The beach is empty so we take off our clothes. I drape a towel over my waist and hips and stretch onto my back. The sand is hot against my skin. We’re not used to this kind of weather in the mountains.
Dustin rolls onto his side. He slips his hand under the towel. I hoped he would do this but was too embarrassed to ask.
“Don’t worry,” he says. “I’ll stop if I hear a car.” It takes longer than normal because I’m nervous. I wonder if he’s bored. Then I start to say his name over and over. It’s the only word I can remember. That burst. I whimper. Dustin takes his mouth off my nipple and looks down at me, waiting for approval.
We run into the lake and sink underwater. It’s so cold it takes a moment to feel anything. I open my eyes. All I can see is the outline of Dustin’s legs. His feet have sunk into the sand like roots. I wrap my hands around his calf and when it doesn’t move I worry that it’s not real, that he isn’t real.
When I come up for air Dustin says “We’re going home”. He grabs our clothes and walks up the beach naked. I follow him to the truck, two paces behind. Inside the cab smells of chainsaw oil and Subway.
The truck bumps down the logging road. I watch my flesh jiggle in all the wrong places. Dustin knows how to avoid potholes but the ride is still rough. I tell myself not to stare at his crotch but I can’t help it. It looks so normal out in the open. Like a knee or an elbow.
His skin should be darker than mine but I’ve been working on my tan. He’s Métis, or maybe half Métis. We don’t talk about it. I don’t know what Métis means. Is his dad First Nation (my dad said we can’t use Aboriginal anymore, definitely not Indian) and his mother French Canadian? But Dustin is terrible in French class. He can’t even roll his r’s.
Dustin pulls over before the gravel turns to pavement.
“Always cops on this road,” he says, turning to the backseat to grab his pants. I smell the Axe deodorant he put on this morning. I slip my cotton dress over my head and comb my fingers through my wet hair.
On the highway the ride is smooth. We don’t need to talk. We’ve been together for almost a year. Dustin turns on the radio. There are three choices in this valley: CBC, 80s rock, or country. My parents listen to CBC and Dustin’s listen to country.
We pass the farms of Skookumchuck. There’s a tree that got struck by lightening a few years ago in the middle of a hay field. I think it’s beautiful. Dustin thinks someone should take a chainsaw to the trunk. The Kootenay River is deep and clear here, slipping north towards the Columbia River. We’ve driven this road too many times. The mountains. Rivers you can drink from. None of that matters to us. I shift closer to him and put my hand on his thigh because he hasn’t looked at me in forever.
It’s August. Soon everything will change. This makes me think I love Dustin more than I really do. In a week I’ll leave for university and he’ll keep driving the septic truck. His dad got him the job. For a few weeks Dustin refused. Then one day he drove to Cranbrook and bought himself a pair of steel-toed boots and that was that. There are moments when I think about staying with him. It would be easier than leaving.
The road dips and rises again. The ski hill comes into view. We pass the fifty-kilometre-an-hour sign but Dustin doesn’t slow down. I take off my seat belt and lay my head on his lap. He rests his hand above my hip where the curve is supposed to be. His belly presses into my cheek. The sun warms my face. Dustin takes his hand back and downshifts, fourth, then third, keeping the engine at a perfect whine.
* * *
Before I started dating Dustin I went to school in a forest-green tracksuit.
After last period the kids in cowboy boots, who had never ridden a horse, spat Copenhagen in the parking lot. The volleyball girls changed into their spandex shorts. The kids who didn’t belong took the school bus home. They put their backpacks beside them on the seat to show they didn’t need any friends.
I slipped out the front doors with my head down and walked to gymnastics. Practice had become a waste of time since I had developed a fear of going backwards. I launched into a back flip on the floor, seized up mid-air and landed on my neck. Bob was my coach. He wore sweatpants and lived alone in one of those motels that advertised monthly rates. Bob had given up on teaching me anything new. His job was to keep me from hurting myself.
Dad said it must be a change in my centre of gravity. I hadn’t grown taller but I did have new breasts and thighs and a belly. I was aware all that separated my crotch from Bob was a thin piece of velvet that shifted when I scissored my legs in the air. Instead of concentrating on pointing my toes during the three minutes of my Mission Impossible-themed floor routine, I kept my eyes lowered to make sure my pubic hairs weren’t peeking out.
At night I peeled off my suit in the bathroom. I watched my breasts and belly become islands as hot water filled the tub. I put my hand on my stomach and pressed it underwater, clenching the muscles underneath, then exhaled. My stomach softened and rose like a loaf of bread.
The last competition of the season was in Vancouver, a twelve-hour drive from our dinky town. The gymnasts from the city were little dolls who thought puberty was a disease. I raised my hands to the judges and sprinted at the vault. Two feet on the springboard. It launched me towards the horse. That’s when my body stopped listening to me. Instead of flipping over the vault I smashed into the front. I tried to wrap my arms around the horse but I had too much speed and it bucked me off. I lay on my back on the runway. The gym was so quiet I could hear the flourescent lights buzz.
I stood up and looked at Bob. His hands were tucked into the pockets of his sweatpants. He was staring at his feet. I could tell he was trying not to laugh. I presented to the judges and ran to the bathroom where a group of girls where spritzing hairspray. I looked at myself in the mirror and knew it was over.
* * *
I had been out to Claudia’s property in Skookumchuck once before for a sleepover. We sat cross-legged in a circle with a Ouija board made out of scrap paper and a CD. We were on top of an Indian war plain and about to contact some pissed–off spirits, Claudia said, grinning. Were we ready? No, I thought, but kept quiet. The sooner we contacted the spirits the sooner I could go to bed.
This time I arrived alone in my parents’ minivan. I could tell right away it was a different kind of party. There was a keg leaning against the house. One of the boys who chewed tobacco seemed to be in charge. He handed out glasses and flirted with a girl by putting his cowboy hat on her head.
Claudia told me the rules. We weren’t allowed to go inside. We would pee in the field. We wouldn’t eat dinner so we could get drunk faster. She handed me a plastic cup and said I needed to catch up. The beer was gross but I forced myself to finish it.
I stumbled towards the others forgetting to be shy. One of the pretend cowboys told me I was funny when I drank and I should get pissed more often. He passed me a two-six. I missed my lips, spilling vodka down the front of my shirt. I tossed the bottle on the grass and climbed a tree trunk. I slid down a branch on my belly, flipped upside down and let my arms hang. Blood rushed to my head. I squeezed the branch between my thighs and calves. I hadn’t used my body since quitting gymnastics the year before. I forgot I could use my limbs as a tool.
A volleyball girl wrapped her arms around my waist to help me down but collapsed with my weight. We fell into the dirt and someone said, Look, they’re dikes, so she started laughing and grinding her hips against mine. I didn’t resist. I had lost all feeling in my body anyway. I told myself to laugh. Laugh like her.
Dustin arrived at the party in his blue truck. At school my hands would grow clammy around Dustin. When he smiled it made my belly squirm. We hadn’t talked yet but I had rehearsed conversations in my head. When the phone rang at home I prayed it was Dustin on the other end even though he didn’t know my parents’ number.
I floated towards the driveway, delighted with my new self.
“I’ve been waiting for you,” I said, leaning against the hood. I jumped backwards. It was still hot.
“Wow, you’re sloshed,” he said.
He laughed, then popped the cap from his bottle on the tailgate and gave me the first sip. We walked out to where the field and the stars met and lay on the grass. Our arms were touching as if they had always been touching.
“I’m freezing,” I said realizing I could see my breath. He propped himself up on one elbow to block the wind. I felt his weight shift on top of me, hiding the moon that had risen above the ridge line. His tongue searched my mouth. I was pressed between Dustin and the cold dirt. There was nothing for my body to do but give in.
* * *
Dustin was bigger than the other boys at school. He had the frame of a man.
That’s why they called him Teeny.
He didn’t do his chemistry homework or tie his shoelaces. He didn’t care about that sort of thing. I wasn’t sure what he cared about. He seemed to like paintball. He was always asking me to play but I was scared it would hurt. And he liked his buddies. At parties he would lay the drunkest person on the grass in the recovery position so he wouldn’t choke on his own vomit. Dustin could handle his liquor.
He started trapping me against my locker between classes. I couldn’t move if I tried. His arms were like steel pipes. I heard girls giggle but I didn’t care. Dustin was mine and I was his. The security was bliss.
“Been drinkin’ Lysol lately Teeny?” one boy said, punching him in the shoulder.
“Fuck off,” he said, smiling.
After the bell rang, Dustin clasped his hands behind my back and drew me in closer, our bellies pressed together. My body had turned soft since I stopped going to gymnastics.
“Why do they say that, the Lysol part?” I whispered in his ear.
“I’m an Indian.”
“Not really,” I said. “Are you?”
We walked through the empty hallway towards chemistry class. He pressed me against the wall and stuck his tongue in my mouth. We were late but who cared.
* * *
Dustin started coming to my house late at night after he’d been playing video games with the boys. I lay in bed with the window open, waiting for the sound of his truck in the back alley and trying not to be angry. Something inside me calmed when the engine cut.
He put his baseball cap on my bed stand. I liked the first ten seconds of sex. After that his eyes grew intense like he wanted something more than my body could give him. It was hot and sticky. I wanted him to get out of me.
He left before the sun rose. My dad was downstairs mixing waffle batter or reading The Globe and Mail. I heard him offer Dustin breakfast, then the back door slam. I kept telling Dustin to at least say hi but he didn’t see why it mattered.
One morning when I came downstairs for breakfast mom and dad were waiting for me at the table. Dad put a waffle on my plate. Mom asked if she should ban Dustin from staying over. She said it’s what other parents would do.
“That’s a stupid reason,” I said. Dad was the one who told me to play the field. Mom didn’t even talk about dating. She thought we were too smart to bother with boyfriends.
“You’re right,” she said. “But do you even like him?”
“He’s the man of my dreams,” I said in a flat voice. Dad laughed, then put his hand over his mouth and said he was sorry. He didn’t know if I was joking. Neither did I. How could you want someone so badly who wasn’t good enough for you? My parents thought I could do better. They didn’t say it out loud but I knew.
“I guess it’s just a phase then?” mom asked.
I watched whipping cream melt into the grooves of my waffle.
“We’ll just have to wait for it to pass,” dad said. He sounded so sure I believed him.
* * *
Dustin’s family lived out of town. His mom raised chickens and miniature goats. He taught me to play pool in the garage. Dustin leaned over me, showing me how to use my back arm as a hinge. When it was his turn he hit the ball so hard it scared me. Dustin never pretended to let me win. We didn’t go into his parents’ house, not even to pee.
Some nights the boys would come over. They played AC/DC and cracked open the same cheap beer their fathers drank. I sat on the garbage can in the corner of the garage, embarrassed that nobody was talking to me. It didn’t occur to me that I could leave. After they went home Dustin arranged the balls into a perfect triangle.
“Come here,” he said, sitting on the edge of the table. I sat on his lap and thought about telling him how I didn’t fit in but I knew he wouldn’t understand.
One night when we were alone, Dustin grabbed my hand and guided me to the cabin. A pot-bellied pig snorted in a cage next to the gumboots.
“This is Nadine,” Dustin said. “The girl I was talking about.”
His parents sat in matching La-Z-Boys watching reality TV. I had seen his mom, Marie, working the cash register at the garden store in town. His dad, James, nodded his head. I was scared of him because he wasn’t talking.
Marie put her slippers on and walked to the kitchen. We looked at the pictures hung on the log walls. She showed me Dustin in a bathtub, on a horse, blowing out candles on a cake. Then she pointed to a black-and-white photo of an Indian-looking man with a gun in his hand.
“James is related to him somehow,” she said. “It’s Gabriel Dumont.”
My face went red. I had heard the name in social studies class before but I didn’t know who he was. Dustin had told me his family was trying to get their status cards but they were having trouble with the government.
“You know who he is, right?” Marie asked. The pig snorted from the boot room. I nodded. My family was supposed to be smart. Everyone in town knew that.
* * *
Dustin comes over every day after his shift. He parks the septic truck in the back alley next to dad’s Jetta. His shoelaces are undone. I’ve stopped asking him if he’s washed his hands because he always answers the same way Jesus, yes, Nadine. When we sit down to dinner he drives to a buddy’s house and comes back when it’s dark. I know my parents can hear the bed squeak but I don’t care.
He is sitting with me, cross-legged in the dirt, holding onto my belt loop as if I’m full of helium. We’re hiding underneath the front porch while dad loads the minivan with my belongings. It’s not much: clothes, a bicycle, a toothbrush, and a few books I’ll never read. I think this is all I need to live in the real world. I think I can forget Dustin by leaving, that life is just a series of chapters. To move to the next you simply need to flip the page. Of course I decided to go. Our family goes to university. It’s what we do.
Dustin leans in to kiss me. He’s crying. I thought he would be embarrassed but he’s not even wiping the tears away.
“Give me a few months to save up,” he says. “I could move down with you. Take care of us.”
I crawl in between his legs and lean back into his chest. He’s wearing his high school graduation shirt that says Teeny on the back, hasn’t taken it off all summer. He locks his arms around me so I can’t move. I hear my mom call my name. The engine is running. Dad honks the horn.
Dustin plucks a dandelion from the earth and snaps the head off then stands up to wipe the dirt from his pants so he can be the first to leave.