Something Isn't Right Here
It's snowing. I can't remember a time when snow hasn't been falling. It's nothing like movie snow either, landing on jackets and toques, never melting, always floating. This is damp snow, sticking to you like a cold sweat, forcing you to huddle your hands under your armpits, making sure you don't suck in a breath of air that doesn't sting as it goes down. I would look outside to see what it was doing to the buildings around, but I know I won't care if I do. It never changes anyways, the snow. Always falling, always sticking.
The bartender slides a mug of beer in front of me, the head spilling onto the scratched, musty counter. He tells me its five bucks and I slide a blue bill towards him. He doesn't say thank you, nor does he even slip me a look of recognition. Why should he? I'm only one of many thousands of customers he's had over the lifespan of this dingy downtown pub.
The building is tiny, probably couldn't seat more than fifty or sixty people at the most. There's a small stage built into one corner of the room where a band of two set up their instruments. A snare drum and a cymbal, a faded, electric blue guitar. Sometimes I almost wish the old types of bands were still around.
My hands grip the mug on both sides, ignoring the handle. It's been in the freezer, but I don't notice the cold. My hands have gotten used to temperatures it wouldn't normally be able to handle. I lift it to my mouth, hoping to get the same tingling in the back of my eyeballs that I used to get with alcohol. Nothing. After swishing the last of the dirty brown ale from the cup, I still feel nothing. On top of that, I notice that I've spilt a lot of it on my sweater. I pick up a stray napkin from the counter and try half-heartedly to sop up the mess. I see a red stain on the napkin as I'm wiping; ketchup probably. I ignore it though, and keep rubbing and dabbing. Eventually my eyes don't even stay on the sweater, even as the hand and the napkin do.
What happened to the bars where you would sit down and the man behind the counter would engage in some witty banter about life with you? What happened to TV bars? The truth is, I realize, that there have never actually been any bars like that, there have never been places where you could sit down and everyone would know you and the audience would clap. This is only mildly disillusioning. I've seen too many things turn out the opposite of what I've expected to care.
I get up, make my way to the bathroom. Lately I've had to pee a lot more than ever before. At least ten times a day I make the laborious trip to the bathroom, unzip in front of a urinal or a mouldy toilet bowl, and pull out the instrument of my demise. I had once read, in one of the books that tore me away from reality, that a penis was in fact a dextrous extra finger, capable of writing amazing things in the sand and in the snow. I had never managed, in my lifetime, to write anything amazing in the snow, and I certainly had not seen enough sand to try.
I lean back from the yellowing urinal and look down at my veined hands. They used to be plump, full of life some people might say. Now they've grown green with spots and veins and use. They're rotting in front of my very eyes. The only part of them that seems to continue to grow is the fingernails, growing far past the end of my fingers, growing into sharp appendages that I use to pick my nose when no one is watching, or to scrape off drying skin. Drying, peeling skin that sticks to me even after it has fallen, like snow falling from a decaying sky.
I shake twice, making everything leaves the tip in those shakes so as that I don't have to twist it again. A long-lost friend had told me that anyone who shakes more than twice is just playing with themselves and I had lost the urge to play with myself too long ago to remember why. That same friend, I remember, had eventually married and led an amazing life, or so I imagined. I hadn't actually talked to her since her wedding night. I don't think I regret it either.
The zipper of my pants makes a quick zwip as it goes up and I turn around. There is a young man behind me, most likely not more than twenty or twenty-one. He's staring at me, making sure I've done everything correctly. For some reason, boys always feel they need to make sure you're doing everything right, doing everything according to the rules. If you don't, they'll make fun of you, make sure you hurt because of it. Our eyes meet and depart in an instant, pretending they hadn't. Such is the way of the stranger.
The sink is cracked down the middle, like in old movies or dingy, French restaurants in the sleazier part of town. It has two faucets, one for hot and one for cold. I turn the hot one a whole turn to the left and water begins to rush out in bursts. I have to wait for a while for it to heat up. The cold knob remains untouched, rusting away. Steam begins to rush up from the sink, clouding the medicine cabinet style mirror in front of me. I make sure not to look into the mirror as I pull soap from a button in the wall. There was a time when soap came in bottles with push-down tops. Not anymore. As I rub the pink, sneeze-inducing soap into my green hands, I see a magazine lying on the floor. A Cosmo mag, lying dead and shattered on the cracked tile floor.
I'm four. I'm dancing around the house in a t-shirt and sweat pants, humming the theme to my favourite television show: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. My t-shirt was green, solid green, and I had grey sweatpants, the kind with the stretchy waistband and no pockets. I liked these sweat pants because I could pull them off faster than regular pants. They had no buttons and that allowed for easier removal and replacement.
I jump up the stairs, skipping one at a time because my legs were too short for two. As soon as I got to the top I would do a spin move, like a skater, and bound back down, skipping two at a time because of gravity. I would always land with a resounding thud on the landing in between the two flights. This pleased me. It made me know that I had done something, that I had accomplished the landing properly. Sometimes, if my ankle twisted, I would fall and land on my side. If I'm really unlucky, I'll land on my face and sometimes even crash into the door on the landing, the door that led to outside. I know I would get in trouble for that so I practice my landings a lot.
All of this only occurred when my aunty was in the shower. She would take a long time to shower though, so I had plenty of time to practice my two-footed landings on the landing. I asked her once why she took so long to shower and she got mad, so I didn't ask her again. The only thing I could think of was that she needed a long time to put on all her jewellery because there was none when she went into her bedroom, but there was lots when she came out. I told her that once but she got angry again so I didn't mention it again.
She is in the shower now; I can hear the water running. It runs through pipes that go through the whole house, rushing through like little bugs in the wall. I sometimes put my hands against the wall where the sound is loudest to see if I can feel it going around and around in the pipes, but there's never anything there. I try this today, rushing around the house, jumping on the landing to see how loud of a thud I can make, feeling the walls all over. I push my hands up against the wall, trying to feel out the invisible bugs, but nothing comes to me. I push my belly on the wall to see if that helps but still nothing. Finally I try and find the water by rubbing my whole front on the white jip rock surface. I can't find the bugs today though and I am disappointed by it.
I tramp up the stairs, one at a time, angry. The only thing that pleased me was the feeling of the cool, basement wall against my front. I felt like going back to feel it again but I decided against it eventually, choosing instead to read a book. I read lots of books and I make sure to tell myself that all the time. I have a bookshelf in my room full of books that I think are good for me to read. I like the Winnie the Pooh set of books as well as this old, cardboard-paged picture book my father gave me one time. He's at work now, though, and can't go through it with me. That's alright, I don't expect him to be here in the daytime.
The picture book is on top of the row of books in the white bookshelf. The bookshelf is in my room now; it used to be in the basement because there was no room upstairs. It is a perfect bookshelf, I think. It has four shelves the perfect size for all my books. I take the picture book off the top of the others and go to the living room. I like the living room because it has a big, huge window I can look out of when I'm reading. The sun comes in and shines on the book too, so it is easier to read, but only during the day. I sit on the couch, my back to the window. The window is big enough, though, to shine over my head and around my body onto the book, making the pages gleam as if they were magic.
They weren't magic though, even if the pictures I read were about dragons and a princess. The pictures showed me, in their own words, how the princess is captured by the dragon and how the prince saves her. The prince only has two pictures though, most of the book is filled with princess pictures. She is a beautiful princess too. I know this because my father has told me when we go over the book together. There is one picture I like the best, of the princess. She is lying on the ground and her big, pink dress is all pouffed up around her legs. Half of her legs are showing and I can almost see her underwear.
Today I spend a lot of time looking at that picture, ignoring the dragon that is carrying her to his castle. The only thing I can see in that picture is two pinkish legs dangling in the air with underwear just out of sight.
I hear the water turn off. I look up, my eyes wide but not out of fright. After a few seconds, the bugs retire from their wall-bound march and the house settles into silence. I look back to the book and wonder how long my aunty will take to put on her jewellery today. It always takes so long, so I'm not worried yet.
The girl in the pink dress in the picture book starts to look boring to me. She's hiding too much, I think. She never talks in the whole book. The only time she talks is when she opens her mouth to thank the prince for rescuing her. I don't like that part. I don't like the prince at all; I don't think he really likes her. He probably just likes fighting, that's why he fights the dragon to save her. As soon as I get to that picture, though, I feel sympathy for the prince. I like fighting too and so I can understand his predicament.
After the pictures in the book run out, I close it and the pages make a loud snap as they close. I like the sound so I open it again and slam it shut. It feels like I'm accomplishing something, like I'm getting something done, like jumping down the stairs.
The book now at my side, I look to a small coffee table we have in the living room. There is a stack of magazines in the shelf underneath the glass top. I've seen my aunty reading these books when she's in her home clothes. She turns the pages quickly until a certain page catches her eye and she scans it for a few minutes. I don't like these books because they always have boring pictures on the front. Usually pots and pans, or maybe older women in dresses. They have too many letters for me so I ignore them. Today though, I think I would like to see if there are any princesses in the books, just to make sure. Maybe there is lots and I've been missing out this whole time!
I run over to the table and pull a magazine out. On the front is a picture of a girl with big earrings and a green dress. The dress doesn't cover her shoulders though and I get interested right away. I like this dress a lot better than the pink one the princess wears. This dress is pouffy the bottom but is instead very sleek and shiny. It clings to her legs. I bet that, if she walked, you could see each leg moving individually. I wanted to see her walk. Maybe in the magazine would be pictures of her walking. Armed with this promise of amusement, I flip through the first pages.
At first there is nothing interesting: a lot of pictures of medicine bottles and makeup. I wonder for a moment if I will wear makeup when I grow up. Perhaps, but I hope not. If I ever have to spend as much time in the shower as my aunty, I would probably be very bored. I keep turning the pages, reading all the pictures quickly.
After what seemed like a million pages of medicines and long blocks of letters, I get to a dark blue page with a woman on it. This woman was different than the others. She wasn't wearing a dress at all; she was almost wearing nothing actually. She only had her underwear on and a strange thing that looked like two white bumps on her front. I ran my hand across the page as if reaching out to feel some foreign fruit hanging from a tree. What were those bumps for? I know that girls have bumps on their front because I've seen them in the stores. My aunty has bumps on her front too, but I don't care about hers. I'm very confused about this white strap with bumps. I watch it for a long time, trying to figure out what it's for. Why do girls wear these things just to look like they have bumps on their front? I figure out that girls wear these so that we will know that they are different from boys.
I want one of those straps. I want to wear it and see what I will look like as a girl. As soon as I think of this, I realize my sister does not have bumps on her front. How come she doesn't have any? Is it because she is too lazy to put it on? Perhaps, or maybe our father won't let her wear them. No, he would let her, I decide, it's probably our aunty that won't let her. The pain I feel for my sister grows a little as I realize this. Our aunty never lets my sister do much, she always thinks everything will get dirty if my sister gets her hands on it. I don't think this is true, but I have to let my aunty say those things or else I'll get in trouble. My sister is older than me anyways, so she might be different from me. Maybe she gets things dirty in a different way than I do, in a way that I can't see.
My aunty is out of the shower now and I have to put the magazine away. I would rather not but I'll get in trouble in if she catches me. I shove it back under the coffee table and pick up my picture book. I look at the picture of the princess's legs but they don't seem as fascinating. They don't seem nearly as interesting as the picture of the girl with white bumps on her front. I want to see her again, but my aunty won't let me; I know she won't.
My sister comes home from school every day at three o'clock. Sometimes she is a little late, but she says it's because she's playing with her friends. I wish I knew what it was like to play outside with friends but I've never done it because my aunty won't let me go meet other kids that live around us. My aunty is protective, that's what my father says to me. He says that she is almost my mother, that she is my second mother. I don't like the idea that she is my mother because I know that my mother lives far away. She lives in another city, one that takes a long car ride to get to. I go there once in a while and I always like it, but only for a day. Once the day is over, I have to come back here and stay with my father and my aunty for a long time before I can go back.
My sister comes home today with a cut on her cheek. She says that Brian hit her with a snowball that had a rock in it. I watch as my aunty cleans the cut with a wet Kleenex, then puts a Band-Aid on it. The Band-Aid is plain, just a regular one. Whenever my sister gets a cut at school, she always gets nicer Band-Aids, ones with cartoon characters on it, like Felix the Cat or sometimes even a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle. I am very jealous of her when this happens but I know that I'll never get one until I go to school. My father tells me that I can't go to school for a while either, because I'm too small. I asked him how long it would take before I could get there but all he said was "a while." This upset me and I cried until I was brought ice cream in a little plain, white bowl. I told him I'd rather go to school but I ate the ice cream anyways because it was chocolate and that's my favourite kind except for strawberry.
I ask my sister what it felt like to get hit with a snowball that had a rock in it and she says it feels like getting punched in the face really hard.
"How hard?" I ask.
"Like this!" she says angrily and swings her fist at my face. It hits me in the forehead and I fall over, pain wracking through me. My aunty is out of the room already so she didn't see it happen. I start to cry so I can bring her back and make my sister get in trouble. She comes back after a few minutes and asks me what happened. I tell her and cry even harder but it doesn't get my sister in trouble. She's already run away, I see as I clear my eyes of tears. My aunty does not try to track her down, she only leans over me, sits me up and tells me to get off the floor. I stand up and wipe my nose with my sleeve.
"Don't wipe your nose on your sleeve," she says but it's too late.
"Because that's dirty," she answers. I didn't know this was a dirty thing to do, but now that I did I had to add it to my list of things that were dirty. There were a lot of things on that list. I wasn't supposed to play with shoes, nor was I supposed to lay on the floor. I had already played with shoes today when my aunty was in the shower, but she didn't know that, thankfully. I didn't want to think of what would happen if she knew I had been doing something that was already on the dirty list. I wasn't supposed to do anything that was on that list once it was on it because that meant I was going to be in big trouble.
She wipes away my tears again and brings me a tissue to wipe my nose with. She taught me how to wipe my nose a long time ago. The first time was the last time though, because every time after that she expected me to do it on my own. After I learnt this, I practiced on my own, wiping my nose when it wasn't running in my room at night or in the bathroom after peeing.
"What happened?" she asks me as though she doesn't know.
"Michelle hit me again!" I wail, trying to make it seem worse than it is.
"On my head!"
"Because I asked her what it feels like to get hit in the head." My voice begins to trail off, sensing another logical whip of discipline coming.
"Why did you ask her that?"
"Because of her cut."
"You should know better than to ask her that."
"Okay," I say, not knowing better at all. Later on, Michelle told me that she had gotten the same talk – except reversed – right after I had been left alone.
My father comes home at exactly five thirty every day. He works as an engineer, although I don't know what that means. He says it has something to do with building roads and bridges. I have an image of him in a bright orange vest and yellow construction hat, hauling lumber and steel girders around. He also tells me he is the supervisor for his sector. This gives me the image of him ordering around the other workers, telling them how the bridge should be built. He tells me this is more accurate, but not quite right. I ask him why and he tells me, although I don't understand his explanation. I prefer the idea that he builds bridges by hand anyways; it reminds me of a commercial they always play during Ninja Turtles, one about a cartoon lumberjack, jumping from floating log to floating log, pushing them this way and that with his lumberjack pole.
The day that my sister got cut with the snowball with a rock in it, my father comes home with a movie. He says he has rented it from the video store down the block although I've never seen it. He tells me that one day I can go to the store with him so I can look for movies with him.
As he is taking off his shoes on the landing in between floors, the one I always land on with such force, I shake the bag off the rectangle VHS tape. The cover is of a man and a woman hugging and kissing. I ask him what it's about and he says it's a love story.
"What's love?" I ask honestly.
"When people like each other a lot," comes the invariable answer.
"Why are they hugging and kissing like that?"
"Because they like each other a lot."
"You mean they love each other?"
"Yes, exactly." I think I see pride in his eyes so I beam. I am happy for figuring out love. It seems like a fairly simple concept to me.
That night, as we were watching the movie in our basement on the dark, dingy couch, I looked over at my aunty and my father. He has his arm around her like usual and she has her hand on his knee like usual. I wonder if my father has ever kissed my aunty like that. I think about them hugging and kissing like the cover of that movie and wonder if they've ever done that, when me and Michelle weren't watching, of course. Watching the movie made me realize that you weren't allowed to do that when other people were watching. It only happened in rooms where the doors closed, and where they locked. One time the man and the woman in the movie even hugged so hard they fell onto their bed, one with white sheets and pillows. The movie didn't show if they hugged anymore or kissed anymore though; it simply cut to the next part, where they were walking down a beach in the morning. I suppose it makes sense, not to show them hugging anyways; it must be very boring to watch.
It's the weekend now. I know because my father isn't at work today, he is sitting at the kitchen table, sipping on his hot, brown juice in the morning. I think it smells good but he never lets me taste it. He says it's not good for me. I ask him why he is drinking it if it's not good for you, but his answer is always that it's only good for adults, not children. Like me. Nonetheless, I felt very smart for asking a question like that, something Michelle had never asked.
That day we went to the supermarket, all four of us. My father drove, my aunty sat in the front seat and me and my sister sat in the back. We were old enough now, me four and her six, to sit without car seats. I felt very important, even though I was still in the backseat. Only older kids got to sit without a carseat. I hated sitting so high above my sister when I was smaller. I remember she used to hide under the side of it and pop up and scare me when I was playing with my talking robot action figure. Right when I would push the button to make it say "Hands up!" she would pop her head up and point an index finger and thumb, in the shape of a gun, at me. She would scream "Hands up!" in her shrieky voice and my heart would jump. I would cry too, I remember. That just made things worse because my aunty would turn around, glare at us and tell us to be quiet.
We are still told to be quiet in the car, but I assume that's only so everyone could hear the radio better. My father always chooses the station that we would listen to and it was always what he calls "oldies." This means that the music is made by people that are old. I tell my sister this and she laughs meanly and says that I'm stupid for thinking that. She says that it's not made by old people but rather that only old people like it. To this I counter that our father isn't old but she says he is. This confuses me because I had always thought old people were wrinkly and had no hair, or if they did have hair, it would be grey. Our father had no grey hair and his face was not wrinkly. In fact, his skin was quite smooth. There were no wrinkles on his dark hands either. His moustache had a few grey hairs though, so I suppose he might be a bit old. This realization did not scare me but rather made me feel bigger than I was. If my father is old, then I must be older than I think.
I smile and my sister punches me in the arm. I yell and tell my aunty what has occurred but I am only told to be quiet. My sister sticks her tongue out at me and I do the same. I feel terrible because she always hits me like that and my aunty never even turns around to see what is going on; always I get told to be quiet. A feeling of guilt washes over me when this happens because I feel as if I am the one that has done wrong instead of my sister. The pain in my shoulder spreads to my entire arm and I hold onto it. I've decided not to cry this time, for fear of being berated once again. My sister grins at me and I swipe at her but my arms aren't long enough and she dodges.
When we get to the supermarket, my arm still hurts but I've stopped trying to get Michelle back. One day, I tell myself, one day I'll get her back for good and she'll be sorry. Such thoughts constantly littered my head with fantasies but I could never realize any of them, for obvious reasons. Torturous ideas dotted my mindscape, images of me sitting on her head, my fists punching her in the eyes. One day, as I was jumping down to the landing in front of the door that led to outside, I imagined I was jumping on her belly. I saw her eyes bulge in my imagination. After doing it though, I felt guilty, because I didn't actually want to kill my own sister and I'm sure that would have done it.
We all pile out of the car on our respective sides and me and Michelle race to the little shelter where you put the loonie in the slot to take out the shopping cart. She beats me, as usual, but on the way she slips on the ice in the parking lot and my aunty tells her to be more careful. I keep quiet but on the inside I'm laughing maliciously. That's what you get, I thought darkly.
My father produces the loonie and snaps it into the awaiting slot. I watch anxiously as he shoves the key into it, finalizing its acceptance, realizing its release of the gridded prisoner. The shopping cart pulls loose from the herd and I immediately ask if I can ride in it.
"You're getting too big now." I didn't think I was too big, but it seems that I am. Although I resent not being able to ride in the uncomfortable prison – it was the only thing that made me taller than Michelle – I'm still proud for being considered too big for anything.
Michelle walks next to me and we start to pinch each other. She started it though, I was just trying to get her back, once again. We are told to hush and we do, albeit resentfully. Michelle is placed next to my father and I next to my aunty. As we walk down the aisles, I stare up at all the delicious items we are passing up. There is Kool-Aid and Froot Loops, among many others. I can't believe my father passes these up as he pushes the cart ceremoniously down each aisle. We go up and down every aisle, once on the way to the far side of the store, then once again on the way back. I'm not sure why he doesn't buy them, all I know is that we are not allowed to have them because they are bad for you. I ask why they're bad for us but the only reply I get is a grunt. I don't believe they're bad for us.
The woman that sells us our food smiles graciously as my aunty puts item after item on the counter. Miraculously, the counter moves and the items begin their march towards the woman. I wish, as I watch the Corn Flakes and brown sugar move towards her grinning smile, that I could sit on the counter and feel it moving against my bottom. I wish I could hold onto the side so the counter would rub against my butt, pushing my pants to the side. I ask if I can sit on the counter and my aunty tells me to be quiet. I take this as a warning and remain quiet until we reach home again.