The cute guy who comes in and buys cigarettes actually drove me home today. Yay! His name is Neal and he’s thirty-one and I kind of think he likes me because he blushed when I said goodbye to him in the driveway and there was like practically no reason for him to blush, and his face went red as a big cherry. It was kind of sweet! He even gave me--ME!--his phone number in case I ever “needed a ride home again.” He even likes a lot of the same kind of music as me. I’m contemplating calling him on Friday night and pretending like I had a fight with Mom to see if I can stay over at his place for a while because his parents are gone. I don’t think he’ll mind. Probably like it. I mean Lizzie’s up at her Uncle’s for the weekend and Holly is like soooooo excited about her date with Jared on Friday, so there’s nothing really to do at the Beach (what else is new!?) Who knows I may not even have to pretend to fight with Mom the way things are going lately . . . anyways, I’d love to play GWISUE (Guess What I’m Singing Underwater Edition for those unfamiliar) with Neal in his Jacuzzi. Well okay, I just want to see him in a bathing suit, but still.
I know exactly what I’ll sing too. Anthems For A Seventeen Year Old Girl. That’s the joke right? Because it’s such a long title to say underwater. I’ll be surprised if he gets it. I’m so funny ha ha ha! Will report back tonight (or hopefully tomorrow morning *wink*wink*).
“Pack of Peter Jackson, small king, blue . . .” I said, probably for the third time this week. I smoke about half a pack a day, and like a wind up toy with one line, I utter the same phrase every time I buy my tobacco.
I’m waiting for the day that the teenage girl behind the counter just knows what I want and gets the pack of smokes without me actually having to say anything. I’ve only been in this beach town a few weeks so it’s entirely excusable that she doesn‘t yet know that I want, every time the same refrain: a pack of Peter Jackson, small king, blue. Maybe when--or if--I’m still living here in the months to come, she still hasn’t figured out what I want then there might be problems. For now I’ll let it slide.
I know she’s only a teenager, sixteen or seventeen, who can really tell these days, could be fourteen with all the right makeup in all the right places. She’s undeniably attractive, good bone structure, big green eyes and naturally beautiful smooth skin, long neck, perfectly angled shoulders, and thick straight healthy hair . . . even if she does streak some strands on the front with the colours of the rainbow, and she puts on a disaffected attitude, and paints her fingernails with tiny images of black hearts. Ah! To be a rebel again with youth on my side!
The fact does not escape me that she’s a little on the young side for a man of my age to even consider dating, let alone to fantasize about in the privacy of my own thoughts. My high school days are long behind me--not so far away that I can’t see my shadow waving goodbye in the rear-view--but certainly it’s inappropriate to flirt with a girl of her age. I wouldn’t even know how to be honest. In fact, propriety pushes me the opposite way and I become very cordial and without any personality, unwilling to engage in any extracurricular conversation unnecessary to the situation at hand (hence the cyborgian declaration Pack of Peter Jackson, small king, blue). I only ever buy cigarettes from this shop, never any of the dizzying array of sugar doped ice cream treats, or chips, or chocolate bars, or the bongs, both regular, all business functional ones and also gas mask ones that hang throughout the shop (I have my own bong thank you very much).
My Grandpa--who served for the Canadian forces in WW2, god rest his soul--if he set foot in this modern day convenience store, he would undoubtedly be thrust back to Italy circa 1942 and end up shaking in the fetal position behind the Cool Ranch Dorrito aisle once he sees what we do nowadays with gas masks. Can you think of a modern day accoutrement of war where the use has been totally repurposed to do the exact opposite of the thing it was designed to do? Think about it: Instead of insulating the user from poisonous gases, we now use these same masks to suck in these (some will say poisonous) gases--marijuana, hash, tobacco, crack, DMT, herron, freebase, salvia, and god knows what else. In times of peace there’s simply too much of nothing to do.
AT THE STORE FOR SMOKES, AGAIN, SOME DAYS LATER
“Pack of Peter Jackson, small ki--,” I said for the umpteenth time to the teenage girl with the rainbow hair since I moved up to this beach town, a town which is decidedly bi-polar. In the summer it’s full of rowdy teenagers with gelled hair and rock hard bodies, like a tsunami hit the Jersey shore and the detritus washed up here on Georgian Bay. Soon as October comes a-knockin’ it becomes a total ghost town. A mass exodus until only the crusty locals are left to deal with the snow. The whirs of snow blowers and the crescendos of snowmobiles driving down my street provide the dominant cacophonic backdrop.
While I was mid-order, the girl with the rainbow hair turned and headed to the concealed bins where the cigarettes are hidden, as if only we can hide our addictions behind plastic flaps they’ll magically disappear, and pulled out the exact right tobacco product--the right brand (Peter Jackson), the right strength (Blue), the right amount (20) and the right size (King). Lord knows that if you get a smokers’ order wrong, they’ll be quick and ruthless to make the correction. I was stopped cold in my tracks. She just gave me a sly little smile, we made eye contact for the briefest of moments before she broke first and looked down, handing me the change.
BACK AT THE STORE FOR SMOKES, AGAIN, AGAIN. SORRY
There were no other cars in the small parking lot and no pedestrians about, so I left the car running. Pretty much all of my driving years I spent in the GTA (not the game). Would I do that in Brampton? Toronto? No. Never. But it still feels okay for whatever romanticized bucolic reason to leave the car running up here at the beach, if only in the winter time when there‘s no one around. I’m in and out in a jiff. Only need a pack of smokes. And why I go almost every day to buy a pack I’ll never know. Why not buy a carton and save the gas, save on tobacco, and save the time? God only knows. I’m a regimented man and I don’t like breaking my routines so 4-5 times a week it is.
Stepping out of the car there is only one lonely soul, a woman walking her two dogs down the bridge and to the beach. She is also regimented because I see her at least two times a week so it’s not going too far to extrapolate that she probably walks the dogs everyday through the same route. If this were July, there would be gaggles of scantily clad teenagers milling about with floatation devices and whooping it up on the streets leading to the main drag. It’s a decidedly bi-polar beach town that I live in. Though it’s desolate in the wintertime, there’s an odd sense of impending doom as the winter ends knowing that this quiet semi-hick city will be--there’s no other word for it--invaded by young adults and teenagers looking to get rowdy and see what kind of trouble they can stir up. Hence the tiny cottages that dot so many of the streets. If you’ve never been here, it would be forgivable to think I live in a city full of elves.
Maybe this year will be the year that no one shows up and all the cozy cottages will remain empty. No mass exodus out of Toronto once the summer rolls around. For no particular reason, just an inexplicably strange emptiness. People go somewhere else. Never happens though. They always come. The stretch of beaches are simply too pristine and like the way freshly hatched turtles instinctively know which way the sea is, we too naturally flock to this Canadian oasis, our own endless postcard horizon.
The girl was engaged in a conversation on the store’s phone, and when she noticed me come inside she turned her back and started twirling a sizable strand of rainbow streaked hair around her index finger until the pressure was too much and her scalp started to burn and she relented, only to start all over again in the next moment. I patiently picked up a copy of the Toronto Sun and flipped it open to page two to check out the day’s Sunshine Girl, letting her know that I’m in no hurry. Another white trash broad with what appears to be the tattoo of a poem starting at her left lateral ribcage area and running down the side of her hip bone. On her stomach is a flock of birds. Really. No shit. I still haven’t figured out why the Sun insists on almost exclusively using girls with multiple ridiculous tattoos. Class would be near the bottom of the list of words I can conjure up to explain most of the Sunshine Girls. Don’t get me wrong, I find a lot of them attractive in a bestial way. And there’s the odd gem, the rare needle in the haystack, but boy, sometimes there’s weeks in between.
It was now becoming clear, as I continued to flip through the fluff that takes up most of the Sun’s ink, reading a line or two but not really taking it in, that the girl was not in some banal conversation. Though I couldn’t make out every word (I didn’t want to be rude and seem like I was eavesdropping so I kept a safe distance from the counter), I could sense the general thrust and it was not a comfortable chat, of that much I‘m sure.
DRIVING THE GIRL HOME FROM THE STORE
“I’ll just move that into the backseat,” I said, the both of us eyeballing at the same time the six pack that was preventing her from sitting down in the passenger side. She slunk herself into the seat and fastened her belt. I was nervous as all hell. What the fuck am I doing driving this teenage girl home? Every little thing I say to her will, no matter how commonplace, be reflexively filtered through a thought checkpoint to root out any potential sexual references to this minor that I have no familial or long-time-family-friend-type relation to, and no good reason to be with, so that now I’m obviously taking great pains to avoid any kind of talk of sex or boys or whatever, and that makes it seem like I’m creepy for acting like sex talk is unnatural. Or so I think, turning the ignition.
“So . . . where to little lady?” I asked, backing out of the parking lot.
“Hey thanks for driving me, I don’t live far. I was talking to my Mom on the phone. She’s totally hammered and couldn’t pick me up,” she said in a way that suggested it wasn’t the first time that sentence had sprung from her lips. “My name’s Sadie, by the way.”
“Nice to meet you Sadie. My name’s still Neal,” I said smiling as warmly as I could at her.
“Still?” She chuckled and I chuckled back, her one word question phrased more rhetorically rather than inquisitive. I didn’t answer.
There was a moment of silence while I backed up and she looked out the window indiscriminately at the same slushy sights of dirty snow that she saw everyday and I nervously scratched a phantom itch on the back of my neck to fill the empty space and tried to think of something to say, also feeling a hint of an odd kind of inchoate guilt as I thought of the aforementioned six pack that was now ominously situated in the middle of the back seat. Like I’m somehow implicated in her mothers’ irresponsible behaviour.
“Just keep going up Main until you hit the lights at River then go left. You live around here I guess?”
“Yeah, by the police station. Just looking after the folks’ home and the cat while they’re away this winter in Florida. It’s great. I can grab a beer and relax in the Jacuzzi anytime I like.
“Ewww . . . a Jacuzzi.”
“I lived in Toronto for five the past ten years or so, but wanted a change, to get away from the city and live out in the country for a bit. ” This line of reasoning was SOP when trying to impress someone, or put a nice glaze over the rotten facts that my life has become. Though it was mostly true, I was leaving out what most would consider an integral factor to the story, a game changer, a TSN Turning Point: I quit my job a year ago and didn’t do much of anything towards finding a new job in the first six months until my meagre stash of money saved up from my security sales job rather quickly evaporated and I was faced with not being able to pay next month’s rent (let alone beer, pot, smokes, groceries, et al). I had to schlep all my crap two hours north and move back in with the folks. What other choice did I have? I read an article that said more and more Canadians are moving back in with their parents, whether it be the economy, lack of opportunity, whatever. It made me feel marginally better, I suppose. If Sadie dug a little deeper my vague cover story would fall apart, and if that happened, I’d simply tell her the truth, every pathetic detail. Try to pull off a quick turnaround redemption. I didn’t have the fortitude to spin some elaborate web of deceit about the events that led to my current loserdom status living in my parents‘ basement. I prefer to weave a simple, uncomplicated web when I lie and deceive; then come clean if prodded.
“I’d love to live in Toronto. I’ve only been a few times to visit my aunt. I’ve lived here my whole life,” she said and sighed, looking blankly out the window at the rows of semi-squalid beach motels that give way to the carefully delineated box stores.
“Some of my favourite band’s are from Toronto . . . but I‘ve never seen any of them,” and Sadie proceeded to drop a few names, taking the awkward first step when discussing music with a stranger, and/or perhaps to gauge what my preferences were. “Crystal Castles, Metric, Broken Social Scene, Drake.” She stopped listing musical groups and looked at me, “I could go on and on if you like.”
“What about Neil Young? He’s from Toronto.”
“Oh yeah, definitely him too. I love Heart of Gold.”
“That’s a good one but there’s better. A lot of his ‘70’s stuff that you don’t hear on the radio is his best. Zuma, On The Beach, American Stars N’ Bars.” I looked at her and with a smile said, “I could go on and on if you like.”
I continued: “I’m only familiar with the one Broken Social Scene album, You Forgot It In People, but it’s one of the best Canadian albums ever. The kind of album that is pretty much impossible to duplicate, and all future attempts have a lingering sadness because it can never be that good again. That‘s the way I--”
“Oh my God! That’s totally my favourite album from them too!” Sadie jumped in. “I found it last year and have been listening like religiously.”
I relaxed, satisfied that there was some common ground between us no matter the age gap--music is a universal language!
I told her, “Whenever I think of the title, I think of it as, ‘forgot what in people? Like a toy or something?’”
Sadie looked at me with a stern face and said in a monotonous deadpan, “I’m glad I let a complete psycho drive me home.”
“You would probably like The Sadies,” I told her, showing off my Hogtown indie scene knowledge and connecting it to her namesake.
“There’s a band called ‘The Sadies?’” She asked, clearly unaware of their hitherto existence.
“Yeah, they’ve been around a long time. Pretty good, too; straight up mother fucking rock and roll. Awesome guitarists.”
I knew it was wrong, this unstoppable swelling of attraction to this teenage girl. I would never make a pass, she’s too young, I told myself. But good people are capable of bad things if put in the right wrong situation. Believe me, I’ve assimilated modern North American values regarding acting on sexual impulses towards young teenage girls. My baser instincts are firmly held in check, and it’s fine because I really do like women that are my own age, refined women in their late twenties and early thirties, not teenagers with multi coloured streaks in their hair. There’s no getting the toothpaste back in the tube, I ‘spose.
We are cruising through a residential area, I‘m purposely driving slower than usual so we can continue our conversation (thankful there‘s no one behind me). “I live up here on the left, mine is the one with the gnome in the yard with a red toque holding a beer mug . . . my Mom put it there. She‘s kind of a drunk, if you don‘t know already. Sometimes, when she‘s really messed up, and sitting on the couch watching Hoarders or Housewives of Whatever, she‘ll say, ‘Sadie! Get Momma a drink from the litter cabinet, and don‘t forget to clean Kiki‘s liquor box.”
“Sounds like a real hoot,” I said, pulling into her driveway, coming to a stop. “Well, here we are.” I put the car in park.
I don’t have a sound rational reason for what I said next, I think I said it to cut the silence, and you know when you quickly flip through the rolodex of possible topics in your head and you’re pressed for time--someone has to say something right now!--and the longer the silence drags on you just grasp for any old dumb thing to say even if the consequences of saying said thing are worse than not saying anything at all in the first place? She asked me to drive her home. What was I supposed to say? “Get outta my face, lady!?”
“Hey, take my phone number if,” and that’s a very loaded ‘if’, I’ll admit, fraught with innuendos, “you ever need a ride home again.”
Sadie quickly took out her cell phone, which was encased in a pink plastic cell housing bedazzled with little red hearts, some of them faded and not really even hearts anymore where she must hold the phone. She opened up her contacts and entered my name and number, manipulating both her thumbs around the screen of the device with the efficient dexterity that teenagers now display with any handheld device.
She smiled right in my eyes, her twin spotlights lighting me up, and put her phone back in the front pocket of her jeans, bulging noticeably against her thighs. “I’ll call if I need a ride,” she said, lingering by the open door, “Just don’t drink any of those,” and her eyes moved to the six pack with the who me? expression in the back seat, “If I let you drive me home again.”
“I wouldn’t dare, Sadie.”
She closed the door, insulating me from the frigid, dandruff inducing, soul destroying air that whipped off the bay. Alone in the car. I watched Sadie walk up the walkway, shovelled so narrowly as to barely allow a human being to trek through. I didn’t actually watch her open the front door. I didn’t want to seem like a creep, sitting there in her driveway not leaving, as if driving her home and giving her my phone number wasn’t creepy enough.
I’m fucking thirty one years old! Ahh! I got the hell out of there and drove home and resolved to forget about Sadie with a few pints and a few puffs. Shit, am I going to have to buy smokes from a different store now to avoid future potentially embarrassing situations with this girl? Why did I involve myself with the local convenience store clerk? I chided myself for needlessly complicating my simple life. I debated the pros and cons of funnelling my future tobacco dollars towards the other convenience store which was definitely much farther away than the current one, and from what I remember, there was a whiff of something rotten in the air. That was two strikes against.
And then I was pulling in to the driveway of my empty suburban house, waiting for the automatic door to fully ascend.
SADIE COMES OVER
I didn’t recognize the number but the voice on the other end was hers. Of course she could come over if she needed to get away from her mother for a few hours, I told her. She was walking over this very minute.
I convinced myself that I didn’t even think of Sadie like a seventeen year old. She seemed sweet and clever, and yes, kind of attractive too. It’s hard to choose to be attracted to somebody because that’s what the culture you live in tells you to. You just kind of are, am I right?
There’s a ton of moral diversity within the thirteen to nineteen range and what’s permissible, both legally and culturally. Not many would bat an eye if a twenty year old male dated an eighteen year old female. Happens all the time. A few heads would certainly start turning if a twenty five year male dated a seventeen year old female, and heads would possibly start rolling (either from law enforcement or paternal rage) if a thirty eight year old male dated a thirteen year old female (the disgust of this summed up neatly by the fact that no one would actually call it ’dating’, it’s called something else entirely).
Thirty one and seventeen. I pondered the mathematical range of our ages and couldn’t keep the clichéd platitudes from bubbling to the surface. Age is just a number. . .
I shouldn’t have even offered her a ride home. What am I doing inviting her to my home? Do I need to hop onto the net and look up Sex Laws in Ontario? This is wrong, wrong, wrong. Remember to ask her when her 18th birthday is. Okay, there’s a force field around her and I’ll simply just not touch her at all, not in a sexual way or a friendly way, only if she’s choking and I have to give her mouth to mouth, then and only then will I reach out and connect my lips to hers.
Without warning the doorbell says, “Ding-dong.”
I exhale loudly (if a man sighs alone in a house does it make a sound?) and hop down the small set of stairs that lead to the front door. I can see a slender persons’ silhouette through the stained glass pattern, bathing them in a translucent, multi-coloured, ethereal glow.
We say our hellos I lead her up the stairs to the main area of the house. There is a definite power when welcoming a guest into your home for the first time. You‘re in charge. The family house was an open concept, combining the kitchen and t.v. room; it was where friends and family congregated to engage in conversation and whatnot. Sadie was no different.
“So this is it,” I said with a sweeping motion, gesturing at all the stuff--sixty inch flat screen hanging on the wall as if put in place by the hand of God, leather couches with matching ottomans, hardwood floors, sleek modern kitchen where pots and pans dangle, ready for use.
“Thanks for letting me come over for a while, my Mom’s annoying the shit out of me. I promise it will only be for a few hours, until she passes out.”
“Hey, it’s all good. I could use the company. Kind of lonely by myself all the time here. I’m used to living in an apartment on Bloor Street in Toronto and having to close my curtains because too many people are walking by.”
I open my pack of PJ’s and perfunctorily offer her one and she declines.
“I remember that you said you have a Jacuzzi,” Sadie said with a conspiratorial sideways grin. “So I brought my bathing suit.”
I cleared my throat and said, “Great, great. We can definitely do that. She’s all warmed up and ready to go.”
There was freshly diced vegetables, flour, bread crumbs and spices for my deadly fried chicken all laid out carefully on the kitchen counter. I didn’t really know what else to do for this girl except feed her. It’s all about the Panko!
“Not hungry I take it?”
“Maybe later. Got somewhere I can change?”
IN THE MOONLIGHT & JACUZZI
The jets they are-a bubbling and we sit down at the same as far away as possible on opposite ends of the tub. We both let our bodies acclimate to the water which was perfectly set at just-hot-enough-to-hurt-so-good.
If you haven’t slaked your thirst with a few Moosehead’s and then waltzed through subzero temperatures in nothing but a bathing suit towards a tub full of hot water and laid back and smoked a cigarette looking up at the moon, the stars, the sun, well than you haven’t caught a glimpse of paradise yet, my friend.
“Lot of stars out tonight,” I shot across the ocean between us, my head cocked to the heavens. It was something, anything. Did I want a response? I don’t know.
“Let’s play a game,” Sadie said.
I’ll admit, there weren’t too many games I wouldn’t play with her at this moment.
“Turn off the jets and we’ll both take a deep breath and go under water. I’ll sing the first verse to a song and you have to guess which song.”
Well I‘ve gone this far. To turn back now would be as bloody as moving forward. I flexed my stomach muscles and stood up, leaning over to where the main control panel was located and punched one of the buttons, killing the jets.
Like when you play Jeopardy! or Trivial Pursuit with your friends, I was confident that I would know the song, whatever song she decided to choose. She’s only a teenager, after all.
A silence that was always there, hidden by the jets, suddenly revealed itself and, I’m sure, caught both of our attention at the same time, but it went unacknowledged. We crouched down onto the floor of the tub, the dying swells from the jets making our kneecaps gently tap, tap, tap, together. Two heads and four shoulders our only parts above water. Spumes of heat rise over the surface, the only things moving at this moment in the backyard, the whole world. We sucked in what was all around us and what we were sucking in all the time when you stop and think about it, but was now wholly precious and uncommonly dramatic considering how crucial oxygen was to the game, and then we disappeared beneath the surface.