I’d been hoping for a kitchen full of balloons, a bouquet of flowers, all my favourite food. A hand-drawn banner: Welcome Home Tasha. Maybe even a Happy 14th Birthday, though my birthday wasn’t until tomorrow. I’d been away from my family all summer.
The supper dishes were cleared away, the kitchen clean. I stood there with my suitcases at my feet while Maman poured me a glass of orange juice. “Such a long ride,” she said while I drank. “You must be exhausted.”
I breathed in the familiar smells: newspaper ink, wood, the lemon and vinegar my mother used to clean. Every surface was dusted and clear of clutter, unlike Micheline’s messy bungalow.
After picking me up at the bus station, Daddy had gone straight to bed. Marc-Antoine, my brother, poked his head around the pantry door, nodded hello, and continued rummaging for a snack. I decided he wasn’t coming to hug me because he was jealous. Even though he was two years older than me, he’d spent the summer at home, mowing lawns. It looked like he hadn’t missed me as much as I’d missed him.
“You smell like a bus stop,” Maman said. “All that stale cigarette smoke and diesel exhaust. Is Micheline still a chain-smoker?” She smirked, as if she was pleased to discover this weakness in her adversary—the surrogate mother I’d chosen over her.
Could I please spend the summer with you in North Bay? I’d written to my aunt near the end of the winter. My best friend Anna had announced that her family was moving to Reunion Island, in Africa. I couldn’t face a summer at home without her. I’d told Micheline I was looking for a summer job but was too young to be hired in Québec. The real reason was that I needed a break from the daily fights with my parents. I sought an ally in my father’s free-spirited younger sister.
I’d announced the plan to my parents only once Micheline had responded with a written invitation. By then, it was too late for them to interfere.
“Don’t let her corrupt you,” was all Daddy had said. He’d phoned his sister with two conditions: that she take me to church every Sunday and that she charge me weekly rent out of my earnings.
“You’ll have to wash everything you brought with you, even your suitcases,” Maman said. “Cigarette smoke makes everything reek.”
My jean shorts felt too hot for the mid-August humidity. The denim stuck to my thighs and sweat trickled between my shoulder blades. If we’d had a pool, I would have jumped in with all my clothes on. If I’d been more like Micheline, I would have jumped into the neighbor’s pool. I was tired, but it would be hard to sleep in this heat.
“Did you have a good time?” Maman asked. Before I could answer, she added, “I’m going to run my bath.”
My brother emerged from the pantry.
“Marc-Antoine has a couple of friends downstairs to watch the closing ceremonies of the Olympics.” My mother stifled a yawn. “The show won’t start until midnight or so, but we’re trusting him to be quiet.” She gave him a meaningful look.
“Sure, Maman,” he said between mouthfuls of barbeque chips.
I was hoping we’d talk about birthday plans. I hated to think of celebrating without Anna. But she was on the other side of the world. Why couldn’t her father be a regular doctor in Canada? Why did he have to ruin my life?
I scanned the counter for evidence of a cake. If Maman had made one, she’d tucked it away somewhere.
She gave me a quick hug. “We’ll catch up in the morning. Enjoy your bed.”
“Who’s here?” I asked my brother without looking at him. I hoped my voice sounded as if I didn’t care. Marc-Antoine had spent the last year ignoring me. At the high school we both attended, people didn’t even know we were related. But I’d spent the last six weeks in adult company. I was keen to spend time with other teenagers.
“Damien and Chloe.”
“Chloe West?” The most popular girl in my grade. Smart. Athletic. Rich. “You’ve been hanging out with Chloe?”
“Yeah. We’re dating.”
I looked down at my crumpled shorts and t-shirt, stinky from the long day of travel. I’d been planning to go straight to bed, then get up early on my birthday morning, to make the most of the day. But friendship with Chloe West could launch a girl into the popular crowd. And school was starting in ten days. Without Anna, who would I sit with at lunchtime? I couldn’t afford to pass this up.
After my shower, I heard voices in the kitchen. My stomach squeezed. I inspected myself in the mirror. My hair was frizzing from the heat. I applied mascara, eyeliner, lipgloss. Smiled at my reflection, grimaced, then pursed my lips into a kiss. Everyone in North Bay had thought I was older than fourteen. But Chloe West knew exactly how old I was. Would she and Damien even talk to me?
By the time I got to the kitchen, it was empty and dark except for the light above the stove. I walked gingerly, afraid of slipping on the wooden stairs that led down to the den.
The female announcer spoke in a clipped British accent. I hesitated outside the door. They’d turned all the lights off. I wasn’t sure my brother wanted me here. I decided that if he said something mean, I’d tell him I had only come down to get a towel from the laundry room.
My brother and Chloe sat on the couch. Or rather, he sat on the couch and she sat on him, playing with his hair. The muted light from the TV gave their skin a gray glow. Damien was in my father’s recliner, staring at the screen, where a blond woman in a tight-fitting black dress interviewed a tiny gymnast in a red, white and blue track suit. When Marc-Antoine and Chloe started kissing, Damien shifted away from them. I’d made a mistake, coming down here. I turned to go.
But my brother must have heard me. “Come and sit,” he said. He’d never said that to me before. I felt stuck in place, unable to move.
Damien swiveled the chair to look at me. But Chloe kept on kissing my brother’s face and running her hands through his hair. I had a sudden memory of sleeping next to my brother in a tent trailer, the summer five years before when we’d driven across Canada. I’d amused myself by plucking his hair out one strand at a time until he woke and demanded that I stop. We’d been playmates and traveling companions in the back of the family Ford that whole summer. But that was a long time ago. Chloe West probably knew my brother better than I did.
I fixed my eyes on the TV.
“We could hear your parents doing it last night,” Damien said. “Their bed is right above Marc’s. It kept knocking against the wall.”
My heart beat faster.
“Marc-Antoine says they do it every Saturday night around ten.”
I laughed, but I felt sick inside. How could he tell them that? Not knowing what else to do, I studied the fireworks display on the screen.
Damien laughed too, then brought his hands behind his head, causing his chest and biceps to fill out. “Marc-Antoine and I both did it this summer.”
I looked at him, in spite of myself. He smiled. But there was a thin line of perspiration above his upper lip.
I felt forced to say something. Anything. On the other side of the room, Chloe straddled my brother’s thighs. His hand caressed her bare shoulder, where her shirt had slipped down. “You mean . . . you . . .”
“Went all the way.” Damien’s eyes roamed from my face down to my chest, my hips, my legs. “We lost it this summer. At a party.”
“So did I.” The words were out of my mouth before I could stop them. I smiled at Damien to reinforce the lie.
My brother pulled away from Chloe and sat up. “With who?”
Both boys stared at me now. The blood pulsed behind my eyes.
I reached for the first possibility. “His name is Colin. He works at the North Bay mall.”
There’d been a blond man who bought coffee from me each morning—a small cup of decaf with a dash of half and half—but apart from smiling at each other while he handed over his buck fifteen, we’d had no relationship. I’d read his name on the plastic tag pinned to his shirt.
My brother wagged a finger at me. “Naughty girl”.
Damien slipped his hands into his jeans pockets and leaned back, legs splayed as if he needed four feet of room to fully relax.
On the screen, the British band, The Who, played the opening bars of “My Generation,” the London Olympics anthem. The crowd cheered.
“Micheline didn’t care what I did. She just wanted me to have fun.” Let my brother regret his quiet summer at home.
But he had turned his attention back to Chloe, his face buried into her neck. When she leaned her body into his, I headed back upstairs.
The smell of stale cigarettes coming from my open suitcase made me miss Micheline. At my age, there was no way she would have stayed in her room while a cute single guy sat downstairs. Part of me wanted to be more like my spunky aunt and pair up with Damien, but the other, safer, part wanted to stay in my room.
I rummaged in my dresser for something comfortable and light to sleep in but all I could find was the pink-fringed t-shirt dress my parents had bought me in Greece the year before. It hung just above my knees.
“Sexy,” my mother had said, when she’d first seen me in it. “Shows all your curves.” She’d encouraged me to wear it as a dress, but I was too shy and kept it only for the beach.
I slipped it on, but avoided looking at myself in the mirror. Stupid, stupid, stupid. How would I ever show my face at school again after what I’d done? I’d barely been home for a few hours, and I’d made a mess of things already.
I was pulling the covers back on my bed when a soft knock sounded on my door.
It was my brother. “What do you want?” I asked, looking into the dark kitchen beyond his shoulder. I shivered, despite the heat.
“Damien wants you.”
My body went still.
“Don’t make it mean anything,” he said.
“No.” I tried to close the door, but he stuck his foot out, forcing it open.
“I knew it. You’re such a baby.” He turned his back to me. “And a liar.”
Before I could change my mind or chicken out, I followed him down the stairs.
He lay down in his bed, next to Chloe. Soon he groaned softly. I searched for Damien in the dark.
He was standing in the corner of the room, near the closet. He jerked his head towards a mattress on the floor next to my brother’s bed.
I’d never had a real boyfriend—only a few stolen kisses in the schoolyard. But I’d fantasized for years about being someone’s sweetheart—holding hands, going on special dates, being in love.
Damien pushed me down onto the mattress and climbed on top of me. He grabbed the fringe of my dress and pulled it up, then squeezed my breast.
I needed to leave. I wanted to scream.
His hand went between my legs. His fingers ripped inside me. “You’re tight,” he said. “You don’t know anything.” I hated myself. I hated him. I hated hearing Marc-Antoine and Chloe moaning on the floor.
He never kissed me once. It burned between my legs where he’d shoved himself in. I stared at the ceiling. My parents’ bed was directly above us. I could hear my father snoring.
I thought of all the times I’d wanted to sleep in my brother’s room—when I’d been little and terrified of the dark. I wanted to hear someone else breathing nearby, know that I wasn’t alone.
After he was finished, Damien got up and put his headphones on. He leaned against my brother’s dresser, his back to me.
I waited for him to say something, turn and smile, come back for a kiss. But it was as if I didn’t even exist.
I went upstairs. The heat increased with every step. At the top, the air was so thick and muggy it was hard to breathe.
I changed into the pyjamas I’d worn all summer, their familiar smell a comfort that reminded me of Micheline’s house. I stuffed the pink-fringed dress into the kitchen garbage under the sink, hidden beneath potato peelings and Styrofoam meat trays dripping with blood, where my mother wouldn’t find it.
I remembered a picture of a woman I’d seen in a magazine on Micheline’s coffee table. Every piece of non-recyclable, non-compostable garbage that she produced, she had decided to attach to her body and wear, like a coat. The experiment was meant to last one year. The picture I’d seen was taken after only a few months, and already the woman was stooped under the weight. She’d had to put some of the garbage on her head, like a hat.
Careful to avoid my reflection in the mirror, I turned off the light and got into bed. Once word got out about what had happened between me and Damien, it would go viral: #brainykidinbedwithcuteguyfrompopularcrowd #liedaboutsex
I’d spend every lunch hour alone.
I tried not to think about my brother, writhing around in his bed making animal sounds. If he’d known I had lied, then why had he set me up?
A chorus played in my mind: I love you. I forgive you. I hate you. Sometimes it was my brother’s face I saw, sometimes it was mine. It played over and over while I waited for my birthday to come, dreading the morning.
“The Tribune says this is going to be the hottest, stickiest day of the summer,” my father said. “Best to avoid the sun.” He lowered his newspaper and looked at me over his reading glasses. “Happy birthday.”
“Our baby’s fourteen,” my mother said from the kitchen. “That means I’m old.”
I crumpled the empty plastic bread bag in my fist. Why did my mom have to make everything about her? Why hadn’t she protected me last night? Made sure I was all right before disappearing into sleep?
“What are your plans?” she asked.
“I don’t have any.” I slammed two pieces of bread into the toaster. “Since Anna’s gone.”
“Maybe you could hang out with Marc-Antoine and his friends,” my mother said.
“Are they still here?” I could leave on my bike. But there was a burning sensation between my legs. It hurt to walk. Hot tears threatened. I wiped my eyes with the back of my hand.
“Didn’t you hear the car at two in the morning?” my father asked.
I felt a flood of relief, mixed with anger and fear. What else had my parents heard?
I turned to face my mother, my hands still balled into fists. “I hate Damien. I never want to see him again.”
My mother blinked back at me and took a slow sip from her coffee mug.
I willed her to do something. Take me in her arms and comfort me. Rage at my brother.
“Marc-Antoine said the new Star Trek movie is coming out today,” she said.
“Good way to stay out of the heat,” my father said, back behind his newspaper.
“Or we could go raspberry picking later on this afternoon, when it gets a bit cooler,” my mother continued. “I thought you’d like that. We could make jam and pies.”
“That’s something you like to do,” I said. “Not me.” If she noticed the anger in my voice, she didn’t react to it. She sipped her coffee as if it was the best thing she’d ever tasted.
“Would you like your present now?” my mother asked.
“Sure.” I spread peanut butter over my toast. I was hoping for money to buy some new clothes. New music.
My mother put a brightly wrapped box into my arms. It rattled a bit when I held it.
“Thanks for the puzzle.”
“How did you know?” Her lower lip stuck out in a pout.
I ripped the paper off. One thousand pieces of a fairytale castle reaching for the sky.
“It’s a photograph from Liechtenstein, near Germany,” my mother said. “Close to your birthplace.”
I balled up the shiny green paper and stuffed it into the garbage under the sink. A piece of pink fringe stuck up. I punched the wad of paper down with my fist.
“Would you mind taking that out to the garage?” my mother asked, when she saw what I was doing. “In this heat, it doesn’t take long before garbage starts to stink.”
I was in my father’s rocking chair reading a paperback novel Micheline had given me when Chloe appeared at the porch door. She smiled at me through the screen.
“Hi.” Her braces glinted.
“Hi.” I went back to reading. She could let herself in, if she was that chummy with my brother. Or she could wait for him to come out. I wasn’t getting up.
She whistled the first bar of the song and then sang: “Happy Birthday to you, happy birthday to you, happy birthday dear Tasha, happy birthday to you.”
If it had been Anna, she would have kicked open the screen door, come sailing into the kitchen and danced on the tiles. Tears pricked my eyes. Horrified, I bent my head over my open book.
Chloe walked in and sat near the rocking chair.
I couldn’t look at her.
“You want to come for a swim at my house? We have an in-ground pool.”
I know. The whole school knows about your stupid pool in your stupid big house in the north ward. How your father is a rich dentist or doctor or something.
“A bunch of us will be there,” she continued. “Jennifer and Andy, and Sunita. And Marc-Antoine, of course.” She smiled. “Damien has to work,” she added, as if she knew what I was thinking.
“I don’t feel so good today,” I said. “I can’t walk very far.” The burning between my legs was getting worse. It hurt to sit down. I’d had to put a cushion underneath me.
“My sister is waiting in the car.”
What I would have given, back in June, to be invited to a pool party at Chloe West’s house. The words swam on the page like tiny black fish.
“It was your first time, wasn’t it?” she said. “It hurt like crazy after my first time. It goes away, though.”
I looked at her tanned, thin legs. She was wearing perfect white shorts, with painted toenails and new flip-flops. Her body was slim and toned under her snug t-shirt. Not a pimple on her cute face.
Marc-Antoine came up the stairs in his swim shorts, a beach towel slung around his neck. His normally brown hair looked bleached blond from sun and chlorine. He slipped his arm around Chloe’s waist and tugged the side of her t-shirt until his hand rested on her bare midriff.
Chloe put her head on his shoulder. “Tasha’s coming with us.”
I shrugged. “I’m thinking about it.”
Marc-Antoine grabbed the orange juice out of the fridge, drank it straight from the carton, and threw the container into the garbage. “I’m not hanging out with my little sister.”
“C’mon, Marc. It’s her birthday.”
A car honked in the driveway.
I heard Micheline’s voice in my head, her throaty laugh: “Life is short. You have to make the most of it.”
I went to my room, threw my book on my bed, grabbed my bathing suit out of my suitcase. But when I got to the door, Marc-Antoine, Chloe and the car were already gone.
Tanya Bellehumeur-Allatt’s fiction, essays and poetry have been published in Grain, EVENT, carte blanche, Prairie Fire and Best Canadian Essays of 2015 and have been nominated for a National Magazine Award and a Western Award. Current writing projects include a Middle East memoir and a novel for young adults. Tanya is an MFA student at UBC.