"Stray"

By Tanya Marquardt

 

Where there are sixteen-year-old girls who don’t want to go home, there are forty-year-old men with shitty cars, Lucky Lager beer and Export A cigarettes. In the men’s homes - smelly green carpet, faucets that don’t work, moldy dishes piled up next to the sink and bright florescent lights that turn on once you get there, a sixteen-year-old girl watching TV in the dark with all your friends, who have been invited, and who shimmer in the dim flickering light from the television. Everyone shares the same ashtray and rolls cigarettes from the butts, savoring the last of the tobacco.

Two sixteen-year old girls periodically go outside for some air. They are in the small town of Port Alberni and the night is crystal clear and dead quiet. The girls go to a park across the street. They swing on the swing set, lighting each other’s smokes with cheap matches, sitting close, telling each other secrets in hushed tones and holding hands because the cold air gives them goose bumps. When they are too cold they stand up, pull down their cheap cotton mini-skirts and go back to the house of the forty-year-old man because they want another beer.

The forty-year old man picks out one of the sixteen-year old girls, usually the one who looks the most out of place, the homely one with the cheap sneakers and the oversized sweater with a hole in the armpit. A few minutes later he is rubbing the back of her neck. They go outside for their own special cigarette. They share a Lucky Lager. He listens to her. He looks at her. When she shyly looks away, he searches out her eyes so that they can look directly at one another. He tells her how pretty she is and how he wishes she were just a bit older and how mature and smart she is. He gives her more cigarettes and later in the week, on her lunch hour at the high school, he brings her a six-inch pizza sub. A month later, the girl disappears and the next time you see her she is pregnant, or if not, she has acquired another forty-year old boyfriend with smokes and cheap beer.

I saw all of this, even got to the part with the special cigarette and the forty-year old man on the back porch. But it never went very far. I don’t fully know why the men would give up on me and I don’t really care. I’m just thankful I didn’t lose my virginity to a forty-year old man in his dirty house with his dirty dishes. If I had to take a guess I think what saved me was that I saw what it was they were doing, and they saw that I could see what it was that they were doing, and as long as I didn’t get in their way I could come along for the beer and the smokes. Which was a large part of why I was there in the first place.

*     *     *     *

I ran away on my 16th birthday, and when I did, I took everything with me. I emptied my dressers into a cardboard wine box, added my 2-in-1 shampoo, tampons and a toothbrush, shoved my clothes into three plastic garbage bags filled with my sheets, pillows and duvet, then chucked the piles outside my Mom’s house, along with my diary and the collected tragedies of Shakespeare. After searching the floor for random pieces of paper I felt that I had gotten everything. So I called a cab.

I hated my Mom. I wanted to erase myself from her life. I wanted to leave her the way she had left me, for her new boyfriend Don and his four children.

When the cab pulled out of the driveway with all my stuff in the trunk, I didn’t look back. Instead a pulled out a cigarette, lit it and cracked the window.

“Corner of 3rd and Argyle,” I said to the cabby, using my adult voice.

A month later, I was couch surfing with my friends Liz and Kristian when Clint tried tried to seduce me. He was well into his twenties and I can still remember the smell of his sweat. He smelled like my gym strip. I was hungry and pacing around in the cold parking lot waiting for my friends when he walked around the far corner of the apartment building and directly to me.

“Hi. I saw you from my window. You’re new to the apartment, aren’t you?”

I had been staying with Liz and Kristian since I had runaway, and the apartment building was host to a cast of characters. You would never see them in the day, but you heard them at night through paper-thin walls – raspy voices laughing over the blaring of a television, high pitched sex screams, low gravelly swearing, crying children, the flickering sound of lighters and the clanging of bottles. Occasionally you would hear the cops, who could come in and out whenever they wanted since the lock to the building was broken.

“You alone? It’s cold,” Clint’s breath was hanging in the air around us.

“I’m waiting for my friends to come home. They have the keys. They’ll be home any minute,” I mumbled.

 “Oh, you live here?” Clint stepped forward.

 “I’m staying here for a bit. I’m on the second floor.”

 “I’m on the top floor, corner apartment,” he paused for effect. “Do you know who I am?”

 Of course I knew who he was. Every girl I knew wanted to sleep with Clint. They thought he was powerful and could really ‘get you places’. He went to Vancouver all the time. He had his own apartment.

I nodded and looked down at the cement.

Clint spoke sweetly and slowly.

“Why don’t you come upstairs and wait in my place. I’ll make us a fried bologna sandwich.”

I was hungry. The little money I did have I spent on cigarettes and booze. When Clint opened the door to the apartment building, I didn’t hesitate. I stepped inside.

“Who are you?” Clint half-whispered to me as we walked up the stairs.

“Tanya,” I swallowed my name and he had to ask me again.

When I said it again, Clint repeated my name back to me, louder and more definitive.            

“Tanya.”

It was like he was naming me.

*     *     *     *

I walked by that apartment building as an adult, the winter before it was destroyed in 2011. On a break from grad school, I would write in the mornings at the local library and at the end of the day my Mom and I would drive home together. It was the walk from the library that forced me to pass it. I would walk down a hill near the old Elementary School, which had been closed and then converted into a tanning salon, a video store, and a fast food chicken restaurant. The Elementary School is near the Port Alberni pulp mill, and borders the seedier part of town, a strip of about ten blocks that always reminds me of the opening credits of Twin Peaks, the two smoke stacks from the mill rising into nothingness. But instead of curvy women in black patent shoes and detectives with a penchant for hot, black coffee, there are mostly poor Aboriginal families, teenagers walking in and out of the Dairy Queen to chain smoke cigarettes, and old ladies in pink polyester sweaters volunteering at thrift shops.

I had been avoiding the apartment for almost a month, taking a longer loop around the block to a local coffeeshop, where I would drink earl gray tea and wait for my Mom to get off her shift. But every time I walked past 3rd and Argyle, head down, I felt an itching at the back of my neck, my feet instinctively trying to veer towards that cold parking lot.

But even as I dragged my feet onward, I knew I would walk by it eventually. Fear kept me from the place. I was afraid that my memory of the apartment building wouldn’t match up with what it actually looked like, and I would begin to doubt my memories, all of which I was using to write my MFA dissertation. When I finally let my feet take me to 3rd and Argyle, I was shocked at how much the building looked like I had remembered it.

 For so long, the apartment had felt like a dream place, not an actual building that was still standing fifteen years after I had walked inside it. The same crappy white stucco clung to the outside, with long black watermarks running down the building where the storm drains should have been, and where the West coast rain had marked its territory. The parking lot was empty, as it had always been, and the house across the street was still standing - the same house I had lived in with Liz and Kristian before they moved into the apartment building. The house had no heat, and we had parties before Liz found out she was pregnant. One night, a young kid from who knows where showed up with bottles and bottles of Schnapps and sweet liquors that he had stolen by breaking into neighboring houses, and he had laid them out until you couldn’t see the coffee table in the livingroom anymore. That night, I got blackout drunk and tried to fist fight a popular kid that we saw on the street because he I had heard him call me ‘flat-chested’. I woke up the next morning smelling of syrupy liquor and my mouth was so dry that the inside of it felt like it was covered in grit.

But standing on the street corner, at thirty-one, I couldn’t understand how I had done any of those things. How did I walk inside that apartment building? I had slept inside its walls, ate meals there, smoked cigarettes and had conversations. I couldn’t even bring myself to walk over and look at the handle that opened the back door. The whole block smelled like filth to me and when I looked closer, I could see that the door Clint had opened was padlocked, and that some of the windows had been smashed in. The second floor apartment that I had stayed in was completed boarded up, and even though I didn’t want to walk into the building, it bothered me that I couldn’t see inside the windows. I had gotten up the guts after all. I had come to face myself. But even if the door had been unlatched, and even if the windows had been intact, I would never have gone inside. The irony of this was not lost on me - that when I was young and vulnerable, I had thought nothing of walking into the building. I had been fearless. As an adult, I was fearful. But I wasn’t afraid that I would get attacked. I was fairly certain the building was empty. I just didn’t want to get dirty. 

*     *     *     *

“Come. Sit.”

As Clint pulled out a chair from the kitchen, I noticed how short he was, his head almost grazing my shoulder when he set down the faded chair with the black leather seat and the stainless steel back. I sat down, putting my elbows onto an old plastic card table.

The bathroom and the bedroom were down the hall and smelled musky. I didn’t want to look inside either of those rooms. I watched Clint drop coagulated olive old into an old frying pan, the sizzle and the black smoke filling his apartment.

“I’ve seen you around before. Where are you from? Are you in school?” he called out through the black haze.

“Yeah. I’m crashing for a bit with my friends Liz and Kristian.”

“Right. I know them. I’ve hung out with Kristian a bit.”

“Cool,” my brains swirled with images of Clint and Kristian smoking joints while listening to Ozzie Osbourne, Kristian practicing his air-drumming to Crazy Train or Iron Man, a chaotic mass of limbs, with his black hair thrashing around his face and neck, his arms crashing and his feet pressing rhythmically into invisible pedals.

I leaned down over Clint’s floor, covered in dirty paper and ripped paperbacks, and saw a copy of Romeo and Juliet tossed into the far corner.

“You read Shakespeare?” I asked.

“Have done. You?”

“I love Shakespeare?” I blurted out.

“Well, so do I,” Clint entered, putting a toasted white bread and bologna sandwich under my nose. He sat next to me, dragging his chair closer.

“What do you love about him?” Clint asked.

Inside my chest there was a surge. I’d never had a conversation about Shakespeare before, not outside of school. Clint’s eyes were all over me.

“Shakespeare’s words are so beautiful, and I, I don’t know...the way he puts words together...it’s so sad and beautiful at the same time, and I...I once read Hamlet, and I love his characters, and his...”

“Go on...”

Clint listened to me talk about Shakespeare and then he likened it to Leonard Cohen’s poetry. Then he picked up another book on the floor and passed it to me.

“It’s a copy of Leonard Cohen’s Beautiful Losers. I read it in a high school English class before I dropped out. It’s going to be a classic, don’t you think?” and then he added, “You’re smart. I’m lucky that Kristian wasn’t home. I haven’t talked like this in a long time.

I was silent and folded my arms across my chest, but my eyes were looking at him, taking him in. I had heard so much about Clint. Gossip mostly. That he did coke and sold it to kids. That he was on welfare. That he liked to sleep with virgins. That he gave some girl herpes and she knew it was him because she was a virgin before she fucked him. That if you were a virgin and you fucked him, he’d dump you right after. I knew he had a son because I’d met his kid at a house-warming party for the mother, a nineteen-year-old waitress. I was a virgin and I knew he was bad news and I often wondered why girls wanted him so badly. But looking at him, dirty faced and eyes on me, I suddenly had an aching desire to sleep with him.

“I bet Kristian is home by now.” I stood up and put on my gray hoodie.

Clint calmly watched me walk towards the door.

“Come back soon,” he called after me, “I’d like to finish our conversation.”

*     *     *     *

It takes very little to seduce a broken person.

This was a lesson that I hadn’t yet learned before I followed Clint into his kitchen, and it was a lesson that I had to learn over and over again, throughout my adolescence and early adulthood. Intimacy at any age is incredibly hard. Even now, after years of therapy and learning how to care for another person, I still find myself amazed at how fearful I can be at the idea of sitting and making eye contact with someone I love, listening to them, or feeling the weight of their hand in my own. This felt almost impossible when I was a kid. I fantasized about being touched all the time, was starved for comfort, but it seemed impossible. All I knew was survival. When you’re just thinking about surviving, when you’ve been hurt as a child, abused and berated, hurt before you even had the language to describe the hurt, like I had, you come to believe that the world is a traumatic place, a place with no respite. Then holding someone’s hand doesn’t just scare you. It makes you feel like cutting it off. And that’s when you know you’re in a lot of trouble.

I barely knew how to wash my hair when I was twenty. One of my boyfriends had to show me. A year after I started my undergraduate degree, a beautiful girl I met in a summer theatre intensive fell in love with me, and I fell in love with her. Given the situation, I did the only thing I knew how. I started fucking a whole bunch of other people behind her back.

    *     *     *     *

A couple of weeks after meeting him, Clint threw a party at his place and I went with Liz and Kristian. The music was loud. I was nervous when we walked in and went to an open window, where I slid down the wall and lit up a smoke. I searched the room for Clint. He had called a few times at Liz and Kristian’s and we never had long conversations, but he called often. I dreamt about him at night. Clint in his bed three floors above me. I dreamt that we would kiss in his bedroom and that he would take off my clothes and lay me down on his bed. I dreamt that he would get on top of me and that his skin would be warm. I dreamt that he would leave his smell on me, and that he would stroke my hair and really take his time before putting his cock inside me. I dreamt that he would whisper in my ear, over and over again I love you, I love you, I love you. I dreamt that the two of us would fall in love and that I would live with him for the rest of my life.

“Look what I found,” Clint was standing above me. “You made it.”

I smiled meekly at him.

“Great,” Clint sat down beside me, “You know what else I found?”

I shook my head.

“Here,” Clint passed me a vodka and Cola with a tilt of his head, an almost gentlemanly smile on his face. My guts were full of terror and longing.

Clint stood up.

“Godda make the rounds. Enjoy, okay?”

I drank a lot of vodka that night, and every time I thought about leaving Clint would appear, delicately brushing his fingers across my shoulder, or I would see him from across the room, looking at me the same way he had a few weeks earlier, when I had been cold and alone in the parking lot.

The room was getting hazy when I noticed that Liz and Kristian were gone. I stood up to leave and that’s when Clint walked over and steadied me, his palm grainy and fat against my shoulder.

He took the translucent cup from my hand, leaned over and whispered, “Have I shown you my room?”

*     *     *     *

When I think of this moment, I feel all the things a grown woman is suppose to feel. Anger, hatred, disgust, a desire to help other young women understand self-respect, and the need to educate boys about respecting women.

And, I can’t help but feel incredibly conflicted. Because there was a time when I was lost, when I didn’t know anything about self-respect or respecting women, or respecting anybody. All I did was sleep with people. I slept with so many people that I stopped remembering their names. I wish I could remember all of them because it would show some modicum of respect. Now when I meet new people I try to learn their names as soon as possible, use name games and little tricks, but then I never bothered to learn them. There didn’t seem to be a point, and often I was too drunk to remember. Even now faces are blurry, and if not the faces, the bedrooms, and if not the bedrooms, I am blurry because I forget why or how I got into the bedroom in the first place.  

Once I went home with my roommates jilted lover, laughing silently under my breath as he whispered her secrets into my ear.  He believed he was getting closer to her by fucking me. All I could feel was the sweat from him dripping onto my face. I hesitate to say that I took pleasure in this, because it was not pleasure, there were very few moments of pleasure. I wanted to ruin myself, I wanted to ruin people’s peace of mind. At the time I felt I was doing these people a favor. At that point in my life there was no such thing as peace of mind.

*     *     *     *

The few stragglers that were left at the party watched Clint and I move towards his room, knowing exactly where we were going and what was going to happen.

Clint’s bed was a flimsy mattress on the floor, with brown translucent sheets thrown on top of a pillow with no case. I went to sit on his bed, wrapping my arms around myself. Clint closed the door and turned to face me. This time he avoided my eyes. Reaching back, he flicked off the light. I heard the sound of his socks scuffling towards me and then felt him touch my shoulder again, a delicate pressing, to lay me flat on my back. He climbed onto the bed and embraced me, sweeping his hands under my shirt and pushing his forearms into my back. We lay there. I felt him on top of me, the squeezing of his arms, the sinking into the folds of his mattress. It was suffocating.

This is it, I thought.

I wasn’t sure what to do. I lay still. Clint didn’t try and take off my bra. He didn’t touch my breasts or take off my shirt. He just held me in his uncomfortable way, both of us suspended and breathing in the darkness.

I wish I could say that Clint said something to me in that room, something to make me feel beautiful, something to make me feel calm. He said nothing. We were motionless, the side of his cheek rough and burying into my face, both of us waiting for a gesture, a moving, an open mouth, a reaching, even a pushing away, a turning over. There was nothing but the stillness of our bodies, the fear and the anticipation. It seemed like forever, but after a couple of minutes in this awkward position, I heard Clint sigh and then release his arms from around my torso. He scuffled back across the room and flicked on the light. It was blinding, a bare bulb shining down into a windowless, airless room. I was still lying in the position Clint had put me in. He didn’t look at me.

“Here,” Clint offered his hand and I took it.

“Let’s go back to the party.”

There were a couple of guys in the livingroom listening to music on low. They looked up as we entered and Clint dropped my hand and went over to them. Soon, they were all talking. Clint never invited me to sit with them and he never made eye contact with me. I watched them, stood in the livingroom waiting for them to invite me over. They never did. After a few minutes, I slipped upstairs to Liz and Kristian’s. They had left the door unlocked and I fell into a half sleep on their green couch, with its steel springs pressing into my sides. Laying there, I imagined all the things that could have happened in Clint’s room, but didn’t. I imagined that we would have kissed, that he would have put his tongue into my mouth. I imagined that I would have reached up around his neck to draw him nearer, and what that might have felt like, to embrace another person and to invite him into me. Each image that passed in front of my eyes was a strange dream that I couldn’t touch. I told myself that the next time I hung out with Clint that I would let him kiss me, that I would open myself to him and let him do whatever he wanted.

I woke up the next day with a raging hangover and called Clint’s place but there was no answer. I listened to the ringing, counting the space between each ring 1...2...3... but he never picked up. I figured he was hungover too, and was sleeping it off. After three days of unanswered calls, it was clear. Because I hadn’t slept with him, whatever had been between us, was over.

*     *     *     *

A close friend once told me there are only two questions you need to ask yourself when you are learning how to love someone, or how to let someone love you; are we getting closer or are we getting further apart?

And even after years of struggling, after dropping the alcohol and cigarettes and sex, after therapy and silent retreats, yoga classes and acupuncture and rolfing sessions and prayer and meditation, the trying and failing and trying again to learn how to trust my own strength and give and receive love, I am still not sure why Clint spared me. I’m glad he did but I’m not really sure why. Maybe he spared me because I was so stiff, and he didn’t want to feel like he was raping someone. Maybe he knew it would be too much work. Maybe he wanted something easy.

As a writer, I always try to over complicate that moment, when he left me in the dark on his bed, and I always come up short. I like to think that he spared me because he sensed something in me - a flash of ‘this kid’s gonna make it’ insight, like he knew I wasn’t meant for his world. But when I am at my clearest, I see how trite and convoluted that assumption is. We never know why people do the crazy shit that they do. Maybe he was just tired.  

In 2013, I was looking for garlic bread in the grocery store with my Mom when I saw Clint in the Dairy section price checking two brands of milk.

On first glance, he looked the same as he had fifteen years earlier - skater hoodie, baggy jeans, lace up sneakers, and a ripped black packsack. Except the packsack was his kids, a teenage girl who was standing next to him in a matching skater hoodie. She looked like she was about sixteen, the same age I had been when I met Clint. But she was his daughter and he was taking care of her. She looked happy enough. She was helping her father price check, pointing at one of the gallon sized jugs and pulling it towards her basket.

When I looked again at Clint’s face, I could see that his eyes were different than what I remembered. They looked tired. Resolved. They were an old man’s eyes, stuck in the body of a kid. But the kid was Clint, and he was probably more like forty-fiveI didn’t stick around this time. I bolted for the door. I shoved my Mom’s grocery list into my pocket and lay in the passenger seat, reclining it all the way back so that no one could see me waiting for the long drive back home.