I was in grade four French class the hour she arrived. The door of our basement classroom was open to collect the heat from the massive furnace that lived and breathed in the small concrete room across the hall. I heard footsteps on the stairs. The principal appeared with a girl I had never seen before, and they stood there in the hallway looking in at us. The girl chewed on a fingernail, or scraped it, really, running her front teeth across the top.
Our teacher sat on top of his wooden desk, his feet barely touching the floor. He was holding up a large white card he had selected from a pile conveniently located by his right thigh. On the card was a picture of a two-story house, a simple design like a colouring book drawing. The house was white with a red door and square windows, two on the bottom and two on the top. In front of the house was a patch of green lawn with orange and yellow tulips growing in a line along a small picket fence. La Maison, it said in bold, black letters across the bottom, and I couldn’t help but think how no one I knew lived in a house like that, not even close. Every house I knew was leftover from another time, another era, crooked and grey and, if tulips grew, it was by the grace of God, certainly not gardening. Gardening was done by people who had the time and money, neither of which was abundant in this town. In this town, you worked until you died, barely accumulating enough money to pay for your own funeral, or so my mother was fond of saying every time she sat at the kitchen table with a stack of bills, a cold coffee and a look that made her face droop like wet mittens on a string.
The teacher glanced in the direction of the door, then back at us. He continued to speak in French, placing La Maison face down on the desk and picking up Le Chien. Everybody knew the principal and the French teacher were not friends. You could tell by the way they looked at each other without really looking at each other, as if they were being forced to admit something they may or may not have done. My mother said it was because the French teacher was a homosexual and the principal was always trying to rally up support from the parents to have him fired. He’d drive over to the post office on his coffee break and give out flyers he had created himself at home in his spare time, flyers about the evils of homosexuality. He’d give them out and mumble to himself until someone asked him to repeat what he said. If he thought they would agree with him he’d ask them what they thought about their child becoming a homo. If they got excited and agitated enough he said that was exactly what was going to happen if that teacher remained in their school. Then he’d go back to the school and sit in his office as if his one-man protest was just another duty he had to perform. Because people are scared of things they don’t understand, he would eventually get his way. Before too long, an angry mob of parents concerned for their children’s futures would force the French teacher to pack up his old red Volvo at the end of the school year and head toward a more liberal part of the country.
We didn’t get another one for at least three years and by then we had forgotten any French we had ever learned. I thought he was the best teacher in the school. I liked him because he talked to us like we were friends, asking about our weekends and if we did anything exciting. Sometimes he brought hot food in a big red pot that he dished out in Styrofoam bowls for us to taste. He called it ethnic food and that we should all have a favourite ethnic food at some point in our life, or at the very least eat something that wasn’t boiled or salted into oblivion. Our French teacher used the word Oblivion at lot. I thought it sounded worldly and rehearsed it in my head so I wouldn’t forget to use it when I grew up and left this small town forever. I also liked how the French teacher ignored the principal every chance he got, as if he were making a silent protest of his own.
The principal reached in and knocked on the open door. The sudden yet expected noise of his knuckles on the wood made me look away from the French teacher and back towards the doorway. The French teacher stopped talking as though he were waiting for just that, the physical act of knocking, the only thing that would make the principal’s interruption official. The principal cleared his throat, his signature start to every speech he made.
“Class. Mr. Gagnon. This is Adrianne and she just moved here from Toronto,” the principal uttered, running his words together like my brother does when he is bored with my questions.
The girl took her fingers out of her mouth and wiped them on her hat and mittens that she held in her other hand, the one she wasn’t chewing on. We looked around at each other to see who knew this girl. No one moves to our town without being related to someone already here. But we all stared wide-eyed and lifted our shoulders to our ears when someone caught our gaze. No one said a word. She was from away and no one, at least in our class, was claiming her. The silence continued and the radiators ticked.
“Go on in there, Adrianne, and find a seat,” the principal finally said, and motioned for her to enter with an upward flick of his left hand while his right ran the length of his tie, smoothing the polyester material flat over his bulging stomach. We called him Big Pot, because of his round, pregnant-like body and his sidekick the vice principal, Little Pot, who was similarly shaped but whose belly was not nearly as far along. I’m not really sure who came up with those nicknames, probably someone whose mother was expecting yet another mouth to feed, but the names stuck. It was the only way we could secretly express our common dislike of people who had considerable control over our lives.
Adrianne walked into our classroom brutally straight. There was only one desk available and she slid into it easily, her tall, thin shape hardly touched the sides. She reminded me of the time some hoity-toity government lady, as my mother called her, visited our town and the mayor took her fishing in a dory. You could tell she wanted to hold on to the seat for dear life, but didn’t want to appear afraid, so she sat stiffly with her head up, looking like a broomstick in a bucket, trying not to wobble as the boat left the wharf and headed out to the harbour’s edge.
At first I felt sorry for her having to walk into a room of strangers with their eyes on her, but then I felt envious. She was from away. She was unknown and mysterious and she wore an expensive looking red coat. Her hat and mittens matched the coat and each other, something I’d only seen in the Sears catalogue or on TV. When she took off the coat and hung it on the back of her desk I noticed she wore Jordache Jeans. Jordache Jeans were worn by models and millionaires, or so I thought. The only jeans we ever had were Wrangler or Levi’s; one style fits all, boys and girls alike.
The new girl had no book bag, scribblers or even a pencil. No one offered her anything and she didn’t ask. She simply sat there and stared straight ahead with her hands folded as the Mr. Gagnon picked up where he left off.
At recess she slid out of her desk silently and took her time putting on her coat. She said nothing and looked at no one in particular as she left the classroom, went up the stairs and out the side door to the small yard on the side of the building reserved for us seniors. Grades primary to three had to play in front of the school where there was pavement for skipping and a fence to keep the wandering five-year-olds from running into the street or going home. In back of the school by the shore was a newly built jungle gym where the boys mostly hung out, making it clear to us girls that they were the kings of that castle. But the side yard, by the warped red snow fence was off limits to the little kids and we made sure they knew where the invisible lines were drawn.
Outside we all gathered around her, staring, as if she were a newly acquired tropical fish in our algae-coated fish tank that lived in the corner of the classroom. The boys hung back by the jungle gym looking over at us every few minutes. They might have been talking about the new girl but I doubt it. Boys tended to keep their thoughts to themselves when it came to girls, or so my brother once said when I asked him what boys really thought about girls. Later, when I pressed him further about how boys show girls they like them, or, more specifically, how boys my age would show that they liked the new girl, he claimed they would get her attention later, in more subtle ways, such as feats of strength or agility.
As time went on, he proved to be right. I saw the boys try to jump over large puddles when they thought Adrianne was watching, or jump into large piles of snow from the top of the jungle gym when she looked in their direction. Sometimes though, the puddle was too large to overcome, unless you were a trained distance jumper, and they landed on the muddy edge, drenching themselves and anyone else that happened to be too close. And sometimes the pile of snow froze solid overnight and their landing was not nearly as graceful and spectacular as they had planned, leaving them with injuries they spent the rest of the day trying to hide, limping only when they thought the hallway was empty.
But that day, with all of us girls standing around her, Adrianne simply resumed her nail scraping, spitting out bits of polish every few seconds and occasionally checking her work by holding her hand out, palm up and fingers folded inward. We weren’t really sure what to say to her as no one had yet come forward to connect her to someone we knew. Without some reference to her relatives, it was difficult to categorize her as poor, stupid or just plain uppity. She couldn’t be normal as she was from away and therefore exempt from what we considered normal right from the start. There was a remote possibility she could become normal but it would take a very, very long time. For anyone already living there the categories were preset and you were born into them. Normal people knew they were normal, poor people knew they were poor, and the stupid people knew they were stupid because they were told. The uppity people didn’t know where they belonged, although everyone else did. If you wanted to change your category you had to leave town. That’s just the way it was.
From the clothing she wore we knew that poor was out of the question, which only left stupid or stuck-up. Stupid had a wide range of subsections: intellectually slow, foolish and thoughtless, or wild and uncontrolled. With only half a morning so far it wasn’t enough time to make an assessment. But the longer she avoided talking to us, the more uppity was a possibility. I was about to whisper my thoughts on this subject to the group when Shelly pushed her way into the centre of the circle and separated Adrianne from the rest of us, pulling her by the sleeve like only Shelly could.
In those days the teachers would say Shelly was more outgoing than the rest of us; today they would say she was a bully. But back then the word bully was mostly reserved for the boys. Bully was synonymous with bloody noses and fisticuffs. A bully could only ever be a male. Boys were rough and tumbled, using the word tumbled as an adjective, which I didn’t realize was incorrect until much later in life. Girls were considered fragile and helpless, a complement to a man instead of an equal, which I also didn’t recognize as faulty until I was much older and had lived elsewhere.
As Shelly practically dragged the new girl away, I heard her providing Adrianne with the who’s who of our town: who was popular, and who was not; who was poor and who was poorer. Shelly was uppity but no one had told her yet, because she was known to pull out clumps of people’s hair and most of us liked having hair on our heads. I hoped Adrianne would realize early on what group Shelly belonged to and forget about trying to be there with her. I secretly wanted to make her my best friend, but she would have to be normal first.
As the weeks went on Shelly appointed herself Adrianne’s best friend. We all wanted to know more about the new girl but Shelly wasn’t letting anyone close enough to talk to her. In class we had three distinct groups, the first, the middle and the last. The last group mostly coloured and occasionally had their ankles tied to their desks to keep them from wandering around the classroom. I was in the first group. We got the highest marks, did the most work and were treated the best. No one got the strap in our group. The kids in the middle held their own, their behaviour the difference between staying where they were and moving down a notch. The teacher put Adrianne at the back of the classroom, not in any particular group at all, “but only until I can figure out where she belongs,” she said aloud to everyone, as though needing to explain her decision to the rest of the class. Every chance I got I turned around to see what Adrianne was doing. Most times I pretended to be getting something out of my backpack that hung from the back of my desk. I saw that she coloured every work sheet the same colour, usually red, and never bothered to sharpen the crayon, which made her colouring go outside the lines. Sometimes she didn’t do the worksheet at all, letting it sit on her desk until the teacher collected it later, unfinished. And sometimes she went to the bathroom without asking. The teacher objected to these wanderings, telling Adrianne she needed to return to her seat, but Adrianne went anyway and our teacher had no choice but send her to the principal’s office. Adrianne went to the principal’s office almost daily after that, usually for leaving the classroom without permission or not making any effort with her lessons. It didn’t seem to matter how much she got yelled at or even if she got the strap, Adrianne did what she wanted and the teacher and the principal just gave up.
Adrianne’s defiance, as the teacher called it, made us all want to know about her even more but Adrianne wasn’t saying anything and Shelly kept her mouth shut too, which was a first for Shelly.
Eventually though, information about the new girl found its way out, like the ice clampers that ground and slithered their way out of the harbour every spring. We weren’t allowed to jump on the huge chunks of ice, but everyone did, and someone almost always had to be rescued. When the girls did it, we were irresponsible, or worse, unladylike; but the boys were chastised with a softer touch. After all, boys will be boys, most grown ups said, and being tough was part of being a boy.
I found out that Adrianne had no brothers or sisters. I also heard she had no father and at the time I took the information literally and wondered how that was possible. I heard her mother had a job, not a fish-packing job like some of the older ladies or those without children; the kind of job that required skirts and dress shoes. I thought all mothers did the same things. They got you up in the morning and sent you to school. Then they talked on the phone for hours, hanging up only when they looked at the clock and realized how late it was and wondered where the morning went.
They went to the Post Office with a kerchief wrapped around a head full of curlers to get the inevitable collection of bills. Bills were prime material for a conversation later in the day, or as my mother called it a b.i.t.c.h session, spelling it out like I was too young to read. But the biggest part of the day was the morning call to National Sea.
“How much fish is aboard?” was the first question, “What kind of fish?” was the second. My mother’s reaction said it all. If she smiled, the load was halibut or haddock, but if her mouth dropped at the corners and her hand went to her forehead, it was no doubt red fish or flounder.
“You can’t pay the bills with red fish,” she said to her friend on the phone. “I will have to rob Peter to pay Paul again this month.”
The routine was always the same. I knew this because I got strep throat and had to stay home from school for two weeks. I could synchronize my mother’s activities with the children’s shows on our two-channelled, black and white television. Mr. Dress Up was time to do the breakfast dishes before the uneaten soggy Frosted Flakes hardened into lumpy crusts on the sides of the bowls. Sesame Street was one last coffee time with usually a phone call to her best friend and a cigarette. Three quarters of the way through Sesame Street was time to go to the Post Office and Spiderman was lunchtime with my brothers arriving ten minutes after the show started and just before the canned Alphagetti spit hot orange liquid all over the stove.
At one o’clock the television programs went downhill. It was all news and talk shows until the soaps came on, which were not bad if you got to know the characters. The thing I liked most about Another World was the constant change. Something new happened, something exciting happened every day and I would lie on the chesterfield and wish something exciting would happen to me.
Eventually, my wish was granted and I had the honour of being picked to play with Adrianne. Shelly had to babysit her little cousin, and rather than risk Adrianne making up her own mind about who she wanted to play with that day Shelly had made the decision for her.
I couldn’t wait until after school when I could leave with the new girl. It took a clock-ticking eternity for the bell to ring. In the coatroom, I put on my blue-and-white ski jacket from Sears and pulled on my boots. Snow had leaked into the side zippers on my walk to school that morning and the felt inserts were still wet. My mittens didn’t match and I had no hat, unlike Adrianne, who came out of the school dressed in her usual matching outerwear. I followed her like a malnourished wharf cat to her place on Main Street not far from the bank. She had her own key that she kept on a string around her neck. We didn’t really speak until we were inside and she asked me if I wanted a pop. I said sure and she handed me a bottle of Pop Shoppe cream soda. I’d never had one before but I had seen them in the stores. Adrianne took a lime one and opened them both with a bottle opener that stuck to her refrigerator with a magnet.
Her house was untidy but not dirty, lived-in, as my mother would say. There were fingernail polish and fashion magazines on the coffee table and multiple pairs of shoes stacked by the door. I looked down at my only pair of boots and knew I wouldn’t get shoes until spring and then I’d only get one pair. Adrianne turned on the television and plunked down on the chesterfield.
“So what do you want to know,” she said. I swallowed my mouthful of pop.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Isn’t that what everyone is asking?” she said, “Who I am and where I come from and what I’m doing here? Everyone wants to know what it is like to live in the city. It’s so different. You wouldn’t understand.”
She started to paint her nails, covering over the chipped red coat that she had chewed off during the day. I told her I guess we all wanted to know. I didn’t want her to think it was only me. I told her it wasn’t a normal thing to move to our town. As far as I knew we were all dreaming of the day we could make our escape. She said they had to leave Toronto because the people they lived with went to jail. She said they went to jail because they were professional thieves, not her and her mother, the people they lived with. I thought about that. I thought about the one time I stole a lip-gloss from the drug store. It was one of the clear flavoured kinds, probably strawberry. I don’t know why I did it. I certainly didn’t need it or even want it that much. I just remembered the feeling that came over me that day, the feeling of wanting to take it, and get away with it. I used it a few times but for the most part I forgot about it and it was lost in the kitchen junk drawer with the endless supply of garbage bag twist ties and used birthday candles. I never stole anything again though, not on purpose anyway.
“What did they steal?” I asked.
“Everything. Jeans, coats, stereos, even boats,” she said.
“Jeans? How many pairs of jeans does a person need?” I asked.
“They weren’t for them to wear. They were to sell,” she said and gave me a look that asked, are you stupid or something?
“Have you ever heard of the mafia? Ever woken up to machine guns in your face?” she asked.
The look of surprise on my face told her I did not.
“We got raided one too many times,” she said. “ It was time to leave.”
“But I won’t be here long,” she said. “I have plans.”
I didn’t really ask what her plans were and she didn’t offer any more explanation. We watched television without speaking and then I went home. I don’t remember playing with Adrianne ever again.
When we left elementary school for high school Adrianne spent her time with the older kids, who drove around in cars, went to parties and did other things I wasn’t allowed to do. I envied her freedom as much then as I envied her mysterious arrival years before.
I lost track of Adrianne, although I’m not sure how in such a small town. I heard she got pregnant and was living with a fisherman on the other side of the harbour. Someone said she moved out west with a guy who owned a motorcycle shop and who was possibly a Hell’s Angel. I even heard she went back to Toronto and got married, something that her mother arranged years before. I wasn’t sure which of the rumours was true but I hoped for the last one. I wanted her back in the city, back where she belonged.
I got a scholarship to the University of Toronto. My mother didn’t want me to go. She thought it was too far away and that I was bound to get mugged or worse, killed. She went on a frenzied mission then to find a relative of hers, no matter how remote, for me to live with. Eventually, I agreed to move into the basement bedroom of her second cousin’s aunt who lived on the bus route. I wanted to live in residence but the scholarship only covered tuition and my student loan wasn’t enough for a dorm room and meal plan. My mother was happier for the living arrangement, but I had plans too. And as I held my one-way train ticket to Toronto in my sweaty palm, I imagined running into Adrianne on the street or maybe at the revolving restaurant of the CN Tower where I’d be having canapés and a salad. I imagined what I would say, and then what she would say. I would be able to talk about fashion and magazines, and she would finally tell me about the mafia, if she really wanted to, and what really drove her and her mother to our small town all those years ago. Maybe she’d show me around Toronto. Maybe we could be friends.