Heartache and Other Natural Shocks (2 page)

“No Time”

Debbie’s at the wheel of her mom’s Buick LeSabre, Marlene’s in the passenger seat and I’m in the back, peeking out the window. Steve lives in Forest Hill: quiet street, big house. The first time we drive past, no one’s around. I make Debbie circle the block. The second time we cruise by—oh my God—there he is, coming out of the house.

“Shit!” I say, ducking down. Steve knows Marlene and me from Camp Minawaka, but he doesn’t know Deb.

Marlene says, “Uh-oh, he sees me.”

I can’t look, but I hear his voice. “Hey, Marlene?”

Debbie stops the car.

“Drive!” I whisper.

Marlene puts on her fake-surprised voice and says, “Oh, hi, Steve, how’s it hangin’?”

Steve’s voice gets closer. “Hey, Mar, what are you doing here?”

“Drive! Drive!” I hiss, flattening myself to the floor.

Marlene says, “Gotta go. See ya around, Steve.”

Debbie guns it, and we leave Steve in the dust. As soon as
we get around the corner, Debbie pulls over, and she and Marlene burst out laughing. I pop up and scream, “What the hell did you think you were doing back there? He almost saw me!” But Deb and Mar are practically peeing themselves laughing, and soon I’m laughing too.

After that, we go to Sam the Record Man because Marlene wants to buy the Doors’
L.A. Woman
album—which I already have. Then we go back to Marlene’s to listen to it and eat jujubes. Marlene read that jujubes have almost no calories, so we eat them all the time, but they sit in your stomach like rocks.

The song “L.A. Woman” is seven minutes and forty-nine seconds long, with Jim Morrison singing “Mr. Mojo risin’ ” over and over, like he’s going to come right on the spot. Deb says that his “mojo” is his dick and it’s rising because he’s horny, but Steve told me that “Mr. Mojo risin’ ” is an anagram for Jim Morrison’s name—like when you mix up the letters into a different order—which is so cool! I love knowing things like that. Of course, I still can’t believe that Jim Morrison is dead. Marlene and I were at camp when it happened. July 3. When Mar heard that they found his body in a bathtub in Paris, she bawled her eyes out. He was only twenty-seven, the exact same age as Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin when they overdosed last fall. Spooky, eh?

Anyway, after we talk about Jim Morrison and his stupid heroin-addict girlfriend, Debbie grills me about Steve. She thinks he’s a real hunk and I should definitely give him a call,
but I won’t. The thing is, he said he’d call me, and it’s been two days since camp ended.

“Hey, Carla, I’ll call you as soon I get home,” he said on the bus.

Yeah, right. I should’ve known better. Camp romances never last, because once the guy is back in the city, it’s O-V-E-R. It’s like camp never happened. It’s like suddenly he’s living on a different planet, in a different galaxy, and there’s no fucking way he can pick up the phone. Well, I couldn’t care less. It’s not like I’m in love with him or anything. But if we’re going to break up, I want to call the shots. It’s one of my rules: Dump him before he dumps you. I’m not a girl who gets dumped. It’s a good thing we didn’t fool around that much. Well, we necked and he felt me up, but that’s all. And he was sooo pushy. What a jerk.

Marlene invites Debbie and me to sleep over, but Ma says no because I’ve been at camp all summer and she wants me home for dinner. Besides, the family from Montreal, the one renting the McDuff house next door, is supposed to show up today. Ma says they have two kids just like us, a boy and a girl. I wonder if they’re French. I wonder if the boy is my age—a cute boy with a sexy French accent. Now that would be something to look forward to.

“It Don’t Come Easy”

Telegram to self: Have arrived in hell. Worse than expected.

When Mom pulls up to the McDuff house and says “We’re here,” my heart sinks. The house is a new fake Tudor, like all the other new fake Tudors on the block. There are no graceful, leafy maples on this street like there are at home, only spindly, pathetic tree-twigs sticking out of empty lawns like undernourished orphans. It makes you sad just looking at them. And that’s just the outside. Inside, everything is modern—in a bad way. The kitchen is so white, it hurts my eyes. The den is all glass and chrome. Bobby’s room is done in red, white and blue geometrics (yuck), and over the desk is a poster of Dave Keon. Not Henri Richard, not Jean Béliveau, but Dave Keon of the Toronto Maple Leafs. Bobby stares at it, stunned, like someone who’s been stabbed in the neck. We hate the Leafs! We’re Habs fans.

But worst of all is my room. If you think hell is red, think again: it’s pink. Yes, everything in eight-year-old Karen McDuff’s bedroom is pink: the dresser, the curtains, the frilly bedspread, even the walls. They’re the color of bubblegum,
of Barbie’s toy Corvette, of Pepto-Bismol. It’s a color that has a very short shelf life in a girl’s fairy tale world, and after that, it makes you want to puke.

Mom yells for us to come help with the bags. We’re unloading the station wagon when a dark-haired woman bursts out of the house next door and rushes at us with a plate of muffins. She calls out, “Hello-ooo! You must be the new neighbors. I’m Gina Cabrielli, and this is Buzz.” A boy Bobby’s age races up behind her. Introductions are made. My mother gushes over the muffins.

Buzz looks at Bobby and says, “I have a basketball hoop in my backyard.”

Bobby says, “Cool.”

Buzz says, “You wanna play?”

Bobby says, “Sure.” And they’re off.

The moms beam at each other. It’s like watching people pair up at a party. I grab my suitcase from the trunk and take it upstairs to the pink inferno. When I get back outside, a brown Buick is pulling into the Cabriellis’ driveway. The driver is a girl with whitish-blonde hair parted straight down the middle and mean snake eyes. The other girl, the one who steps out of the passenger seat, wears silver hoop earrings, a halter top and tight cutoff jeans. She has pouty lips, thick, glossy black hair like Mrs. Cabrielli’s and curves in all the right places.

Mrs. Cabrielli says, “Carla! Come here and meet our new neighbors.”

Snake Eyes backs the Buick out of the driveway. Carla trudges over, and I can feel her eyes scanning my body for features and flaws. She knows my vital statistics within seconds: too tall, too skinny, gangly legs, small breasts, long chestnut hair and brown eyes. My mother introduces me as Julia, which I hate.

“Jules,” I say.

“Julia will be going to Tom Thomson Secondary School,” my mother says to Carla in that way mothers have when they’re trying to set you up.

“Oh yeah,” Carla says, tossing her hair over her shoulder.

“Carla can show you around,” Mrs. Cabrielli offers.

“Sure,” Carla says, but she’s just being polite. I can tell. She doesn’t want to show me around any more than I want to hang out with her. You either like people right from the start, or you don’t. That’s what I think. Take me and Mollie, for example. We met on the first day of grade one. I was milling around the playground when the bell rang. The teacher told everyone to partner up. I looked around and saw a girl with frizzy hair, a round face and serious, dark eyes staring straight at me. She said, “Do you want to be my partner?” I said yes. It was friends at first sight.

Meeting Carla is the opposite of that. After a few awkward moments, I say, “I better unpack. See ya.”

Carla says yeah in a voice as flat and dry as cardboard.

I carry my box of records to my room and shut the door. If I were in Montreal, Mollie and I would bike over to Kane’s Drugstore to buy orange Popsicles, or we’d hang out at the pool and see if Mike Cameron and his friends were showing off their dives on the high board. Mollie has a crush on Mike. Right now, Mollie’s probably practicing her cello. She practices three hours a day because she’s gifted. One day, she’s going to be a world-famous concert cellist, and she’s still going to be my best friend.

Around six, Mom calls me for dinner. I tell her I’m not hungry, and for once she doesn’t bug me. Later, Dad calls from Montreal to see how we’re settling in. I pick up the phone in Mom’s bedroom. When I get on the line, Dad’s voice sounds far away, like he could be in Paris or Moscow. He says, “How’s my favorite girl?” It’s our little joke because, of course, I’m his only girl.

I say, “I’m okay,” but my voice warbles.

“Hey, kiddo, tough day?” he asks.

I hear a click and Bobby’s voice comes on the phone from downstairs. “Dad, when you come, can you bring my hockey stick?”

I put the phone in my lap and listen to their voices filter through the receiver like static. I feel like an astronaut drifting through space, tied to my spaceship by a long, thin telephone cord. I hear Dad’s voice saying, “Jules, poopsie? Are you there?”

My tongue scrapes across the inside of my mouth, but no sound comes out. My words tumble down into the dark oily pit of my stomach. I hang up and walk back to Karen McDuff’s bedroom. I sink onto her ruffled bedspread and lie there like a corpse in a pink, satin-lined coffin. I stare at the ceiling. This is all my mother’s fault. Sure, she tells everyone that “We’re moving to Toronto to provide a better future for the children,” but that’s bullshit. Just because thousands of Anglophones are leaving Quebec doesn’t mean we had to.

I should have seen this coming last October, when things in Quebec started to unravel, but back then, I didn’t even know what the
Front de libération du Québec
was. When the
kidnapped James Cross and Pierre Laporte, I didn’t get it. I mean, kidnappings happen in other countries, but not in Canada. It didn’t feel real. Even when Pierre Trudeau brought in the War Measures Act and the tanks rolled down Saint Catherine Street, it was like watching a play from the front row. I didn’t think it had anything to do with
me personally
. It wasn’t until I opened the
and saw that photo of Pierre Laporte’s dead body stuffed into the trunk of a Chevrolet that it actually hit me: A man had been murdered in my own city, and this story was not going to have a happy ending for anyone.

I remember the evening after the
killed Laporte. It was a Sunday, and the Epsteins were gathered for our weekly dinner at my grandparents’ big old house in Outremont. Bubby and Zadie’s dining room table was loaded with the usual
platters of food: meatballs, kugel, stewed peppers, smoked meat, eggplant. There are eighteen of us, so we always eat in shifts: first the kids, then the adults. Usually Joe, my oldest cousin, and I watch
after dinner, but that night was different. When the adults gathered at the table, Joe and I stuck around, and there was none of the usual jokes and laughter. Somewhere in the city, James Cross, the British trade commissioner, was being held hostage, and Pierre Laporte, the Quebec immigration and labor minister, was dead.

“This is the beginning of the end,” my mother said. “There’s no future for the English in Quebec.”

Dad scoffed. “You don’t know what you’re talking about, Natalie. I work with the French. The staff in my store are Québécois. They don’t want to separate.”

“That’s what they say to your face, but what do they say behind your back?” asked Uncle Seymour.

Aunt Rose turned to my dad. “Irving, wake up and smell the coffee. Just look at the French universities and the trade unions. They’re crawling with separatists. They hate the English, and even worse, they hate the Jews.”

Aunt Connie, who everyone calls Aunt Commie because of her socialist leanings, thumped her fist on the table. “The
are separatists, Rose, not Nazis!”

“This isn’t about anti-Semitism,” added Uncle Seymour.

“That’s right,” said Aunt Connie. “This is about French rights. The French have been treated like second-class
citizens in their own province for over a hundred years. And they’ve had enough. I don’t blame them for getting upset.”

“Upset!” shrieked Aunt Rose. “They murdered Laporte! You call that ‘upset’?”

At this point, everyone jumped in. Aunt Rose called Aunt Connie a communist. Aunt Connie called Aunt Rose a fascist. Zadie said they were blowing everything out of proportion. Dad said that there was nothing wrong with everyone in the province being bilingual. After all, he was bilingual. French is a beautiful language.

“Not the way you speak it,” joked Uncle Seymour.

Aunt Rose tried to get in the last word, as always. “Irving,” she said, “you may work on Saint Hubert with the Frenchmen, but let me tell you something: In the end, you’re still one of
les maudits anglais
. The pendulum is swinging, and if we’re smart, we’ll get out of this province before things get worse.”

“But where would you go?” Bubby asked, her voice quavering.

Dad patted Bubby’s wrinkled hand. “Don’t worry, Ma,” he said. “The Epsteins have lived in Montreal for four generations. This is our home. We’re not going anywhere.” And that was that. Or so I thought.

Then in February, Aunt Rose and Uncle Seymour announced that they were moving to Florida and Joe would go to university in Gainesville. It was like the map of Joe’s life had been snatched up and shredded.

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