Narrator: Junior Archvale
My eyes narrowed, as the confusing comment was unweaved in my mind. I thought many things, then, all at once. I was flushed, embarassed, as other students had been in earshot. And I knew, without a doubt, that Brent had social liasons with almost every young woman around me whose breasts were larger than his brain.
As far as I knew, this was his fifth or sixth year. Last year, he was still taking the mandatory Civics & Career Studies course that was inflicted upon all of us... in second year. Attempt number three, for him. That time, though, he had Leslie at his side -- and she was brilliant at anything other than math. And so, he had passed that hurdle.
But enough about his feeble brain. Back to the other thoughts that were scurrying through my mind as I backed away from where the bus had been.
Comments such as these, though never as public or poignant, had fallen from her mouth, to my ears, every so often. I had assumed, up until this point, that she just had an eccentric sense of humour. I had disdained it. But now that I recognized it for what it was, relieved to assume it wasn't casual behaviour expressed to every male friend, I didn't find it quite so unattractive.
That's not to say that I necessarily need such reassurance. Nor that I condone such remarks in public. And come to think of it, it was in direct contrast with Brent's memorable greeting: "Hey, small dick!"
An assumption with utterly no basis. And I gave no retort. I wasn't willing to embarass him by reciting what I'd been told in Physics, last year, by a senior student who had a class in the weight room with Brent. His wiry body spoke for itself, admirable effort or not.
The alpha male, come to oust me from his flock of ladies. Not that such behaviour worked in his favour with me or with them. And he was a perfect example of why I preferred the company of women when it came to platonic (and non-platonic) relations. I knew, because I myself have a pair, that deep down inside, every man can be a savage pervert if they don't discipline themselves. Call me a prude, if you will. Brent and I are very nearly sexist chauvinists of the opposite variety.
But that's not to say that I'm incapable of finding other mild-mannered friends who aren't female.
Wait, I think I've gone off on another tangent. It seems that I've forgotten about my other thoughts. Yes, the morality of it. Morality and ethics weigh heavy on my mind, though I prefer to keep self-righteous judgments to myself.
I wasn't against dating her. I once had a crush on her, but it had since dwindled when I realized how unattainable she was. Yet somehow, it had returned at this moment. Why?
I was against infidelity. I was against breaking up their relationship. I was against making a mortal enemy of an envy-crazed territorial person. (Oh, the restraint it takes not to say something crude in place of that word.)
He was thin, wiry and short. I was slender too, but I was tall. If I had to, I could defend myself.
I'm not the kind of person who initiates violent or angry confrontations.
I had already asked her, once, what she saw in him. I knew she cast a blind eye, an eye of denial, towards how he treated the other guys in our social circle. If there wasn't a game of collectible cards, playing cards or a multi-player video game between them; he'd get snappy with the most of us. Regardless of who was watching.
Well, when I asked her, months ago, she gave me an answer I can't altogether remember, apart from the fact that it was ignorant. She was clearly in love, and to a point that made her too blind to see. I had told her my opinion, which was that she deserved someone far better -- though not necessarily me.
I only saw Brent from one angle. It was the opposite angle, supplementary to mine if you will, from which she saw him.
And so ends my thoughts upon the reference to... my extremities.
I climbed up the hill to see Janine glaring at me. Her friend, Clara, was nowhere to be seen. I didn't care. It made me happy that they, at least, had been out of earshot.
I was a grade older than the three of them, and I was surprised at this moment how much more mature I felt. I was in Grade 12, and they were in Grade 11. I had to remind myself that I was also older than all my classmates, due to a two-month premature birth that had required my parents to hold me back from starting school. A small baby, owing my life to oxygen tanks and antibiotics. Sometimes, I wondered if I was meant to survive.
Damn, damn, damn. Tears. Anger, frustration and numerous memories were all linked directly to my tear ducts.
I stood beneath the conifers, taking in the moist wind, waiting for the buses.
Janine left, with a wave at Clara who had returned outside, and a distinct glare at me. She was still being her alterego, Jamean. Sometimes I thought she'd turn green and expand into the Incredible Sulk.
Yellow buses, yellow yellow buses...
Then, I left. I was lucky, as rain was just beginning to fall.
Routine, as usual. I took a seat near the front, exchanged small-talk with the friendly bus driver who knew me by name, and then opened up my giant backpack.
I had a heavy instrument case to tote around. But rather than put stress on one specific arm, I preferred a hiking backpack. A small student could fit inside. My friend Michelle once offered to pop her head out the back and scare people in the halls, so that I could tell them it was "my-shell", enunciated such that it sounded like her name.
Leslie once teased that I was trying to make up for something. That was, until she realized that the straps that put most of the weight on my hips also left a low-hanging part of the bag to block my hind quarters. Then, she began to tease me that I wore the bag to keep the gay students from raping me. Maybe I forgot to mention that she has a bizarre sense of humour?
Why would I play one of the most complicated classical woodwind instruments in the world just to have a compensational phallus hanging off my back?
Well, sure enough, I was brooding instead of reading. Wrist into view, eyes on watch: 3:22 PM. So, I reached for my mint box in my pocket, and took out half a pill of clonazepam, an anti-anxiety medication I'd been prescribed. I followed it down with a swig of water from my Nalgene bottle. I hoped it would kick in by the time I got home, in case either parent was around. There was a party tonight, and I needed to plan a transit route because I knew neither one of them would be willing to drive me.
I hate being dependent on pills. The anti-depressant cocktail is another story, which I don't quite feel like getting into right now.
The bus entered my corner of suburbia, passing construction lots where farms had once been. It was going to stretch right out to the school some day, just a couple years away. By then, though, I'd be gone. Tears, again. I loved high school. Middle school had been torture for me, and going home wasn't the haven it used to be. Age was exposing parts of my parents' personalities I didn't want to barter with, didn't know how to... -- or even tolerate! Worst of all, we were perfect, from the outside. Middle class perfection. Or was it now upper middle class?
I sighed as I stepped off the bus. My gargantuan bag had its own sleek, black raincover that pulled out of a hidden compartment in the bottom. It now looked like something out of a Batman movie. Clearly, it didn't belong on the back of my muddy light coat. I put my hood up and ran through the landscaped walkway and then the fenced alley between two of my neighbours' houses.
I began to miss Penny. My best friend, who didn't consider me among her best friends. Worse still, I was starting to consider her more than that in a way that unsettled me.
I passed the boy next door, just a year younger than me. He went to the Catholic secondary school, where his father seemed to think he'd get better moral discipline than in the public system. Your son is bound to act out if you beat and bruise him on a weekly basis!
Truth was, according to me, both institutions were horrible. The funny thing was, they weren't even Catholic, or Christian. They were Hindus. But I guess India had had the Brits in their country so long, that a school with uniforms seemed best.
Adam waved. Adam is not his name. Adam is his 'school' name. An attempt to avoid the label of an immigrant family. A name his parents probably don't know about.
Initially, I developed a thin tolerance for him. As a womanizing compulsive liar, he wasn't at the top of my list of friends to instant-message on a Saturday night. But somehow, that reluctant tolerance had grown into an odd friendship.
I'm a fan of Karl Jung's work. The psychologist? Well, mostly the collective unconscious and archetypes. And Adam must have been something close to my shadow archetype. That is to say, in layman's terms, my opposite. Maybe I have but an amateur or loose interpretation of the concept. Anyway, that juxtaposition made our friendship so positively interesting in such an inexplicable way.
So, I told him about Joshua's party tonight. It must have stunned him, to think that I, the shy and ethical loner, would be the first to extend such an invitation. I was close enough with Josh that I could pull this off, but Adam must have just thought it was one of those house parties where everyone invited everyone until the place was packed. He was the party animal, not me. And so, I promptly, and sternly, forbade him from inviting friends. My excuse was... that his social circles were from another school.
I was amused by the concept of what he might do in the presence of my friends. The liberal-minded artistic and creative eccentrics of a special arts program; who were fans of anything from Dance Dance Revolution, CSI, sci-fi, The L Word, Japanese animation to Joss Whedon's Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The kind of people he'd love to hang out with, but could never allow himself to drop from his higher plane of existence.
The Elysian Fields lay below the heavens of petty and scandalous deities. Not to mention, I think he lives his life with anti-gravity boots on, and may be emerging from what I'd deem Hades.
I could picture him spiking the punch, or even ousting Leslie from Brent's lap. Charisma and a joint of marijuana, anyone? The potential outcome amused me, and I was indifferent to the repercussions.
"All right, Cam, that sounds like a fine idea," he said, trying to understand why my smile was so crooked today.
"Good. Let's meet here at 7:40 PM," I told him. We were standing on our shared driveway. Our houses were attached, but not by anything but soundproof walls. "Do you need a bus ticket?"
"No, I'm good." Somehow, he knew better than to suggest getting a ride from either of his parents.
I went inside to refine the transit route, and extend a second invitation to Penny. She'd run into my friends at Animé conventions in the past, and partook in online gaming with some of them. I knew she'd fit in better than I did. And she could make it, so long as she finished her homework ASAP. Strict parents. I'd have to lend her a bus ticket to get back, if she showed. I advised her to shut down MSN Messenger then, until she was finished her work. Messenger was our current method of communication. However, she switched it to 'Busy', as she needed to contact classmates.
When I stopped typing and swiveled the chair away from the monitor, I realized my palms were sweaty. However, the house was cold enough that I had to wear a sweater.
I had emotions to vent, and I knew it.
I had two options, and I chose the one that involved less use of sweaty palms.
I turned back, and set my own Messenger status to 'Away'. Then, I walked to my room and began to pull the large, slim, black case out of the back of my hiking bag.
Rumours circulated at school that I kept dead bodies in the bag. Some claimed that I'd take murdered students home in pieces and roast them for dinner. I guess I must look creepy, zoned out and staring across the cafeteria through a curtain of dirty blond hair. That bag had had me called down to the office twice so far, same vice-principal, same issue, same room; two years apart. Apparently, I was the only one experiencing déja vu.
Placing it on my bed, I undid the latches and lifted the leathery black case open. The pieces lay amongst blue satin contours. Silver tabs gleamed upon a rich, reddish-brown pearwood set of shafts. The most slender piece was a bent and thinning pipe of silvert metal.
It was a bassoon. An uncommon, complicated instrument.
I pieced it together, creating a tall and slender instrument. Its pipe was a 'U' shape, compressed horizontally and rising taller on one side into a thick, ivory-rimmed bell.
The double-reed required to play it needed to soak in water for two to five minutes before playing properly. In my urgency, I hadn't set it to soak. I did so, and then headed into the bathroom while I waited.
Sitting down, I urinated for the first time since this morning. I loathe public bathrooms. I think it began in middle school, when boys would make a game of pissing all over the walls and floor in their entirety before retreating into the safe and dry hallway.
I now realized that I was exactly where I didn't want to be, with frustration and longing swirling around my head. Thoughts I wished to confront in a different way!
Temptation rose and fell, untouched.
I washed my hands, and returned to my bedroom. Adjusting my music stand, I looked at the clock. Time was up on the bathing reeds. Two slabs of bamboo carved uniquely, tied and wired together, and curving convexly on either side lay in the clean water that filled an old film canister.
I took it out, blew the water out of it from the back end, and then slid that end over the silver bocal of my bassoon. After licking the moisture off the exposed wood, I drew my lips around the double-reed in a tightened embouchure.
As I blew, fingers dancing across the holes and buttons of the slender instrument, the reeds vibrated against each other between my lips.
My tongue slapped against the end of the reeds between notes, and my eyes looked up from my music, out the window, into the depths of a grey stormcloud.
Thunder struck, and I stopped following what was written before me. Improvising, I dropped down once and a while into the booming low notes of the bassoon's impressive range.
As the storm began to rage harder outside, I found a candid clarity emerging in my thoughts. Soon, I was back to the page, following the notes where I had left off.
I finished, breathless and with burning lips, I rose from upon the leather seat strap, and set the bassoon down.
Hadn't I taken half a clonazepam pill earlier? I should have felt dopey. Yet I was ratty, on edge. And I dared not return to the computer room to check if Penny had finished her homework.
I began my own. Tedious math problems, most of which we were only asked to do if we needed extra practice. Instead of skipping ahead to the harder, required questions the teacher would take up, I did every single one to keep my mind from wandering.
On the second-last question, I put the double-reed to soak again. And when I was done sketching the last hyperbola and pressing the last button on my calculator, I picked up my bassoon and played through The Sorcerer's Apprentice, just for the heck of it. Right then, I wasn't worried about the test in two days on an entirely different piece of music.
I was interrupted by keys in the door at the front hall.
I put her down gently on the comforter of my bed, and ran into the computer room. Hoping my father, whose blustery breathing I could hear downstairs, wasn't listening as attentively to me as I was to him, I shut down the computer manually. The slow way.
Then, I unplugged the keyboard and picked it up, winding the cord around it in a very specific manner. I made a mad, though silent, dash down the hall, through his bedroom, and into their shared walk-in closet. Up on a high shelf, I placed the keyboard in exactly the same place I'd found it.
Hopefully, he wouldn't know I'd used it. I was forbidden, so long as I hadn't done a half hour of exercise to combat my depression for every hour that I spent on the computer. Homework purposes excluded.
Worst of all, I needed to write. Music wasn't my only way of getting things, emotionally, out of my system. I was a story-teller first and foremost.
My parents were a pain in the head, first and foremost.
That's when the headache set in, as I stood in the open doorway of my bedroom trying to look innocent as he walked up the stairs to politely ask me how I felt.
Their very presence could sometimes cause these headaches. This was the first time though, that the clonazepam hadn't put a stop to it. Then again, I was only taking half my allowed dose, since a full dose made me too dopey to get up and go to school and too sleepy to finish my homework if I left it to the last hour. And that was something I often did, since I could use the keyboard freely before anyone got home.
No homework left to do, other than long-term projects I'd prefer to procrastinate on.
I hadn't been caught by 'Officer Dad' for illegal keyboard use. Yet.
I call him that because home is starting to feel more like ... a jail. A two-person jail. But my sister's not so hard to get along with.
As I turned, to put away my bassoon, my Dad expressed his surprise to see it out and in use outside of the classroom or the school stage.
Bastard, I thought, without regret. I hated how I was forced to mix love and hatred together as if I were a crazed chemist. What I couldn't tell him, was that my depression was worse than they knew, and that I feared my playing in their presence might betray me.
Mom, the Warden, always worked late.
I began to cry, alone, behind a closed door.
Well, I wasn't completely alone. A large cage of two parakeets sat on the messiest edge of my desk. The pale green one, the boy, gave me a seemingly sympathetic chirp.
I was glad to see that they were no longer stunned to silence by my playing from earlier. But I knew that, since they had each other, they'd never develop any significant human bonds without ridiculous amounts of training.
As he mounted her back, springtime behaviour, I rolled over to give them some privacy. I tuned them out as I stared at the adjacent wall, where the doornob of my bedroom door had left a two-inch dent in the painted dry-wall of my room.
It was a tribute to my father's fury. Slamming the door open, when I had requested solitude. But with Adam's father next door, I could only be grateful of cultural differences. On the other hand, I reminded myself, my grandfather had beaten my father.
I had height. I had litheness. Would he ever dare? I was weak, though, relative to him. Would a preacher of the word of God dare to hit his son?
I thought then of the other things his anger had broken. My sister's artistic custom model doll houses, a hobby that generates income. A pair of headphones, the wire of which got in the way of pulling a keyboard out from in front of me. My mood? My mother's heart? I could only wonder.
My Mom refused to do anything about the broken circle of my wall.
I stopped crying, eventually, and read for a bit. At some point, Mom came home. I kept reading. A hug would only make me cry again, and that was something I preferred to do behind closed doors.
Then, I was called for dinner. 6:14 PM. He used to keep dinner at a strict and punctual 6:00 PM for years. Then again, I used to set the table at a strict and punctual 5:45 PM.
I didn't get out of bed immediately. I finished the page, and reminded myself that I had to be allowed out of the house tonight. Eating dinner alone, after everyone else, wasn't the best way to open that door.
When I finally rose, too quickly, I felt dizzy. A common side-effect of my anti-anxiety meds.
Two of four seats were occupied. They were already eating, and had probably blessed the food without me.
Then, as I sat down; I was scolded for not setting the table, taking out the recycling or unloading and loading the dishwasher despite having been home for hours.
My headache returned. I said nothing, other than a few muttered apologies. I could have said 'homework', a half-truth, but I knew at this point that, at least with my father, excuses were never valid and the last word was always his.
Someone else had set the table, and there was now recycling overflowing from the small kitchen bin onto the floor.
I grimaced when their backs were turned.
It seemed that my sister, who now had a full-time job since graduating university, was exempt from such tasks. After all, she got home late for dinner almost every night.
Tonight was one of those nights. She was powerless to do anything about the look in my eyes. Sometimes I think she ignored it altogether. Surely, it stirred up memories of her own jail time.
Jail!? No, I was beginning to suspect that this house was more of an asylum. After dinner, I bided my time until 7:40 with half an episode of Law & Order: Special Victims' Unit which I'd already seen, and then a quick bathroom break.
Adam was waiting for me with an uplifting grin on his brown face. I was thankful that, this time, he didn't give off the unmistakable odour of male ejaculate. Instead, the relaxing, mouth-watering spices of his step-mother's cooking.
God bless her gentle soul, I thought. I didn't know why he hated her so. But I guess I can't fathom what it's like to have separated parents. Then there's his shy and quiet step-brother from his step-mother's own previous marriage. I knew Adam took the beatings for his step-brother.
When he'd finally gotten the nerve to call someone of authority about it, he had had to spend his evenings at my house for a few months while his father came home. I don't know exactly how the system had worked, but there were court dates and strict rules for his father to follow. Besides, there was a pair of elderly grandparents to take care of. I digress. This isn't my story and it isn't mine to tell.
We walked down the alley beside his house, same way I'd come through from the bus. I was grateful that the drug-dealers with the pitbull were not blocking the way tonight. Part of me wondered if Adam indulged in their merchandise.
He dropped $2.75 into the slot, and I slid a bus ticket into the machine on the other side. The bus driver ripped off two transfer slips and handed us each one. I thanked her, and complimented her thinly cropped yet spiked pale gray hair.
Twenty minutes by transit. Not so bad.
We sat in the back, and Adam began to question me more thoroughly about my friends. Specifically, Joshua, as he was the host.
When I mentioned Brent and Leslie, he somehow felt the urge to ask more questions about them than about the others we'd gone through at that point. I fearfully suppressed the urge to compare Brent and Adam. Some wee, small voice in the pit of my skull wanted to point out that they were practically identical in personality. Luckily, Adam finally let me change the subject.
However, when I mentioned Penny, something in my tone definitely must have betrayed my feelings; either now or when I mentioned her two weeks ago.
Adam reads people well. I think he's played Cupid more than once.
Eleven minutes had passed.
I smiled, as I looked out the window. Adam was babbling. I was nearly inattentive. The bus came to a stop. I knew whose neighbourhood this was, and that was exactly why I was smiling.
I stopped smiling, though, as Penny got onto the bus.
She was the last person I wanted to have in a room with Adam. I had planned to keep them apart for the entire party, with help from Joshua.
A modestly tall, thin Chinese-Canadian with short-cropped hair and a cheery disposition. If I showed the slightest lack of interest, he'd hit on her. And if I acted over-enthused - well, he'd push things along in ways I wouldn't condone.
She looked around from the seat she'd taken in the front of the bus. I was spotted, and forced to smile back at her, though I had half a mind to pretend I didn't recognize her. After all, how many months had it been since we'd socialized face to face? Oh, the Internet generation...
I was now sitting between a rock and a hard place. Except he was the rock, part of me was a hard place, and she had just taken the seat beside me as I greeted her and pretended not to acknowledge Adam's presence beside me.
Would he know that this was Penny?
Suspense gripped me, as the three of us kept a silence I knew wouldn't last the next eight minutes. And besides, our common destination was inevitable.
Would she realize I was friends with the guy sitting beside me?
Oh no, what if she, too, wrongfully questioned my sexuality and thus would assume I'd brought a boyfriend?
Oh dear God in heaven, what the fricken heck should I do now?