Last night, I had a dream about high school. No big deal. Who doesn't dream about school from time to time? It's pretty common.
Sometimes, in my dreams, I've forgotten to graduate and have to go back. Occasionally, I have to sit an exam for a class I never attended. Once in awhile I'm in a school play, and can't remember my lines.
Pretty basic stuff, really.
School dreams are usually about stress. They suck, but I expect you're used to them.
The dream I had last night was not a school dream in the traditional sense. It was a dream about something that actually happened, something I hadn't thought about in years. A nightmare, really.
It was a dream about being Heathered.
That's how I like to describe what happened to me during my last year of high school. "I was Heathered," I say, laughing. I've never found a better way to explain the systematic destruction of my reputation and social life engineered by a small pack of girls who, once upon a time, I considered my closest friends.
We were an unusual group, I suppose. Smart, certainly. Or devoted to seeming so. We were girls who did our homework. Or rather, they were girls who did their homework. I never did my homework. If an assignment wasn't going to be graded, I just didn't see the point. My clique was full of brown-nosers, so I think this reflected badly on me right from the start, though we all got good grades.
In retrospect, I see how important our image was. We were so modern. So multicultural! So perfectly 1990s. Charoula was the prettiest (and the whitest -- not a coincidence, in my opinion). Sonia was the sweetest. Devyani was the richest (with mixed-race parents, like mine, but hers were famous and had much more panache). Lucy was the artsy-est. (I heard she ultimately became some sort of art therapist. When you get to the end of the story, I invite you judge whether or not this is ironic.)
I don't know what I was. Mixed race, I suppose, which was important in Canada at that particular moment. My mother is South Asian, hailing from Goa, India. My father is white. I filled a niche. The first time Lucy visited my home she commented, with some disappointment, on how "normal and Canadian" it was. She expected more "Indian stuff." I felt, at that moment, a slight shame. Though the decor certainly wasn't up to me, I had the sense that I was failing somehow. Failing to be "ethnic enough" and to fill the role they'd picked me for.
None of that matters, really. What matters is that I made two fundamental mistakes between 1996 and 1997. I got myself a boyfriend and, like an idiot, I fell in love.
Matt was older, already in university. And though he was friends with my friends, and for a time, we all hung out as a group, he wasn't around in the day to day. And slowly but surely, the day to day changed.
L to R: Matt, me, Sonia, Lucy, Charoula, Devyani and a perfectly nice person named Kenny
I don't know who said what. I don't know who started what rumour or how they spread. On the surface, at least, nothing was especially wrong. My friends were still my friends, though they stopped calling me, and I found myself left out of plans and conversations more often than not. When I mentioned it (which I did, being unaware of subtlety and unable to read between the lines) the girls said straight out, that they felt we were "drifting apart." That I "didn't understand" them anymore. That we had "different values."
They were 17 and 18 and had, as people say, never been kissed. The dearth of romance in their lives was a regular topic of conversation. By contrast, I was 16 and in love with someone I thought I might actually marry. Ultimately, I think that's what this was about. "We just don't have much in common anymore," said Sonia, during one memorable lunch hour. It stung at the time, but I suppose she was right.
And then it got worse.
I became a "slut." There were whispers. A fringe-friend in a different grade said she'd heard something about me "hopping from guy to guy." It made no sense. I was in love! I was more than a year into my monogamous relationship! I've considered it, and I still don't really understand what happened, or why. I only know that it did.
I was a slut. I was branded.
Once, walking down the crowded hallway, someone actually coughed the word at me.
And there was a burst of laughter.
Other things happened as well. The girls -- my friends -- gathered to telephone my boyfriend. (The Internet had yet to boom.) They each took a turn on the line. Why were they calling? They just wanted to warn him, they said, about me. Hadn't he heard what I was up to? Hadn't he heard who I REALLY was? They didn't want to cause any trouble, of course. But they cared about him, they said. They were calling for his own good.
I was sitting next to him on the sofa when this happened. He covered the mouth piece.
"It's your friends," he said. "You better pick up the extension."
I did. And we spent the next 15 minutes listening to my friends trash talk me.
When the call ended, we hung up and stared at each other.
"What the fuck was that?" he said. I didn't know what to say. I cried, I think. In confusion.
As the year went by and things got worse, I lived increasingly in a state of social fear, sweating constantly and making multiple trips to a little-used washroom in the school basement, where I stuffed paper towels under my arms in an attempt to keep the stains from showing. (I'm sweating right now, actually. I'm sweating just thinking about it.)
We graduated. The girls and I made a show of going to the prom as a group. Matt drove. We were one happy clique.
Summer arrived. I made plans to go to university out of town. I was desperate, for more than one reason, to get away.
Posing, as teenage girls tend to do. L to R: me, Sonia, Charioula, Lucy, Devyani
The whole thing came to a head in the late summer of 1998. The girls invited me to a "group meeting." They called my boyfriend first. Again. Before calling me. They called to ask him to convince me to attend. The whole thing was planned our and staged like an intervention. Something about a united front.
He refused, of course. And called me immediately. He was loyal, which might have been why I was so very taken with him. He urged me not to go, and in retrospect, I can't imagine why I didn't listen. I was angry at that point, I suppose. I didn't want them to think I was afraid. I didn't want to seem weak.
So I went. Matt came with me. We ended up at a city park. The girls requested that we sit on the grass in a circle and Lucy produced a "talking stone." ("Please don't speak," said Lucy, in a syrupy-sweet 'I'm so mature' sort of voice, "unless you are holding the stone.") And then they passed the stone around the circle and proceeded to tell me that they were kicking me out of the group, and why I was no longer welcome.
To be fair, not all my "friends" were in attendance. Devyani was out of town and missed the whole thing. Sonia, I believe, refused to attend, for which, I suppose, she deserves some credit. I noted at the time, and still remember however, that the telephone call to "warn" Matt about me had originated at her house, so clearly, she knew what was happening.
Lucy was there, of course (she being the meanest of the group and the one who seemed to hate me the most). I must have done something to deserve it, but I never knew what. Charoula was there as well, along with one other person they'd roped in for support. Charoula, to her credit, seemed embarrassed by the whole thing and didn't say much other than that she didn't really have a problem with me and didn't know why she was there. (She acted as though she'd just stumbled upon the meeting or been roped in against her will, despite having directly participated in planning the event. I guess her resolve failed her once we were face to face.) It was Lucy who did most of the talking. But as a group, nonetheless, they were quite the jury. Like something out of a movie, which is why I thought of Heathers.
In the end, I had my say. They finished their spiel, the "talking stone" passed to me (how utterly ridiculous) and I spent a good ten minutes spewing as much venom at them as I could manage on short notice. I didn't let any of them speak again. And at around 11 p.m., I stood up and walked away. And that was it.
I went off to University a week later. I made new friends. I never saw Lucy, Charoula or Sonia again.
Despite all that, believe it or not, I tacked a picture of those girls up on my dorm room wall not two weeks later. A picture of us all together. Smiling. I guess I didn't want to seem like I had no friends back home. Or perhaps I didn't really understand that it was over. I let those girls stare down at me for more than six months before I had the sense to take them down. Pathetic, really.
But none of that equals the most important part of the story. Here is the most important part of the story, the thing that matters most after all this time:
That night in the park, as I walked away, riding high on the fact that I'd had the last word, I tripped.
I was wearing a pair of high-heeled suede boots (with cut-off jean shorts, thankyouverymuch -- stylish!). And I had been sitting cross-legged in a park for over an hour. One of my legs was asleep. And so, when I stood to walk away, I stumbled, my sleeping leg twisting under me and making a sickening pop. I turned my ankle badly. It hurt like bloody hell.
I didn't look back, but I knew as I limped away that my exit had been ruined slightly. Matt and I spent the rest of the evening soaking my swollen and blackening foot in ice water. It was really glamorous.
Why is the fact that I tripped the most important part of the story? Because years later, I ran into Devyani (the one who'd been out of town for my formal execution) and we rekindled a relationship for a brief time. And, somehow, the Heathering came up. She hadn't been there, but she'd been told about it. And what she said about it amazed me.
"I heard you fell down," she said, with a small giggle.
I heard you fell down.
That's the part of the story she heard. That's the part they remembered! That's the only part, I imagine, they found worth repeating.
Hearing it blew my mind.
I was in a play once. I didn't forget my lines.
I rarely think about high school, if I can help it. It was a long time ago. Onward and upward, right? What does it matter?
I don't think my "friends" were bad people. I think they were teenagers. I think they were prone to pack mentality, and without empathy. Maybe all children are like that. Maybe it's how they survive. (At least one of the girls was over 18, but it's obvious we weren't truly mature.) I'm sure (I hope) those girls grew up to be perfectly lovely women. Things change. I know I wouldn't like anyone to judge who I am now based on who I was in high school. Nonetheless, I find myself feeling less than perfectly forgiving about the whole thing. Some betrayals stay with you for a long time. They colour your life. This was certainly the case for me. I'm still hesitant and guarded in my friendships with women to some extent, and all this happend thirteen years ago.
When I woke from my fevered dream of being Heathered, I was sweating. Can you believe that? My nightshirt was soaked around the collar. In my dreams, I've been in car accidents, I've drowned, I've even been shot in the head, but I've never been happier to wake than I was this morning. I feel bouts of childhood nostalgia just like the next person, but today, I felt none of that.
I've never been happier to be in bed beside my partner, with endless work days on the horizon, bills to pay, dishes to wash, laundry to do, and an appointment with my mechanic in the afternoon. I've never been happier to be grown up.
High school is, more often than not, just something we have to make it through.
I made it. And I'm grateful.
UPATE: Alright princes and princesses. I deleted the last names and blurred the photos. Keep your pants on.
It's January bloody 17th and I STILL haven't taken down the Christmas tree.
Every time I pass it, it mocks me. And as I live in a small apartment, with an open concept living room/dining room/kitchen, I pass it a lot. I'm in the room with it right now, sitting at my desk by the front windows, and I can see it out of the corner of my left eye. It's just standing there. Mocking me. For being lazy. For failing to acknowledge that the holidays are over. For being, at heart, what I am (a ragamuffin, a slob, a TV watcher, etc.)
It's mocking me because it's January 17th and It's been up since the first week of December. And despite being made of metal and plastic and whatever foul substance they use to simulate pine needles (which may be plastic too, I don't know)... despite that, it knows as well as I do that I have a tendency to let things go.
The Christmas tree is just one example. One manifestation of my many weaknesses. Proof that I need to stay vigilant, lest natural inclination take over and I become what I was meant to be: a lounging, stay-at-home-hobo, shuttling from bed to computer, computer to bed, bed to sofa, television to book, stove to bath to bed with occasional forays to the kitchen to stand in front of the open fridge door stuffing yoghurt into my mouth, hair matted, teeth unbrushed.
December is the darkest month, but January is the coldest. And December is propped up by the holidays, the early evenings hung with twinkle lights, the mornings swaddled in pancakes. January, by contrast, is all winter light and icicles. Snowy mornings and shoveling. It's a time when other people flock to the gym and the After-Xmas sales, buying for their new, resolutioner lives.
I see them huff past me on the sidewalk in their brand new workout wear, and I want to laugh. At the same time, I know they are more virtuous than I am. I'm sure they've taken down their Christmas trees.
January, quite frankly, is an idiot time to make resolutions. If humans were remotely smart, we'd make our resolutions in May, when the weather and the light might be cooperative. But we're not smart. We make our resolutions in December, and fight to keep them in January, when it's cold. When the calendar gives us only Valentine's day to look forward to. A "holiday" that doesn't even come with a respite from work.
On second thought, why shouldn't the Christmas tree stay up? Why shouldn't it twinkle it's way deep into the New Year? Why does it insist on looking so forlorn and out of place? Stupid Christmas tree. Though, I suppose if I lived in a box in the basement, I might not be accommodating either.
Tonight, Nathan and I are going to watch five straight hours of Lost. We're going binge on homemade Indian food, and curl up on the sofa in heavy sweaters. We're going to drink martinis and eat almond cookies for desert. And we might (we MIGHT) even light up the Christmas tree.
It's a strange thing to be "mixed-race" in a family that is, in spirit, North American and white. Though my Goan mother didn't come to Canada until she was around 30, because I was born here, because she sees me as "Canadian," it's hard for her -- for either of my parents, really -- to understand that I don't feel white.
I don't think they realize that outside the context of our family, I am exotic. Surrounded by whiter friends and relatives, I'm assumed to be the nanny, pursued by "ethnic" fetishists, and asked, nearly once a week, "What are you?"
It's not something they've experienced. Not something they can know.
This weekend alone, the question came twice. I gave my stock answer, explaining India. But still... it's hard.
No one is asking who I am. They're asking what.
Since returning from our trip to the Exumas, Nate and I have been talking about where we should go next. In some ways, I want to do something easy. A week in Mexico, for example. (I've got a lead on an incredible little eco-cabin right on a beach with tonnes of wildlife. Sigh.) I dream about a week of total relaxation. A week designed around what I imagine I want, which is to read and sleep and eat seafood.
But then... I also want to go to India.
I've been already. Several times. But always on my Dad's dime, and always with the protective buffer of family around me. With a confident, domineering dad, a place to stay, and a mother who speaks both Konkani and a bit of Hindi, the India travel I've done has been easy. It's been about sunny days, posh hotels and pretty beaches. Sure, we stayed in very small villages too. Dirt floors, boiled well-water, no western bathrooms, but again, with family, which is not the same as traveling alone.
Even as a very little girl, visiting Kolkata (then Calcutta) when my parents had less, it was easy. I was largely insultated, protected from the noise, the dust, the beggars. Though not quite white, as a young traveller in India I might as well have been the whitest of white and the richest of rich western girls.
With some stray puppies on a Goa beach, 2004
There are so many reasons to go now. Nate has never been. And my grandmother lives in Goa and I haven't seen her in more than five years. In fact, when I last visited in 2004, I hadn't seen her in a decade. She asks constantly about when I might return, and I know she doesn't really understand why I don't. I feel incredibly guilty about it.
And there are the beaches to consider. Nathan and I both love the beach. I mean, it's not like the journey would be selfless.
But India isn't easy. The real India is something unknown.
All the more reason to go, right?
My mother's family home in South Goa
Monsoon season in Goa. Cc. licensed image by abcdz200 from Stock Xchng
When I was 20, ten years ago now, I wrote a poem. It was part of an assignment for a poetry composition class I was taking at Queen's, and it kicked off a little jag of poetry writing that I went through in my early 20s.
Looking back, I think the poem says a lot about what the decade was going to be like for me. It's so very juvenile, so rhyming and earnest. So... heartbreaking in a way.
Ten years ago, I was just out of my first significant relationship and I was having a hard time. The whole decade was hard, in one way or another. Not that a ten year period really means anything. I know that such divisions of time are arbitrary. Nonetheless, ten years feels significant. Nice and round and solid. It feels good to put it behind me.
For Nathan and I, 2011 came in with a whisper. We spent New Year's Even in a small cottage in the Bahamas. I was alseep by 10:30 p.m. I made no resolutions. It was the best start to a new year I think I've ever experienced. A good omen.
That said, I think it's always worthwhile to look back. To constantly drive forward, with no examination of where you've already been, seems like a waste..
With that in mind, I'm going to share my little poem. It was inspired by a novel I read as a young teen - Paula Fox's A Place Apart. (If you haven't read any Fox, you should. Here's a good article about her.) I remember, at 13, being so caught up by a moment in A Place Apart that I held my breath. For minutes. I held it until my heart heart, without even realizing what I was doing. And it was that memory, I think, that made me write this poem
Be kind, blog friends. I know it's bad. I can see my many errors. It was a first effort. And remember, I was still practically a baby.
tierra del fuego
sheets lifted above our heads as we lie in bed and consider the morning
you’re wondering what i’m doing
i’m offering you a dream with my bare feet and our cold sheets, warm now, with you and i inside them
this is our house on Tierra del Fuego where we live, all alone, you and i high, high in the mountains away from everyone
this is our house on Tierra del Fuego where we have a bedroom painted in gold to catch the light of the bold afternoon sun an encompassing auburn brought to life by our walls
this is our house on Tierra del Fuego where we grow vegetables and have enclosed a small cow named Daisy who gives us milk
we have given up meat, which is easier here remember, before? that time that we tried, but weren’t satisfied? and didn’t succeed and you, especially were filled with the need for the taste of blood in your mouth?
this is our house on Tierra del Fuego where we want for nothing because together we make somethingwholly satisfying
later much later thinking about those sheets on our bed, back in place now, i read a little about Tierra del Fuego
the island is cold and the Patagonian Andes are, i’m told, harsh and unwelcoming
Tierra del Fuego is an island that’s vulnerable, exposed to the competing winds of the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, bringing nearly constant rainstorms
we had a house on Tierra del Fuego but i’m renting it out because i can’t take the rain anymore, or your snore, or the cold that even the gold of our bedroom isn’t warming and the Yagans of old have left Fireland and the tourists are coming
this was our house on Tierra del Fuego i’ve opened the pen and let Daisy go and if there’s only one thing i want you to know it’s that Tierra del Fuego’s a lie it was always remote and too difficult for us so i’m saying goodbye
on the Isle of Fire, Tierra del Fuego the winds can blow a house down but just so you know, i’m not waiting around i’m burning our house to the ground
Jen Selk Speaks is the personal blog of ... you guessed it - Jen Selk! Random musings, self-indulgent rants, tmi moments, whatever your voyeristic pleasure, you'll find it here (within reason). Once in awhile, the blog may even contain something substantive.