In gym class we have to measure ourselves with calipers to find out how much of our body is made up of pure fat, as if we are bags of microwave popcorn. You are supposed to pinch a wodge of skin in the calipers and measure your belly, thighs, upper arms—all the mayonnaise-coloured hairless bits. The thickness of the roll of flesh you conjure up tells you how much of you consists of dimpled subcutaneous lard and how likely you are to die young.
Beth says the calipers look like something from the museum of gynecology. She squeezes her entire biceps, her neck, and encircles her head with the metal jaw, placing each end in her ear like a stethoscope, taking down measurements as she goes. Her body-fat percentage comes out to 98. I imagine her carved out of butter, two scornful coffee-bean eyes pressed into the head.
Beth is the smartest one, and the funniest. Also the meanest. Hugging her is like embracing a deck of cards, all flat bone and thin edges you could cut yourself on. She likes to talk about beating up Trina James after school, even though Trina is usually scheduled to fight Morgan Fernandez, who wears a tiny crucifix around her neck and has sad sepia-coloured eyes. Trina also wears a crucifix but she has buck teeth and bushy eyebrows. We hate her because she is almost as ugly as we are.
Trina asks if we will get her back in the fight. Why don’t you grow some more teeth to cover up those gums, says Beth.
Beth and I play outfield so we can smoke behind the bleachers by the racetrack. We don’t have cigarettes, but we roll dried bits of things in paper and set them on fire, then lean over and huff the smoke until we feel giddy. Being in the “gifted” class means nobody cares if you can’t throw a curveball or run to second base without getting winded, so we hide out until it’s time to change back into our plaid-and-corduroy uniforms and throw our big brains around.
We have to take gym class with the regular kids so we don’t become conceited or soft. Corey Kowalchuk is a regular kid and so pretty it makes you sad just to look at him and think about how in forty years he’ll either be ugly or dead. One time he tells Beth that Mitch Lewis, who is sitting next to him on the workout bench, has a crush on her, and that he jerks off about her every night with the telephone in his hand and calls her just before he comes. Mitch just stares at his white Adidas that look like small spacecraft. Next Corey turns to me and tells me in a bored-sounding voice that Mitch Lewis wants to hump me, but his dick is too small so he’s going to tie a broomstick to it and do me until I’m torn and bleeding.
Mitch continues to look at his sneakers, a furious grin on his face. I am secretly excited that Corey has spoken to me this much.
Corey’s parents live down the street from mine, and back in elementary school we used to take the school bus together to the public school downtown, because our parents didn’t want to send us to the private school in our neighbourhood in case we grew up to be assholes. We used to sit together at the back of the bus in our DayGlo snowsuits and make up knock-knock jokes about our teachers. One time the school bus hit a massive pothole, and our tiny little kid bodies bounced really high up off the seats, and both of us swore to each other that we could feel the roof of the bus brushing the stiff hair at the top of our heads. A few years after that, Corey started getting high at recess, and I started wearing a bra and listening to musicals, and we mostly stopped talking to each other, unless Corey has some junior-high wastoid like Mitch Lewis he wants to humiliate. I guess this is something we learned about in Life Skills class, though I don’t remember anything except Ms. Jablonsky putting a condom on a banana.
Trina James may or may not be a slut, but we know for sure that Mary Roberts is. We can tell because she wears short skirts and knee socks and laughs at boys’ jokes. Also, she has baby teeth. These teeth clearly belong in the mouth of a precocious eight-month-old, they are fit only for chewing boiled carrots and celery stew, and yet here they are, lining Mary’s gums like seed pearls sewn onto red velvet. BJ teeth, Beth calls them, and we all laugh and pretend to know what she means.
Beth is one gutsy lady. That is what Mrs. Chernyk, the art teacher, says when Beth refuses to snap her gum even though Janine Raymond, the school bully, tells her she has to. Janine enjoys the sound of snapping gum and forces entire classes of terrified kids to do it in unison. Beth just glares at her and bares her teeth, which makes her look like an angry koala bear. Janine tells Beth she will beat her up after school, as soon as Beth is done blowing the janitor, her alleged favourite activity. Mary Roberts looks up from her pencil drawing of Teemu Selanne scoring a goal, and snickers. Go Jets!!!!!!! it says at the bottom of the page, in letters that look like bolts of lightning. You’re next, Roberts, says Janine, and Mary hunches over with her hb pencil and busily starts adding about thirty more exclamation points to her caption. Beth turns and gives me this warm and reassuring smile, like I’m the one about to get the living crap beat out of her by a girl with LIVE EVIL tattooed on her knuckles.
I stand by Beth’s locker at three-thirty, sober and brave and so full of resigned, heartsick love I think I am going to rupture. We wait for Janine to appear and curb-stomp Beth into martyrdom with her purple Doc Martens, but Janine never shows up. My devotional ardour deflates into shame, like a run-over volleyball. After all, I snapped my gum along with the rest of them.
You don’t even really need to pay to see the bison at the museum. They’re right there in the lobby, their great heavy heads all full of sawdust and excelsior and old sweaters; you can stand there all day and stare at them for free. Which is exactly what Beth is trying to do. Our class is supposed to be researching lichens of the Canadian Shield, but so far Beth hasn’t even made it past the ticket booth. She is moored to the parquet floor, leaning against our side of the velvet rope like she’s waiting to be let into the Oscars, staring.
The bison are mounted mid-charge, glass eyes peering over their shoulders in what I guess is supposed to be terror, running from a group of two-dimensional Native hunters on horseback who are painted on the wall behind them.
Mary Roberts saunters by and glances at her. Hey, check it out, she says, Beth has a boyfriend. Dances-With-Retards hump’um Big Chief Saggenballs. I wait for Beth to spit out some insult or slap Mary’s face, but she just stands there, looking kind of skinny and tired, and I suddenly notice she is wearing two different socks. Mary laughs and bounces away.
God, says Beth, you wonder why they didn’t just find some real Indians to stuff. Her voice is flat and empty of bitterness.
Tell me again about your dad, I say. Beth lays out one of two stories about him, depending on her mood and who might be listening. Sometimes he’s a Mennonite, a war resistor who wriggled through the border in the ’60s, with the ashes of his draft card still warm in his pocket, and was then tucked away by her mother’s church group. This story is for when Beth and I are lying on her bed, our eyes red from the joint we’ve finally learned how to smoke. Her voice when she tells it is soft and dreamy, with none of the corrosive acid that’s usually there.
When the combination of asbestos insulation and mouse droppings in the church basement set off florid rashes and welts on the young draft dodger’s skin, Beth’s mother set up a cot in her own basement and offered him whatever semblance of Christian charity she could muster. He thanked her, sneezing and wiping his oozing eyes on a handkerchief embroidered with tiny clocks.
During the day Beth’s mother ran the church group’s printing press, turning out pamphlets on the importance of hard work, faith and chastity, and at night she took chamomile tea to the runaway and they discussed their views on the war and the intricacies of their respective faiths. Pretty soon cups of tea became candlelit dinners eaten off tin camping dishes, and the young Menno, who in Beth’s stories looked a lot like Keanu Reeves, fell in love with the Catholic woman. Although she loved him too, his minky black hair and carpentry skills, Beth’s mother couldn’t picture herself married to this man who didn’t dance but who sang like a baritone Gordon Lightfoot and could draw freehand drafts of beautiful round wood-hewn buildings, free of dusky corners where cobwebs and secrets flourished. Neither of them was willing to compromise, and the word chastity floated over their relationship, a naphthalene-smelling ghost. After a few months of whispered fights and unbreakable dishes thrown across the room, the draft dodger left for a rural commune in Saskatchewan. Beth’s mother threw herself into her work at the printing press, and though her faith in the Holy Trinity was fading, she found comfort in the smell of mimeograph ink.
She heard nothing from the draft dodger for years, until one evening he appeared on her doorstep. I don’t have much time, he said, they found me. I’ve been court-martialled. Tomorrow I’m being smuggled to Paraguay. He still looked like Keanu Reeves, though his hair was longer and straggly and streaky-grey. She let him in. What else could she do? He left early the next morning in a white van with Alaska plates, and Beth’s mother never heard from him again.
And nine months later, Beth finishes, I was born.
Wait a second, I say, President Carter pardoned all the war resistors in 1977 , so he couldn’t have been in real trouble. (I’m not the Reach for the Top regional team captain for nothing.)
Yeah, okay, says Beth, but you had to apply for a pardon, and there was a time limit anyway. He never got his.
Why wouldn’t he apply? I ask.
I don’t know, because he was getting high on some fucking commune, okay?
I am silent, and Beth slowly exhales a kite’s tail of smoke.
Anyway, Beth goes on. You know what the moral is?
A trace of hydrochloride seeps back into her voice. You haven’t had a night until you’ve had a Mennonite.
The other father is for parties when Beth has smoked two or three joints and drunk most of the vodka we smuggled from my parents’ liquor cabinet. You’re totally droned! Mary Roberts shrieks. Beth scowls at her, then grabs Mary’s hand and jams it against her belly, lifting her T-shirt and poking two of Mary’s fingers against what looks like an appendectomy scar. Feel that? Beth says quietly, while Mary giggles. That was a present from my dad. You know what his name was, right? Big Chief Saggenballs.
Ow, says Mary, wriggling out of Beth’s grasp. God, you’re so intense.
The first time Beth and I take mushrooms, we lie on her bedroom floor and stare at the ceiling-spackle for as long as our scorched eyes can stand it. My face feels hot and huge, my cheeks are two knobs of burning fat. The air has resolved itself into a series of churning interlocked pinwheels, which for some reason appear only in crimson and ecru, our school’s team colours. I want to tell Beth about this but my throat has telescoped out about ten feet from my body and it’s so hard to get the words through to my mouth. Besides, she is thumbing through a copy of Maclean’s and laughing quietly to herself, and I don’t want to disturb her.
Later we go to the diner near Beth’s house and play the Freddy Krueger pinball game, pummelling the flipper buttons before the ball gets anywhere near them and laughing shrilly when it tumbles into the game-over slot. Good fright, sleep tight, don’t let the bedbugs bite, Freddy says, his voice coming out in a series of digital squirts. I am so high, whispers Beth.
Walking home we try not to step on each other’s shadows. Mine looks absurdly tall and wobbly, like old cartoons of trees in the desert or hula-dancing giraffes. I’m a giraffe, I say, feeling my chest collapse with despair at how completely lame this sounds even as I am saying it. Instead of dissolving the ego, as they are supposed to do, the mushrooms have turned me into a feedback loop of agonizing self-consciousness. I feel like a failure, even as a stoner.
When we get back to the house, Beth’s mother is in the kitchen listening to a Pete Seeger tape. Did you have a nice night, girls? she asks. She looks so young, with a long grey-blonde braid and a paisley scarf around her neck, and for a second I want to ask her how often she thinks about Keanu Reeves. My head feels emptied out and tender, and there is Beth, disappearing up the staircase without even a look in my direction. I whisper goodnight to her mother and stumble over the carpeted stairs. We fall asleep on our backs but somehow in the night we turn like magnets, and when I wake up early in the morning I am spooning her, my hand against her ribs, and I can feel her heart beating as surely as if I were holding it, bald and leaping, in my palm.
The polar bear at the museum lives in a glass display case in the entrance hallway, frozen in a state of boredom following a seal-kill. The stuffed seal, twice dead, lies some metres away, and the bear stares into the middle distance, apparently uninterested in its quarry. Behind the bear’s shoulder the fibre-optic sky goes from light blue to royal blue to black and back to light blue again in quick succession. Sometimes in the artificial night sky the aurora borealis appears, a green ghost dragging across the wall. In this hallway the sound of the north wind is always blowing.