by Donna Gartshore
After lunch, we all thundered back outside again to meet on the boulevard and make our way to Kinsmen Park.
If I was in my mother’s calm, clean kitchen eating an egg salad sandwich and canned Bing Cherries for dessert, that was what felt real to me. Our world of running and shouting, plotting games and choosing sides for them was remote beyond the screen door. But the second I set foot outside again, it was the confines of home that I shook off. It seemed to me that I was one person at our kitchen table, a different one outside with my friends.
The morning had remained cool until close to lunchtime, so we gathered in the pup tent in Jeremy’s backyard to trade our comic books. Despite the outside weather, it was too hot in the tent and there was a general sense of itchiness and aggravation. Patsy said I should give her two Betty and Veronica comics for one Millie the Model because Millie was more fun to read. I asked her why, if that was the case, she wanted two of the others to read, and we bickered about it.
Jeremy flopped onto his back and puffed out his cheeks. We often annoyed him just by being girls, but especially over things like that.
Jeremy and I were eleven, Patsy a few months away from it. But, despite being younger, she was taller than me and more developed (then again, I wasn’t developed at all). She had already learned a slinky way of walking and was self-aware in a certain way that I lacked.
Developed was a word my mom used; slinky was probably one of her words too. When I said them in my own head, I felt like I was making a joke.
Jeremy was shorter and slighter than both of us. We didn’t pay attention to him during the school year nor him to us. But during the summer, Patsy and I bought sought out his company, mostly because of the novelty of his being the only boy our age on the block.
No doubt bored with us, and with the trading itself (we had very few comics he was interested in) it was Jeremy who suggested that we gather more of the kids and head to the park for a yet-to-be-disclosed game. He reached out and grabbed my ankle, pulling himself back up. I suddenly wanted to run and run until my breath was ragged, but at the same time an entirely different feeling came of needing the quiet, non-clutter of my own house.
It was perhaps this unsettled, contradictory feeling that caused me to make an unappreciative remark about my sandwich.
“Don’t eat it then,” was all Mom said, which didn’t improve my mood.
Patsy and I also spent a lot of time together without Jeremy. I called her my best friend because I couldn’t remember a time when I didn’t know her, and her house was as familiar to me as my own. Our differences, and there were several of them, didn’t matter.
I did know that her house had an entirely different feel to it than ours did. In my house, I felt like a child. Not that it was a bad thing knowing that my breakfast would be on the table when I got up in the morning, that I was expected to be home for lunch at the same time every day, even on summer holidays, and that I would sleep in a bed that had been freshly made every morning and turned down for me each night.
Or maybe it’s just in looking back that I can appreciate all of those things and the comfort to be found in them.
Patsy’s mom worked, which wasn’t as common for the time, at least not where I lived. This was in a southwest neighbourhood in Regina, in the early 70s.
Patsy’s dad owned a bakery and both her parents were working hard to make a decent living at it. Patsy actually used the words `a decent living’ with admirable authority.
This meant that they were gone very early every morning to bake and didn’t get home until late in the evening. This left Patsy in charge of the house and of her younger brother, Graham, who was nine.
So, we were mostly unsupervised there, but my parents were right across the street and it was just a different time then.
Their house was never clean the way ours was, but when I was with Patsy’s mom she made me believe that there were more important things in life than a clean house. She liked us to call her by her first name, Crystal. She often looked tired but satisfied, in a way that looked like she had discovered a certain secret about being satisfied. She didn’t ask us mundane questions about our lives like most parents did, but told us funny stories about her own.
Even though I would have eaten at home – something like meatloaf and mashed potatoes, and carrots and peas – for our supper at 5:30, I would be ready to eat with Patsy and Graham later on.
It certainly wasn’t because the meals were better but because when I was in that house I felt like my life could go in any direction.
We ate chicken gumbo from a Campbell’s tin. Patsy liked to crumble crackers into hers until it was a salty sludge, so I did the same. We drank Kool-Aid, which felt to me like a small rebellion against the wholesomeness of the milk my mother insisted on.
We piled the dishes into the sinking, adding to the pile that was already there. Crystal never commented on the state of the house when she and Patsy’s dad got home. That told me that she had more important things to worry about.
One afternoon, about a week before the comic book exchange, Patsy and I were in her room. We still liked to run with the neighbourhood kids, but we also liked to go into hiding from them. There was an art and an excitement in the strategy of slipping away.
My own room was kept clean by my mother. It had light blue walls, a white, blue-flowered bedspread and a white dresser. I still had dolls and stuffed animals. It was a child’s room.
Patsy’s room was as messy as the rest of her house. It didn’t smell bad, but it didn’t smell empty the way a thoroughly clean room can. She had started shopping for bits of make-up and wore Soft and Dri deodorant and treated her smattering of pimples with Bonne Bell Ten 0 Six Astringent. So the room smelled of the medicinal sting of this, and of powder and lipstick, and of Patsy’s own skin which always reminded me of sweet corn.
I told her this once and held my own arm out for her to sniff.
“What do I smell like?”
She inhaled. “Nothing … lemons?”
She lay on her unmade bed and I pushed some clothes off of her zebra striped inflatable chair.
“Have you ever been kissed?” she asked, tossing and catching a slightly lewd looking stuffed monkey. “I mean for real?”
I was sure she knew I hadn’t been. At the same time, I realized that I wasn’t sure about her. She didn’t look at me, but her expression held a pleased slyness. It started me to realize how much she looked like Crystal and, therefore, like the adult she would become.
“I wonder if Jeremy has,” she said.
“How would I know?” I found my voice. The conversation made me feel restless and irritated.
“I wonder if he’d want to kiss us,” Patsy speculated, unaware or choosing to be, of my discomfiture.
Us, like it was assumed we would share and experience all things together, that he he’d want to kiss both of us!
But then she said, “I wonder which one of us he’d want to kiss the most.”
“Neither of us,” I snapped. “We probably both make him want to puke!”
I didn’t say things like puke, although Patsy often did. She finally looked over at me, her eyes wide. Then she burst out laughing and I found an excuse to go home.
I resented her raising something like that between us. I didn’t want to be set against her and I didn’t want to think of Jeremy in that way.
But once that kind of idea is seeded, it plants firm roots.
Patsy rang our doorbell after supper (our suppertime, not theirs) and asked me to come out. I was a bit wary but not enough to risk missing something. We walked across the park to the Happy Shopper Confectionery and bought bottles of Coke and a bag of Sweet Tarts to share. I liked the dissolving tingle on my tongue more than the actual taste.
On the way back, we sat on the swing and finished our drinks. We talked about a lot of different things, but not about Jeremy.
Still, when Mom came into my room later to put clean socks and underwear in my drawer, I asked her. “Is Patsy prettier than me?”
Mom could be very straightforward about things like that and I could see she was honestly considering her answer.
“You have prettier features,” she said, “but Patsy will always draw attention. She’s like her mother in that way.”
I thought of them both, and the way Patsy had suddenly reminded me so much of Crystal, and I knew my mom was right.
I knew that I had better skin, straighter teeth and shinier hair than Patsy did. I also knew that none of that mattered, because she could just about render me invisible with a certain look and laugh she had. But it had never really bothered me before. At least, I believed it had not.
Summer days spilled one into the next in the neighbourhood. They too their shape from our games, our trips to the park and to the store, and even by the time we were obligated to spend at our own homes.
Patsy and I continued our usual summertime excursions, and neither of us raised the subject of kissing Jeremy again. Yet, it was in the air between us and all around us.
I never looked at Jeremy as anything other than a neighbourhood boy. I’m not sure that boy even came into it. I hardly felt different around him than I felt around Pats. In fact, I’m sure I cared more to get along with her and worried more about her thoughts and feelings.
But I felt that Patsy had forced me to see him differently and I resented that most of all.
As far as I could tell, they didn’t notice that I talked less now because my voice tangled in my throat around him.
After lunch, Jeremy and Patty, along with other recruits, were waiting for me on the boulevard.
We thundered over the bridge to the park, like warriors looking for new worlds to conquer. I always kept my eyes straight ahead and ran as fast as I could over the bridge. The creek was shallow, but its murky waters seemed to threaten no end of unpleasant surprises.
Sometimes Patsy liked to walk dangerously close to the edge of the bridge, placing her feet one in front of the other, with her toes pointed like a tightrope walker. Although she walked slowly, something about the way she spread her arms for balance made me feel like she could take flight and in those moments she was wild and beautiful.
Jeremy’s game involved a kingdom of which he, naturally, was king. The younger kids grumbled but nonetheless took on roles of various servants and builders. Building mean the gathering of the largest stones and rocks they could find to form a large circle to represent the castle. If Jeremy was outside of the circle, it meant that his subjects could approach him and ask for his favour.
“But if I don’t like what you ask,” he explained loftily, “I’ll send you to get your head chopped up.”
It soon became clear that the only correct question to ask the king was to do something that benefited him. Like, if you asked him if you could fetch him a drink, he would grant his favour graciously. But if you wanted a drink of water for yourself, you were sent to the gallows, as it were.
If someone was beheaded, they were banished to sit out in the far side of the field. Soon there was a crowd there since Jeremy ordered executions with a disturbing enthusiasm.
After a while, the game grew more complicated, with Jeremy devising ways to bring the beheaded players back to life.
Patsy and I escaped beheading, mostly because we didn’t approach him – her because she was above it all and me because of this new nervousness I wore like an oily skin. So, we floundered around the edges of the game without much to do.
Then another game, or a subtext to the existing game, was proposed. I can’t honestly say I remember for sure that it was Patsy who suggested it, but I believe it must have been. I know I didn’t and I can’t imagine any of the younger kids proposing it. Jeremy? I remember him being completely absorbed in his kingly role.
In any case, it was suggested that a king need a queen by his side and that he should kiss both Patsy and me and make his choice.
You would think I would remember what Jeremy said or did – surely he must have had some sort of definitive and strong reaction. But, for the life of me, all I can see his Patsy’s lip-glossed, expectant smirk, the challenge in her eyes, fists on her hips.
I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t risk being tried and rejected in front of everyone. I don’t remember exactly what I said but it must have been something along the lines of letting Patsy be queen. The strongest memory I have is of desperately I wanted the solitude of my own room.
Neither Patsy nor I had a romance or even a kiss with Jeremy that summer or any other time. He remained a summer friend to us both. We continued to do our things together. Sometimes we played games in the park, but other times Patsy and I got permission to take the bus to Woolworth’s in the Golden Mile Shopping Centre, where we tried on lipstick samples and sprayed Jean Nate Body Mist on ourselves.
We hovered on the brink of things never being the same again, but we didn’t know it then, not entirely.
I was miserable the rest of that afternoon, the day we played Jeremy’s king game. Yet, I confess I enjoyed the misery and was, from time-to-time oddly buoyed by the thought that, since I would never know for sure, anything could have happened.
About the Author
Donna has published short stories in Spring and The Wascana Review, and won an award from The Saskatchewan Writers Guild for short fiction. She also writes poetry and has published romance poems with Love Inspired.