I don't shrink un­der the weight of his stare

Geist - - Geist - Suzan­nah Wind­sor

The rink gate is chained so we stand on a snow­bank to climb the boards. Lacey hops over first and sticks the land­ing like a gym­nast, then grabs me by the back of my coat, pulls me onto the ice. I land on my ass. Dan and Markus don’t no­tice. They’ve al­ready dropped their back­packs in the penalty box and are pulling their laces tight. By the time I get up and shuf­fle over to the bench and open my bag, the oth­ers are skating in cir­cles, carv­ing up the ice with their blades.

I sit on the bench and ease off my boots. My wool socks feel prickly in the cold. We’re hid­den from the dead-end street by a bank of spruce trees, but the moon makes me a lit­tle ner­vous, like it’s my mother watch­ing. She loves to tell ev­ery­one the story of how I was born on a full moon, at home, a month early. The mid­wife got there just in time to catch me. My mom was by her­self in the kitchen, squat­ting with her hands up on the counter and a tea towel un­der­neath her. A pork chop was still siz­zling on the stove. The mid­wife took

one look at me and called me Agon­gos, which means chip­munk, be­cause I had pretty fat cheeks for be­ing a month un­der­cooked. She fig­ured it was my fat head that saved me, that kept me stuck inside my mom long enough for her to get there. They joked about how I’d smelled the pork chop and come run­ning. Mom can’t seem to let go of that one.

My fin­gers are freez­ing by the time I fin­ish the bow at the top of my sec­ond skate. I haven’t skated in a cou­ple of years, not since those win­ter days we walked the creek be­tween the el­e­men­tary school and the rink. Sin­gle file with our skates slung over our shoul­ders, shuf­fling in our snow pants. I’d slip and fall every hun­dred me­tres or so, but af­ter the first cou­ple of times, no one would bother to help me up any­more. Our teacher’s red toque was our guide. When she’d round a cor­ner, dis­ap­pear be­hind a clump of snowy trees, it seemed we were on our own. Maybe the snowflakes would blind us. Maybe we’d lose our way and wander through the for­est, be eaten by wolves.

Now my skates are too small, my toes scrunched inside. I ease my­self along the ice but hold onto the boards. Lacey twirls like a pin­wheel, try­ing to im­press Dan and Markus. Her yel­low hair is loose un­der her hat and the tips fan around her. The guys make wolf sounds. They howl at the moon.

Lacey’s good at ev­ery­thing ex­cept school. She’s good at get­ting peo­ple to do what she wants and eat­ing small quan­ti­ties. She never has to try to be cool or worry that she’s not cool but doesn’t know it. Lacey doesn’t have to wear Sorels or the kind of clothes my mother makes me wear. Her mother lets her do what­ever she wants. Lacey gets to be who­ever she wants to be.

My mom, she doesn’t care for my army sur­plus or Doc Martens. She’s the first in her fam­ily to have a univer­sity de­gree and she’s not about to let peo­ple for­get that. Last Christ­mas, just like every other Christ­mas, I got an ex­pen­sive new win­ter coat. This one’s even worse than the last. Navy, cinched waist, makes my bum look twice as big as it is. On Box­ing Day Mom put all my old coats in our band’s char­ity box. I felt sorry for the girls on the re­serve whose moth­ers would make them wear them too, but even sor­rier for my­self.

Be­fore that first day back at school in Jan­uary, Mom stood be­hind me at the hall mir­ror and smiled with her hands on my shoul­ders. I stared at my re­flec­tion. She pulled my hair into three sec­tions and started braid­ing it, hold­ing an elas­tic be­tween her teeth. “No,” she said. “You do not look skid. You look ex­actly like a girl your age should.” She kissed the top of my head. Not for the first time, I re­sented that she smelled of Chanel No. 5 and was on her way to her im­por­tant job. Seems to me the more suc­cess­ful she is, the bossier she gets. My mother is a di­rec­tor at the Thun­der Bay Na­tive Cana­dian Fel­low­ship Cen­tre. She’s a large woman. Not fat, just big ev­ery­where. Her shoul­ders are wide and straight, and her hair lies in a sin­gle, per­fect braid over one shoul­der. There is no ar­gu­ing with my mother. When I was twelve, she came home from work and caught me watch­ing The Young and the Rest­less. Well, didn't she throw out the TV. Just like that: un­plugged it, wrapped the cord around it and car­ried it out the door. “You think that’s love?” she said. She threw her hands in the air and laughed. Her belly and breasts shook with the ef­fort, her feather ear­rings swayed. I skulked to my room and looked at the Sev­en­teen hid­den un­der my mat­tress. I wished to be beau­ti­ful.

That coat has caused me noth­ing but prob­lems ever since. When Lacey first saw me wear­ing it, she asked me why I in­sisted on dress­ing like a preppy. She tried to give me one of her old jack­ets. I got it on, but the two halves of the zip­per wouldn’t meet.

“I keep telling you to stop eat­ing so much,” she said.

My arms are air­plane wings. I’m a big, sput­ter­ing air­plane at the edge of the rink. Cor­ners are tricky. I round them slowly, cross one skate over the other. I keep won­der­ing if this is bet­ter than the al­ter­na­tive—maybe it would’ve been bet­ter to stay home and have no one know I can hardly skate. I’m watch­ing my feet and don’t no­tice Markus be­hind me un­til his voice is gravel in my ear. “What did you say your name was, again?” He loops around me and skates back­ward so we’re face to face. Dan is Lacey’s new boyfriend and Markus is Dan’s friend, but this is the first time I’ve met ei­ther of them. They are nineteen. They work at the A&P sell­ing gas and smokes.

Markus’s gloved fin­gers are pushed tightly through the han­dle of a travel mug like the mug is an ex­ten­sion of his hand. He moves his arm like a ro­bot, stiff and me­chan­i­cal, so he doesn’t spill. I can’t make him out too clearly in the dark, but he has long hair and a patch of fuzz in the dip just un­der his lower lip. None of the boys in my class have fa­cial hair yet.

“Frankie,” I say—the nick­name I’ve been try­ing to weave into all as­pects of my life. When Mom calls me Frances, I say Frankie. When my teach­ers say Frances, I say Frankie. They hu­mour me. They cor­rect them­selves, palms up like they’re sur­ren­der­ing. But Frankie won’t stick. Not even as well as Agon­gos. Markus says, “Fran­cie?”

“No, Frankie.”

And then Lacey yells: “Frances Freida Rabideaux! Frances Freida Rabideaux!” Ev­ery­one laughs. I tell them to shut up. Markus scrapes to a halt. “Francine? Rita? Rabid-dog? What?”

Maybe we’d lose our way and wander through the for­est, be eaten by wolves

“Frankie,” I say.

In a sec­ond, even those two syl­la­bles run through him and dis­ap­pear. “Here, hon,” he says and grabs me at the el­bow. “Let me show you how it’s done.” He pulls me along and tells me to bend my knees a lit­tle, to trust him. So I do. I take a deep breath. He pulls me along. I lose track of where Lacey and Dan are, I’m so fo­cused on the feel­ing of Markus’s hand, my blades mov­ing over the ice. And for a mo­ment it seems we skate in per­fect, slow to­geth­er­ness, like he’s some­how be­come me and is skating for me. When we get to the other side of the rink, he drops my el­bow. I wind­mill my arms to keep my bal­ance. He shakes his head and says, “You think too much.” He passes me his mug. “This will help.”

Our gloves touch as I try to grasp the han­dle. I rest my lips on the rim of his mug, where his lips have rested. I tip my head back to siphon the drink out of that itty-bitty hole in the lid. I’m ex­pect­ing hot choco­late. I cough what tastes like ice-cold poi­son all over my coat.

I’m sup­posed to be at my youth group’s cos­mic bowl­ing night. I’m sup­posed to be bowl­ing with flu­o­res­cent balls so big I have to roll them with two hands—so big you can’t pos­si­bly miss the pins—and glow-in-the-dark stars stuck all over the ceil­ing and walls to make it look like you’re out­side un­der a night sky. Lacey only came to youth group with me once. She says those kids are all fake: “No one’s that happy.” Af­ter bowl­ing they’ll sit in a cir­cle on the floor, and the men­tors will give a talk about em­bar­rass­ing and un­true things. “You Are Spe­cial.” “You Are Per­fect The Way You Are.” “Only Inse­cure Peo­ple Need Drugs Or Al­co­hol To Be Con­fi­dent.” They’ll join hands and say the Youth for To­day motto. They’ll be home early enough to play board games with their fam­i­lies.

But my mom’s co­or­di­nat­ing a char­ity ben­e­fit tonight and won’t be home un­til late. By the time she walks in the door, I’ll be fast asleep. My youth group leader thinks I’m sick with girl trou­bles.

The sting of the vodka doesn’t bother me long. It’s sur­pris­ingly easy to ig­nore. I pol­ish off half of Markus’s cup while he goes on and on about his band, Gustapa Fan Club for Life, but I don’t ask what the name means. I’m afraid ev­ery­one else al­ready knows. I hope he doesn’t ask me any more about my­self. My whole body is on fire, like dry-ice-on­fire. My jeans are frozen to my thighs.

In the mid­dle of telling me about his drums, Markus in­ter­rupts him­self to say, “I gotta take a piss.” He turns around and glides to the far end of the rink. I try not to think about the me­chan­ics of pee­ing out­side when it’s mi­nus what­ever. Lacey drags me to the penalty box for a smoke. We hud­dle to ig­nite the lighter and aim the ends of our cig­a­rettes into the flame, hold­ing them steady with puck­ered lips. She takes a drag and puffs the smoke out in Os.

“You know how older guys kiss?” she says. We drink out of her flask and watch Dan sneak up be­hind Markus, who is try­ing to zip up his pants with­out tak­ing off his gloves. They shove each other, try to knock each other off their skates.

Lacey knows I’ve never kissed an older guy or even a guy my own age. But Roberto Gi­ulio, the Ital­ian ex­change stu­dent from youth group, once held my hand a lit­tle too long dur­ing cir­cle time. His palms were sweaty. I didn't tell my mom—i don’t talk about guys with her. She says she was raped by a white man when she was drunk. She says af­ter that, she never let al­co­hol pass her own lips. I guess it’s true be­cause in all my life I’ve never seen her take a drink.

Lacey points her chin at Markus. “They hold both sides of your face, just like in the movies. It’s so sexy.”

Lacey only dates guys who have le­gal ID, so she gets what­ever she wants from them. But even though Dan is old enough to drive, he doesn’t have a car. He and Lacey don’t go out to movies or din­ner to­gether. Dan lives in his mom’s base­ment, lis­tens to Nine Inch Nails with his cur­tains closed. He takes the city bus ev­ery­where. Lacey says they spend most of their time in his room.

I ask if Dan kisses that way, hold­ing both sides of her face. She scrunches her nose. “Dan is more, shall we say, uti­lizear­ian. Like he just wants to do it and get it done.”

I think she means util­i­tar­ian. Lacey tries to use big words, tries to steal them from other peo­ple’s vo­cab­u­lar­ies but usu­ally she doesn’t make sense. Some­times she asks me to re­write her as­sign­ments for her. I cor­rect her spell­ing, move sen­tences around, cut long pas­sages into para­graphs. We even came up with a se­cret code for mul­ti­ple choice tests. I don’t mind. It gives me some­thing to do af­ter school. I do it be­cause it’s the kind of thing best friends do for each other. And be­cause if she fails a grade I won’t have any­one to sit next to in class.

I take a drag of my cig­a­rette. “I wish I weren’t so fat. Guys don’t kiss fat girls.”

Lacey says, “What you need is some makeup. Your skin is al­most yel­low.” She reaches over with a bare hand and tweaks the fleshy parts of my face, hard. Her fin­gers feel freez­ing on my face. She tucks them back inside her sleeves. If you look at Lacey in the light, you’ll see her cheeks are per­fectly flushed with pink like she’s al­ways blush­ing. But if you get close enough, like you’re telling a se­cret in her ear, you can see the pow­der sit­ting on top of her skin. She wears a lot of eye­liner, but by the end of the day it smudges and she’s al­ways swip­ing at it with her fin­gers like she’s been cry­ing. I won­der what she

I’m ex­pect­ing hot choco­late and I cough what tastes like ice-cold poi­son all over my coat

re­ally looks like un­der all that paint.

“Have you ever thought about high­lights?” Lacey says. She passes me the flask again but it’s al­most empty. “You could to­tally pass for white.”

It’s snow­ing now. Big, fat snowflakes, the kind you can catch on your tongue. Markus is telling a joke, some­thing about a bar and a pros­ti­tute and a pri­est, but his voice is mov­ing in cir­cles and I can’t quite catch it. I’m mov­ing fast, faster than I ever ex­pected I could in my lit­tle skates with the scuffed toes. Faster than I ever skated as a kid. I’ve got it now, the rhythm of it. There’s laugh­ter fol­low­ing me, and now a cho­rus of words, fa­mil­iar words.

“FRAN! SEEN! RAH-BID-DOG!” “FRAN! SEEN! RAH-BID-DOG!” Ev­ery­one’s watch­ing. Ev­ery­one’s smil­ing. I spin around the cor­ners, pick­ing up speed, gain­ing con­fi­dence. The ev­er­greens blur. The graf­fi­tied rink boards melt into a grey hori­zon. My mind is all Nine Inch Nails and black cur­tains and vodka, and I can’t slow down. And then I’m face down, spread-ea­gle slid­ing. When I stop it takes me a mo­ment to know it be­cause ev­ery­thing else is still mov­ing. I roll over. The moon is there, star­ing back at me. Some­one’s laugh­ter is com­ing closer. Some­one is breath­ing on me, hold­ing both sides of my face. Some­one’s lips press against my mouth. A wet tongue grazes my tongue, and the feel­ing is a mix­ture of good and bad, like an ice cube on a bro­ken lip.

“Hon,” Markus says. His hair dan­gles in my face. “You. Are. A. Fuck­ing. Star.”

It takes all of them to drag me over the boards into the snow­bank. We lurch to­gether to­ward a spruce tree to sit un­der its branches. We light more cig­a­rettes, pass drinks back and forth. I can’t feel my toes. We are all so close, I can hardly tell my legs from Lacey’s legs, my boots from Dan’s boots, my hands from Markus’s hands. I am one of them, I am part of this. I don’t know how I’m go­ing to be able to walk home alone.

The cu­bi­cle and two gas pumps sit like an oa­sis in the A&P park­ing lot, next to a dirty moun­tain of plowed snow. I’m on my way to school. Streets ahead, high on the hill, the class­room win­dows are bright against the dark sky. The wind is like a hand push­ing me and my back­pack along the slip­pery pave­ment. It’s been five days: “Long enough to not look des­per­ate,” Lacey says.

I crack open the door of the cu­bi­cle and stand half-in, half-out. I pull off my gloves. Markus is be­hind the counter read­ing a mag­a­zine with a woman on the cover. She is blonde and has big, shiny pink lips open like she’s about to say some­thing. I can only see the top of Markus’s head above the mag­a­zine be­fore he drops it to see who’s come in.

I shouldn’t be scared to talk to him. He kissed me, held my hand. He told me he’s al­ways been into Na­tive chicks, whis­pered it in my ear like it was a se­cret. It was strange, be­cause un­til that mo­ment I’d never re­ally thought of my­self as a “Na­tive chick” or any­thing else in par­tic­u­lar. For days I thought of what I could give Markus, some­thing of mine I could let him have so he could think of me when­ever he saw it. I searched my draw­ers, my jew­ellery box. I found a bracelet made of soft leather straps I’d made at youth group. I put it in my pocket with my five bucks for smokes.

I shouldn’t need to do any­thing but step to the counter and hold out my money. I won­der if Markus will say, “Here you go, hon,” and pass me a pack of Du Mau­rier, or even say, “As if I’d make you pay.” I think about whether I should give him the bracelet right away or just as I’m leav­ing. I won­der if he’ll want me to meet him af­ter school when he’s done work. Or skip class. Or be alone with him in his bed­room. Maybe he’ll ex­pect other things. I fin­ger the leather bracelet in my pocket. I wait for that first flicker of recog­ni­tion. All the pos­si­ble com­bi­na­tions of what Markus might say run through my mind while he stares at me and says noth­ing. I push my hood off be­cause it could be cast­ing a shadow over my face. I run a hand through my hair be­cause I think I wore it dif­fer­ent that night. I smile. “Yeah?” Markus says.

The light is so bright in this lit­tle box. I have to blink a few times be­cause ev­ery­thing’s so clear. Now I can see an oil stain on Markus’s jacket sleeve, a tear at his shoul­der seam with the stuff­ing pok­ing out. I squint. My eyes ad­just and they start to feel like lasers—they can see down to the threads, to the pores. They scan the skin on his cheeks and its tex­ture is like raw chicken, bumpy and pale. He looks me up and down—from toque to boots—but I don’t shrink un­der the weight of his stare. I don’t melt. I grow.

Now I am twice his width, twice his weight, twice his height. My coat is heavy, its wa­ter­proof shell and plaid liner like ar­mour. Its neck cov­er­ing my neck, its pock­ets deep and wide for my hands.

A sedan pulls up to the un­leaded pump, the back end swish­ing as it skids to a stop, waits for ser­vice. Markus pulls on his fin­ger­less gloves. He scrunches an eye. “Can I help you?”

I lift my hood back over my hair and pull the strings tight around my face. I sink my hands into my pock­ets. I step back­ward out of the cu­bi­cle and pull the door shut. I turn to­ward the school and steel my­self against the wind.

Suzan­nah Wind­sor is work­ing on a col­lec­tion of short sto­ries set in north­west­ern On­tario. She lives in Thun­der Bay.

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