Småland: Vignettes of single-motherhood (short story excerpt)

My aunt would come over to babysit, Monday, Wednesday, Friday, arriving as I finished brushing my teeth for bed, as my mother packed a bag with night-school accounting textbooks. Sometimes she’d pack me an overnight bag as well and drop me off at my father’s.

He rented a top-floor flat in a huge Victorian house, shared with a woman and her daughter. On alternating Fridays, he would pick me up from my after-school babysitter with his bicycle, steering with one calloused hand on the saddle as we walked together. Noise from the other flats filled the house. Its dirt-floor basement, always unlocked, harboured his swish barrel. Vinegar filled my nose as we tipped the rum cask onto its side and rolled it around to leach the alcohol from the grain of the wood. The Saturday afternoon open swim, movies I wasn’t normally allowed to see, Sunday batting practice in the park, I would use these weekends to test the waters with swear-words I’d learned in the playground, words my mother would punish me for even knowing. “You can say shit, but not fuck,” he said one night when I casually slipped it in there, hands in my pockets, shoulders hunched, imitating his cool stride as we jay-walked through traffic.

During the week, I lived in front of the television, cartoons endlessly fired onto my brain frame by crudely-drawn frame. When the programming changed to news or talk shows, I would leave the TV on so I could hear it in the background while I poked my hamster through the bars in its cage or built Lego until my fingers were sore. My mother’s textbooks covered the kitchen counter while Kraft Dinner brewed on the stove or hot dogs and French fries sizzled in the oven, or while the microwave zapped a leftover mix of the two.

On Honey-nut Cheerios mornings, she would slip quickly from room to room in her pyjamas and full make-up, waiting until the last minute to put on her freshly-ironed office outfit, only a cup of tea for breakfast. I pushed the soggy O’s around my bowl as she marched, forward, keeping our little lives together.

*

It was just before Christmas and she bundled me in my red and blue one-piece snowsuit.

“Christopher. Work with me here, please,” she said, turning me towards her roughly as she did up the zipper.

She was late for work and it was my fault. We were rushing, we were always rushing. I bent down to get my backpack, she chipped her nail in the zipper.

“Would you stand still for one minute, please! Don’t forget, Santa is watching.”

Red-cheeked and overheated, I looked at my mother. “Santa isn’t real.”

She stopped, looked me in the eye. “Where did you hear that?”

“Nowhere.”

“Why do you think Santa doesn’t exist?”

“Because I know it.”

“How?”

“I just do. It’s impossible.”

Tears welled in her eyes. She zipped me slowly to the chin and I bent over stiffly to put on by backpack.

Leaving is not Going (short story excerpt)

I’d known Colin since grade ten. Everyone knew him. He was the most interesting kid in high school. He was a year older than the rest of us tenners, but seemed older than everyone else, teachers included. He was supposed to be in grade eleven, but when he finished grade nine, his parents took him and his older brother on a year-long trip around the world.

I met him in math class, he sat in front of me, the copper bangles clanging on his wrists, shark-tooth necklaces around his neck, handmade shirts like I’d never seen. We weren’t close friends, we met on camping or ski trips with mutual buddies and on occasional rampant nights of underage drinking.

He’d been growing his hair for a year, since we had both left Nova Scotia in search of work out west. He wore it in a pony tail. He rarely washed it because he didn’t like the way it got all frizzy. It was greasy for the first few months, but then it seemed to regulate itself, showing its unclean sheen only on really hot days. For almost the entire two-hour flight to Dhaka, the muslim men on the plane stared unabashedly at him, at the two of us. I wondered if they thought we were a couple, if they thought Colin was my wife, my lanky, pale lover, travelling together to Bangladesh on our honeymoon.

*

Our arrival area in Zia International Airport was dark and windowless. Small ceiling fans circulated the dense air, but did little to keep the sweat from forming stains on everyone’s shirts. Thin men sporting old machine guns, brown uniforms, and red berets guarded any room or area that was off limits. We followed the one path that was made available to us and arrived at the transit office.

There were a handful of passengers from our flight in the room, sitting on the dark wooden benches impatiently. A round man in a slightly more official brown uniform came up to us directly.

“Come. Come, we are waiting.”

He led us to his desk. “Passports, passports.”

We held them out and he took them without even inspecting them. He gave us forms to fill out. The other passengers waiting in the room began asking questions. The officer yelled and the passengers sat back down. He then gave us another piece of official looking paper. “Do not lose this paper. Put in a very safe place. Here,” he said pointing at the crotch of Colin’s pants.

He then wrapped our passports in the forms we’d filled out and put them into a locked cage on the wall behind his desk. Colin and I looked at each other.

“Now. We go. Now,” the officer said.

“No. No,” said Colin. “Our passports.”

“Yes. They remain here. They are safe. Here,” he said, pointing to the cage. “Your passport stay here, you go the hotel and get passport when you leave again. That is the way.”

“But…” said Colin.

Then a man stepped up to the three of us. He was tall, wearing a shirt that hung down below his waist over casual dress pants and black leather shoes. He had a thick black moustache and matching wavy hair. “Do not worry,” he said to us. “I travel here, many time. All of the time, they do this. Do not worry. You will get your passport when you leave. These are good people.”

We still weren’t convinced. I looked at the short officer as he stroked his stubbled face.

“There is no other way,” said the dark man. “They keep because there is no visa and you cannot go into the country. You will get back, do not worry.”

“Yes. Yes. No worry. Is very safe. Here,” said the officer pointing at the cage again.

As the other passengers gathered their things and we made our way out of the office, I looked back once again to that blue metal locker on the wall, it’s small lock guarding my most important possession in that country.

*

I was the first one in my family to get a passport. I misspelled the name of the town I was born in. Fredricton. I had to initial where the changes on the forms had to be made. I was worried my picture didn’t look like me.

I had to get shots for diseases I’d never heard of. Yellow fever. Typhoid. Japanese Encephalitis. There was only one doctor’s office in the city that could give me the shots.

“Where are you going?” the doctor said.

I told him the list of places we planned on visiting.

“You won’t be able to give blood for at least five years,” he said as he made a list of the shots I would need.

I received laminated cards with doctor’s signatures and dates of when I had received the treatments. It took me weeks to complete them all, switching from arm to arm as the bruising healed.

We made photocopies of our passports, important phone numbers, embassy addresses, itineraries, and gave them to our parents. We bought traveller’s cheques, exchanged our Canadian currency for American, lamented the loss in exchange. My mother co-signed for a credit card. We called banks, insurance companies, and travel agencies.

We checked news reports and travel advisories, weather reports and graphs on the temperatures and seasons. We read travel books, researched histories, learned religions, studied customs. We learned about animals, temples, and trees, roads and cars and buses, wearing pants, doing drugs, paying beggars, eating with your right hand and wiping with your left. We talked about toilets and showers and sickness. I worried about the water. We bought medicines and antibiotics and pills and got doctor’s notes for all of it. We packed bandages and gauze and ointments. We bought cameras, slide film, developing included.

This was the world, and how we prepared for it.