WILL THERE BE ANY STARS?
I don't shrink under the weight of his stare
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?”
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.