the third floor in a two bedroom apartment. I and my “sole mate” Kim are playing in the laundry room like we always do on a rainy day. My short black hair is braided into little plats with green, yellow, red, blue, and purple barrettes to keep the ends together. I lean against the dryers and watch scrawny Kimmy pace in front of the washing machines which are practically her height. She is holding an empty garbage bag. I love watching her hair swing back and forth as she walks. She has so much that I do not have. She has friends at school, even though none of the other girls like her. I feel lucky that she chooses me to be her best friend. Without her, I would not have any other playmates but my little sister. I am Kim’s shadow.
“Come on Donna, it’ll be easy. We can sell them and buy candy.”
I turn away from Kim and jump on top of the dryer. I know that Kim is too short to get to me.
“I don’t want to Kimmy, don’t make me.”
“Come on, Donna. Do it for me, I’m your soul mate.”
“Why don’t you do it?” I ask.
“Come on Donna, I can’t do it. You’re naturally better at stealing, anyways.”
“What?” I say, not understanding what she means.
“Just do it, Donna. I already told Bradley that I had clothes for him to sell. I’ll make him stop bugging you, Donna, I promise, but you gotta do it.”
The idea of not being bugged anymore by Big Bradley is tempting to me. He has been pushing me in dog shit, locking me in the boys’ washroom and pulling my pants down at recess so everyone can see my underwear, for years.
“You promise?” I ask.
“I promise,” Kim says, drawing a cross over her heart in the air.
I jump off the dryer, thinking that Kim’s promises meant nothing. I really had no other choice.
“I’ll guard the door,” says Kim, handing me the garbage bag and running over to the door. She opens it a little bit.
She turns around to see me hesitating by a dryer and looking at her. “Do it now dummy, someone’s coming.”
I pry open the door of a dryer that is not spinning anymore. I reach my tiny brown hands in and grab all the clothes I can hold. I stand up and kick the dryer door closed with my foot and then put the clothes in the black garbage bag.
Kim gestures for me to come to the door. “Let’s get out of here,” she whispers.
The bus driver yells for quiet. He stops at a red light and is turning around in his seat, yelling down the aisle towards Kim and Ray, who is in the middle of arguing.
“Fuck off and we’ll quiet down,” Kim yells back.
The bus driver and several passengers turn around shaking their heads.
Ray and Kim are silent now. Ray sprawls out his arms and rests them on the top of the seats. His legs are open so wide that I cannot help but look at them. Seeing nothing of interest, I observe the filth covering him. His legs are long, skinny and covered by grimy blue jeans. His long-sleeved shirt looks foul and is covered with his straggly hairs. His hair is as long as Kim’s and looks like it will be as blonde as hers when clean. His face is pale and clean-shaven. I avoid looking at his eyes. I look at Kim instead, amused at how she changed. She looks like cheap, white trash, I think.
I survey her plastic-looking white heels. A jean skirt pastes her thighs. She wears a pink halter top which squishes her sagging breasts together. I try to remember whatever happened to our friendship.
I can remember my last lunchtime at Cosburn Public School. I walk past my screaming, fighting, laughing classmates towards the fence which surrounds the school. No one talks to me, no one plays with me at recess and no one eats lunch with me. I look around the playground for my “sole mate” Kim and find her talking to Bradley and a group of boys. Kim looks up and mouths for me to wait for her. Bradley looks at me too and then I see him give Kim three quarters. Crossing the field, I go over to the broken swings and wait while eating my lunch.
I am finishing my salmon sandwich when I see Kim running towards me.
“What?” I ask, wiping my mouth clean.
“Bradley says he wants to be your friend.”
I scrunch my paper lunch bag and stare at her. I cannot believe what I hear. Bradley, wants to be my friend? Bradley is the coolest boy in school. He is in the eighth grade and a lot older than most of the other kids, even in his class. Why will he want to be my friend?
“I don’t believe you.”
“He does, he does,” Kim gushes. “He wants to talk to you. He’s happy that you stole those clothes for him. He wants to thank you.”
Kim can still see the disbelief on my face.
“He even wants to bring you to The Spot.”
I am amazed. I know where The Spot is. Beside one of the other buildings on Gamble Ave., there is a long stairway which enters from outside. When you reach the bottom, the door leads to the underground parking lot of the building across the street. But no one uses the outside entrance very often, so now the area is Bradley’s and his friends’ spot. People knew that lots of kids play there, so many of them avoid the stairway or coming through the door at the bottom. It is where the boys hang out and shoot caps, or pelt eggs at people in passing cars. The street is not too far from the stairway. No girls are allowed in The Spot.
“Come on, Donna, please, please go. I promised Bradley you would. I don’t wanna look like a liar.”
“Are you coming too, Kimmy?”
Kim shakes her head.
“I wanted to watch, but Bradley says he only wants you there.”
Kim turns around and looks at Bradley, standing with his friends, across the field. She turns back to look at me.
“Come on, Donna. Bradley wants to know now. I promised him you would. I kept my promise to you, Donna. He won’t bother you again. He wants to be your friend.”
I watch Bradley smile at me across the field. I smile back. I agree to go.
After school, Kim runs with me to The Spot. Standing on grass, we reach the top of the stairs and look down. We see him sitting on a bottom step with a friend. They are smoking cigarettes and whispering to one another.
“Bradley, Donna’s here,” Kim hollers down to him.
He lifts his blond head and looks up at us. Stamping the cigarette out with his running shoe, he pushes his friend up the steps, and his friend runs past us, saying “hello” to Kim. Then Bradley waves me down.
Kim gives me a shove that pushes me onto the steps.
“Go now, Donna. Do everything he says and I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Kim goes skipping away. I can hear the sound of change jingling in her pocket.
I slowly reach the bottom and sit down on the last step. Bradley comes and sits beside me. I avoid looking at his eyes. I look on the ground and see fire caps and cigarette butts and bottle caps. I can smell the faded gas scents from the underground garage. I keep my eyes on the door. My eyes are adjusting to the dim light. I can see him looking at me out of the corner of one of my eyes.
He seems to be waiting for me to turn my head, so I do. I see that his eyes are grey.
“Did Kimmy tell you that I wanted to be your friend?” he asks, and I can smell the cigarette smoke on his breath.
“Yeah,” I say. “I didn’t believe her though.”
“Well-I-. . .” I feel confused. Didn’t he know how mean he had been to me for all of these years? “You’re always bugging me and playing mean tricks on me.”
“That was before, but I like you now,” he paused. “And I’m sorry for all that mean stuff I did before.”
I just hope he meant it. I want to believe him.
“I think you’re cute,” he says, grinning at me.
I grin so hard that my face hurts. No boy had ever told me I was cute before.
“Yeah,” he says smiling at me. “I think you’re the cutest girl in the school.”
Wow, I think. He is being so nice to me. I did not know what to say.
He stands up and drops to the floor on one knee.
“Will you be my girlfriend, Donna?”
I laugh at his silliness.
“Okay,” I say, like how that sounds.
I know that Minnie Mouse is Mickey Mouse’s girlfriend. I know that Daisy Duck is Donald Duck’s girlfriend. Bradley will treat me nice. I like how it all sounds.
“Good,” he says, getting up and pulling me to my feet. “That means I have to kiss you.”
Before I can say anything, he pulls me towards his mouth. His lips feel cold and wet. I did not know what to do, so I try to copy him. I can feel his tongue getting into my mouth and I pull away.
“Don’t . . . I don’t like that,” I say.
He let go of me.
“Okay, okay. We do not have to kiss,” he sits down on the step. “Let’s talk.”
I wipe the wetness from my mouth and sit down beside him.
“You’ve seen a porno film before, right?” he asks me.
“No,” I think for a moment. “What is it?”
He looks surprised.
“Well, it’s these films where all these girls that look like you, are doing it with people.”
“Doing it!” I say surprised and giggle with discomfort. “Where did you watch that?”
“Well, my dad has a whole bunch of them at home. I watch them all the time.”
He keeps staring at my face and smiling. I smile back.
“Do you wanna see something?”
“Okay,” I say.
He stands up. I hear the zipper before I see his pants falling to the ground. He steps out of his pants and is standing there in his underwear. I look, fascinated, as he pulls his underwear down and then steps out of them. He throws his clothes beside me on the step.
He seems to be watching my face. I do not know what he sees, but he seems to like it.
Dear God, I think. I am shocked. Just below the edge of his shirt, I see it. It looks like an elephant trunk, except it has this little hat like the Smurfs wear at the end. His hat is a pale pink, a different colour from the trunk, which is just about the same colour of his pale legs. I could not stop staring at it. I had never seen this before.
I rise up quickly and back away.
“Touch it?” I ask, really feeling scared.
“Yeah,” he says.
He moves towards me. “You’re my girlfriend. You’re suppos’ to touch it.”
“I really don’t want to,” I say, trying not to look at it anymore.
“You have to, Donna,” he says sharply. “Do you want to be my girlfriend?”
I nod ‘yes.’
“Don’t you want to have as many friends as I have? Don’t you want me to never bug you again?”
I nod ‘yes.’
“Touch it then, Donna.”
I slowly reach out my hand and touch it and then draw my hand back quickly. I want to go home, I think.
“You have to keep your hand there Donna, hold on to it.”
“Hold on to it like you would a popsicle stick. And sit down.”
I sit down. I reach out for it again, this time wrapping my hand around the trunk. I can hear him breathing so heavily. He sounds like he is sick.
“Are you okay?” I ask, looking up at him.
“Yes, yes.” he says, catching his breath. “Can you pet it, Donna, pet it and you’ll see it grow.”
Grow? I ask myself. I pull my hand away again. This is scary.
“Donna, don’t do that,” he says angrily. He starts to speak softer. “Just keep touching it. It feels good.”
I pet it and I can hear him making sounds like an animal. I almost thought I was petting Kim’s cat. But this boy groans and the cat purrs. I am feeling like this is not right.
Bradley starts moving his hips, he stretches his hands down and grabs my shoulders. He is hurting me and I cannot move. I am still scared.
“I think I have to go home now,” I say and stand up quickly.
I back away. I hide the hand that touched him behind my back. I want to wash my hands.
Bradley looks shocked. “You can’t, Donna.”
“I have to.”
I turn to run up the steps. Bradley grabs my shirt and pulls me towards him. My back hits the door.
“You can’t go, Donna. I paid three quarters for you. You aren’t going anywhere.”
His eyes look so mean. He moves towards me. He reaches. I scream as loud as I can.
My mouth is wide open, but no sound is coming out. I feel the tears on my face. I am crying. I look around and see a TTC ad, empty plastic seats, and Kim . . . trying to push Ray’s sleeping head off her shoulder.
My memory unsettles me and I have to make sense of it. Three quarters. . . and my dad chases him away. Three quarters . . . and I beg my mother to never let me go back to Cosburn Public School again. Three quarters . . . and I go to a different school, make a few friends and never see Kim again…until now.
I can still feel Bradley’s penis in my hands.
I glare at Kim, wondering how I forgot.
“Do I know you?” Kim asks sarcastically.
I hesitate, looking her up and down with disgust.
“Yes, you do.”
Kim looks surprised.
“I doubt it,” Kim says rudely.
“Yes,” I reply, looking into her eyes. “Yes, you do . . . and you owe me three quarters.”