Where are the children we used to be?
One afternoon, on a street in Yaletown, a man coming toward me said, “Oh, hi,” as if he was used to seeing me around. He looked vaguely familiar— there was a sort of outline around his features that I almost recognized, a translucent and shifting visage, as of someone I once knew. “I used to go to school with you,” he said, and a spark of recognition struck into flame. We had been friends when we were eight years old. Little Kenny, I had thought of him then, a thin, eager-eyed boy, small for his age, who walked to school with me. The man on the street was tall, with something polite and restrained in his manner.
He reached into his wallet for his card, a sleek black rectangle from one of the high-tech businesses in the neighbourhood, where armies of bright young techies gathered outside at lunch hour to text and talk on their cellphones and eat Chinese takeout. “Maybe we should hook up sometime,” he said, using the slang of a teenager. Would sipping lattes in a Starbucks or Blenz renew the bond that we’d had in childhood? Perhaps there was an extra adhesiveness to friendships made at that age; in any case, I loved the idea of a reunion. Over the years there had only been the odd glimpse of my schoolmates here and there around Vancouver, on the bus, at the gym. In my early twenties I used to encounter assorted girls from high school working in drugstores or supermarkets, the pretty ones spritzing customers with perfume at cosmetics counters, the plain ones stuffing grocery bags, perhaps experiencing the first pangs of disappointment in what adult life had to offer. In those days I felt a world ahead of them, with my own apartment and a chaotic, sometimes glamorous night life.
Those brief encounters were as close to a formal reunion as I got, since I had dropped out of grade 10 instead of venturing into the world later, with the rest of my graduating class. The only high school reunion I ever attended was someone else’s, when a date took me to his fortieth in West Vancouver. It was held at a golf and country club, down a maple-lined road that dipped and curved for miles. The people who attended might have been from another planet. The lawyer ahead of me in the buffet lineup was bronzed from a recent trip through Tuscany, tasting wines and taking cooking classes from world-renowned chefs. “Oh, you must go,” he kept insisting. I winced with embarrassment when everyone burst into the school song, my date swinging his burly arms and belting it out at the top of his lungs—yet by the end of the evening I liked the teenagers these adults used to be, brash and hopeful, most of their mistakes still ahead of them.
Now, in my mid-thirties, life had slowed down to the thickness of sludge, and though the calm was welcome, I might not be so eager any more to encounter the girls I felt superior to in my twenties. They were surely way ahead of me, with houses and cars and careers, children clustered around the dinner table. Wedged into a tiny condo, writing poetry and taking freelance jobs that paid less than a poverty-line wage, I had been in a stable relationship for many years but loved too much the pleasure of solitude to trade it for the security of cohabitation. What might appear a portrait of loneliness to others—fitting the key into the lock at the end of the day, the door swinging open to a dark and empty apartment—was for me the greatest bliss, to let whole hours go by without talking to another living soul, not even a needy cat or dog. So this was the life I had chosen, who was anyone to say it was against nature?
Amazingly, for the past eight years Kenny had been working in an office directly across the street from my home. We might have been neighbours: when we did get together, all I had to do was walk out the front door of my complex and jaywalk across the street to the front door of his office. He worked in a trendy restored warehouse, with low-slung yellow leather sofas in the reception area and posters of corporate clients from the worlds of sports, fashion and computer gaming mounted on the walls.
We agreed to go to a nearby Blenz, and settled in armchairs with drinks and pastries. I kept looking at his face, searching it for my eight-year-old friend, who seemed to flicker in and out of this grown man’s face across the table. When he smiled, there were the chipmunk cheeks that I remembered on the small boy. He still looked absurdly young, like many slender, clean-living Asians; next to him I felt heavy and matronly, weighed down by experience. He reminded me that we had actually encountered each other once before, in our teens, when I enrolled for a few stoned days at his high school in an attempt to finish my education. “Don’t you remember? We talked outside at lunch hour, you told me all about your life. I was shocked. You had run away from home, you had become this completely different person.” I had no recollection of it; all those years of drinking and drugs and hell-bent self-destruction had erased a few brain cells. Trigonometry gone, dull history gone, electrical wiring and biscuit-baking gone for good.
Without warning, he reached out and touched my right wrist. “Oh, you still have this,” he murmured, looking at my odd birthmark—a smattering of brown freckles across my right hand and up my arm. I was born with it, a dot on my wrist like a flea bite that multiplied, spreading across the skin. If they ever lost me, my parents used to say, they would always be able to find me again because of that birthmark. But at school it was just one more thing to be bullied about. During a sex- education class, one of the popular boys had sauntered up and down the aisles, yelling out, “Evelyn has AIDS! It’s all over her arm! Don’t touch her, or you’ll get AIDS too!”
“Remember mine?” Kenny said then, pulling up his shirt sleeve—and there it was, his birthmark, different but no less eye-catching, an angry black splotch on his forearm. The skin there looked textured, almost charred, and the moment felt strangely intimate, as if we were two people displaying a hidden shame or ugliness. Kenny had been bullied at school too, picked on for his size; now, twenty years later, he was working in the high-tech industry, married to his first girlfriend, a father to three children. At his tenth high school reunion, he had been surprised at how poorly his classmates had fared, how adrift they still seemed in nowhere jobs and relationships. “It was a pretty sad affair, that reunion. Did they hold it in a restaurant, a hotel? No, they had it in the teachers’ lounge at school. The teachers’ lounge! Afterwards they handed out these mugs and pens that were printed with the school name, and guess what, it was misspelled.”
Outside Blenz it had begun to grow dark, and the valets were standing around the glimmering canopied restaurants in Yaletown. We talked and talked, leaning back in our chairs. A faint sheen of oil appeared on Kenny’s nose; his belt was burdened with a chirring cellphone and Blackberry. Where were the children we used to be? Were our former selves still tucked inside us, like the tiniest painted nubs inside Russian nesting dolls?
“I remember coming over to your house to play. I remember being in your bedroom,” he said, then laughed at my startled look. “No, not in that way.” Of course not, we were children. And then our lives had diverged completely. Kenny had never done drugs, or slept with anyone other than his wife—he had followed the plan his immigrant parents had set for him, the straight path of home, university, marriage, mortgage, children. If he had run away, he would likely have gone down an entirely different road. For a moment I pictured him instead of me those cold nights on Granville Street, his scrawny boy’s body eyed by middle-aged men stepping out of the shadows. If I hadn’t left home at fourteen, the trajectories of our lives might not have been so different.
There was a surreal quality to the evening, a strange blending of the people we had been and the people we were now, as thirty years of unshared experience washed between us. His time was divided between work and home—wife, children, in-laws, a house, saving for the children’s education—all of which seemed as foreign to me as another language, as surely my unconventional, hand-to-mouth poet’s existence seemed to him. A few weeks ago I ran into Kenny again, at the mall. He was pushing a stroller that housed a fat-faced infant, and he was accompanied by his oldest son, a fidgety boy with spiky hair who gave me a long-suffering look when I attempted to engage him in conversation. This boy was nearly the age Kenny had been when we were friends in elementary school. As the weekend shoppers parted and flowed like water around the island we formed in the crowded mall, I realized I still saw the man in front of me as little Kenny, and felt a dim pulse of alarm that he had somehow been entrusted with not one child but two on a Sunday afternoon in the city centre. How could that be, when he himself was only eight years old?
Strangely, I feel more secure in my downtown condo now, knowing that he works across the street. It’s as if life has shown itself to have recurrent patterns that make some sort of greater sense, circles within circles, people stitching in and out of our days with a mysterious meaning that is a kind of grace. I smile when I open the high, heavy gates to my building and walk out into the impersonal street, thinking of Kenny there in his office, maybe at the window, glancing down and seeing me as I go to the bank or the post office or the drugstore, passing underneath carrying groceries and an umbrella, having a good hair day or a bad one, his friend from childhood.