I didn’t live in Mississauga but everyone thought I did. I was the only kid in the whole school who rode the 504 all the way to the end of the line, to the land of private school uniforms and houses with backyards big enough for pools.
I was only going for gymnastics practice—I would be back in this same block of apartment buildings by the time it got dark. But I liked that people thought I lived in a four-bedroom house made of new bricks, with a green lawn to play badminton on and little stone lions at the end of the driveway. I thought that if you lived in a lion house you must always feel like your hair had just been blown dry by a hairdresser: bouncy and weightless and expensive.
Across the aisle from me, two girls were playing a clapping game. It was one I used to play a lot. You went:
Tic tac toe
Hit me high
Hit me low
Hit me three in a row
Johnny got hit by a UFO
At that point you and your partner played rock paper scissors. The winner got to grab the loser’s arm and punch them up and down to the beat, singing:
I win, you lose
Now you get a big bruise
At the end when you sang bruise, you’d give them the biggest punch of all.
I played it with the gymnastics girls. Gymnasts are brave and like to brag about how much pain they can take. Girls who couldn’t handle it were pulled out of class and enrolled in ballet. They were going to be disappointed when they learned the truth about that one, too.
When I got to the gym I was the first one at practice, as usual. I kind of liked being at the gym alone so I could walk slow and breathe in the smells of chalk and foot sweat. I liked everything about the gym, even the gross parts. There was a huge blue springboard floor that looked like a fleece mitten a dog licked. There was a wooden high bar stained pink with blood. There was a leather vault that looked like a tongue on a pedestal.
I walked barefoot into the gym and started stretching while I waited for my best friend Shay. We’d been in the same class since we were six years old, but now Shay was getting bored with gymnastics. She wanted to quit but she couldn’t: her older sister had been a level ten provincial champ, and sitting in the bleachers had become their mother’s favourite hobby.
One by one the girls on my team came over to join me. Shay was last: she collapsed in the middle of the circle and pretended to be dead. Everyone laughed and poked her with their toes, trying to get her to come alive again.
The girls at gymnastics all looked and acted about three years younger than they were. They acted like I was older than them, even though I wasn’t, not by more than a couple of months. This was mostly because I brought them exciting news from the city, where people did dirty stuff. It was the only thing I ever got special attention for, and it wasn’t for anything I did myself. I waited until everybody was there and told them I saw something they would never believe.
“This morning, on the way to school, Angelica Perri gave Vince Lam a blow job.”
Everyone went stiff. The other girls didn’t know Angelica Perri or Vince Lam but it didn’t matter. We had been talking about this for months. None of them believed me that girls our age were giving blow jobs. Apparently, no one in their schools did anything but French each other.
Coach Megan said gymnasts stayed younger longer than everybody else, so maybe that’s why. Coach Megan was twenty-six and she still didn’t have breasts. I guess at twenty-six she was never going to get them, but this was something we debated all the time.
We were all flat but Shay wore a bra anyway. She wore a sports bra under her leotard for practice, and afterwards changed into lacy ones with stiff triangle cups. She got all the way dressed, except for her top, as soon as we got in the change room, and walked around in her jeans and her bra until we had to go. When she bent over, her bra gaped away from her chest like it was leaning away from a stranger on a bus.
Most of the girls at my school were wearing bras already. All the girls who had given blow jobs wore them for sure. I knew all the girls who had given a blow job in our grade because there was a Facebook page about it. Somebody told the principal and he got it taken down, but it always popped back up. Sometimes it was just names but sometimes there were pictures. Once I had a dream where I was on it, and beside my name was a picture of me butt-naked except for one of Shay’s bras—a red lacy one.
In elementary school, being a competitive gymnast was the coolest thing about me. It probably still is the coolest thing about me but it isn’t considered cool anymore. In grade three, gymnastics was the coolest sport anyone could think of. During recess the field was full of girls cartwheeling and doing handstands until they fell over onto their backs. If there were a bunch of you, you could do stunts: if two girls stood facing each other and held hands with their arms crossed, they could flip a girl standing in between them. It’s amazing how easy it is to move a small body.
By grade seven, gymnastics aren’t cool anymore. Hockey is cool. Football is cool. Boy sports are cool. All the girls who knew how to cartwheel joined cheerleading or took up watching boys play hockey from the bleachers.
My gramma wanted me to be a hockey player, because hockey was televised and you could make a lot of money. No one walked around with Kerri Strug on a jersey, she pointed out. My mom said hockey was way too expensive, but my gramma argued that at least it was a career with longevity. All the players in the NHL are old, by gymnast standards anyways. When Nadia Comăneci got her perfect ten she was fourteen years old and weighed eighty-six pounds. If you are a gymnast, you know these two facts. No exceptions. We are all training furiously against time.
When practice was over, we all huddled over the big bench in the change room like a coven. I was starting to get a feeling like falling in my stomach because practice was coming to an end. I was bad at the ends of things. When I was little I cried at the end of every birthday party I was ever invited to. I was always trying to make practice last longer so I said:
“Do you guys want to go to Wendy’s?”
Everyone sucked in their breath.
This was the problem: none of the girls were allowed to walk the kilometre and a half to the Wendy’s near the gas station. The gym was in an industrial park with lots of long, shadowy buildings. There were a lot of street lights but there were no stores or restaurants and no big houses with stone lions, so all the moms thought it was a rough part of town. If the girls wanted to walk to Wendy’s they’d had to lie to their moms, and only Shay had the guts to lie. It pissed me off that the other girls were so sensitive about their mothers. Once I made a joke about Peyton’s mom’s tummy tuck and she cried. Only babies still loved their moms out loud like that.
“I have a lot of homework,” Peyton said automatically, which made me remember all over again what a crybaby she was, which made me hate her so much that my skin felt hot.
“My mom is already on her way,” said Alayna, a little slower. Alayna hated being left out, but she was also terrified of being raped, and I knew she was sure we were asking for it, walking a kilometre and a half alone in the dark. She was always reading those true-life stories in CosmoGirl about girls who have survived terrible ordeals. I wasn’t as mad at Alayna as I was at Peyton, but I still thought she was an idiot. I turned to Shay, who had no excuse and liked us to know that she was up for anything.
“Sure,” she said. “I’ll go with you.”
Shay and I walked outside together. The wind felt like pool water on my face—I undid my ponytail and shook out my sweaty hair. The sun was almost all the way down and the sky was navy and orange.
Our gym was the last in a line of long warehouse-type buildings with flat roofs and walls like school portables. We walked past a party balloon emporium and a scrapbooking store and a hard cider company’s event headquarters.
Shay was walking fast, which made me walk fast, which meant we were both racing along through the parking lot and out of breath by the time we got on to the shoulder of the main road. We both started to laugh for no reason. Little rocks clattered down into the ditch as we walked.
When the sun dipped all the way down below the buildings, all the street lights came on at once. Shay was right under one, and seeing her lit up like that all of a sudden made me jump and scatter rocks everywhere, which made us laugh again.
“It’s almost creepier with the lights,” Shay said. “Like, hi, hey, we’re alone, come rape us!”
That was another thing about the Oakville girls. They couldn’t go five seconds free of adult supervision without discussing the likelihood of being raped. Alayna was the worst, but they all did it.
This is my problem with it: pretty much the one thing we had going for us was being really, really strong. We were even stronger than most of the boys at our schools. To make the girls feel better I tried to remind them of how many triceps dips we did a day.
Alayna was inconsolable though. She always thought she was about to be pulled into the back of a white van. She was sure one day hunters would find the remains of her body in a shallow grave in the woods. All the male coaches at the gym freaked her out.
“Who gives hugs to twelve-year-olds?” she would scowl. “It’s immoral to ask a twelve-year-old to give you a hug.”
We only had to walk on the shoulder of the road for a few minutes before we got to a sidewalk that took us across a highway overpass. When we were in the middle of the bridge we heard a cough of thunder, and by the time we were on the other side, the rain was coming down hard and soaking our hair. We raced the rain all the way to Wendy’s and stood between the doors, fogging up the glass in the vestibule.
As we stood in line to order, leftover rain dripped down my forehead. Shay had a twenty-dollar allowance each week so she always bought stuff for me. I ordered chicken nuggets and a Coke, and Shay got fries, a milkshake, and a bacon cheeseburger. Her mom would be pissed if she found out. She was terrified of Shay gaining weight, even though she was stick skinny. The weird thing was that Shay’s mom wasn’t even fat herself. No one in their family was. I guess she was just scared of it in the abstract.
We sat and ate in a booth by the door. I was able to refill my Coke at the machine three times before the manager came out and told me to quit it. Then way too soon, Shay said her mom was on her way.
It had stopped raining, but you could tell it hadn’t stopped for good. Water still clung to the long woolly hairs on Shay’s sweater. It looked like the raindrops were frozen in place, like she had a wet floating aura. My tongue was fuzzy from the soda and I wanted to lick the clean drops of rain off the wool on Shay’s shoulder.
“My mom’s going to pick me up here. I bet she’ll drive you home if you ask.”
“No, that’s OK.” I was starting to get nervous about her mom’s big, beige SUV.
I’d ridden in it before but now I felt shy and soggy. But Shay said I had to at least wait with her, so I stood there thinking about the wet legs of my jeans. I always seemed to get the ends of my jeans wetter than anybody else. During winter, I got salt stains all the way up to the backs of my knees.
When her mom pulled up she was listening to talk radio. I tried to walk away but Shay pulled me toward the car, her arm hooked through my elbow.
“Mom, can we give her a ride home?”
“No it’s alright, I live really far away,” I said, even though Shay’s mom knew perfectly well where I lived. When she picked me up for competitions, she usually spent the drive asking me if I was sure I wasn’t upset that my own mother wasn’t coming to support me.
Shay’s mom pursed her lips and made a big show of looking at her watch, even though the time was on the dashboard in huge green letters.
“Ohh-kay,” she said, like it was against her better judgment. What else did she have to do, anyways? She was a stay-at-home mom but her youngest kid was thirteen. I decided right then that there was nothing she could do to make me get inside her big, stupid car.
“It stopped raining,” I said. “I’m just going to walk to the stop.”
“It’s fine, really, get in the car,” she said, like I was being incredibly dramatic.
“No THANKS!” I practically shouted, and before she could say anything else I turned around and stormed down a footpath where the car couldn’t follow. Shay’s mom probably thought I was insane but I didn’t care. Adults think they can be such dicks to kids.
It took less than five minutes to get to the streetcar stop anyways. I waited under the glass shelter with my hood up, watching the street for a big, beige SUV and thinking about how much I hated Shay’s mom. I took out my phone to see if Shay had texted me about it, but it was dead.
When the streetcar came it was almost empty. There was only one other passenger, a man wearing a crinkly windbreaker. The sleeves had green and purple triangles that went up and down like alligator teeth. I sat near the back and lay down on the seats, making a pillow with my backpack. The ride was long, and sometimes I fell asleep, but this time I just stared at the seat in front of me until the driver yelled out my stop.
My apartment building was only ten minutes from King Street if you took a shortcut through the parking lot behind a grocery store. The store closed early and the lot was pretty much empty. I could hear my footsteps echoing off the brick walls.
I started kicking a soda can. It was perfectly round with no dents, so I kicked it gently with the inside of my foot. It kept me company through the parking lot like a dog I was walking, but when I got to the intersection the can rolled into the street and got crushed by a car. I guess it was a good thing I never had a dog.
Whenever I have a can of soda, I always worry how much of it is left. You can pick it up and shake it and feel for the weight and listen to the sloshing but that never really tells you how much is in there. The only real way to know is to take a sip and feel with your tongue how much is left. But then, once you’ve taken a sip and put it back down, the problem starts all over again. You don’t know how much soda is really left because you don’t know how much you drank. And the last time you checked, the situation was entirely different. And so, you have to take another sip. And then, without having really wanted to, you’ve wasted your whole can of soda just checking how much soda you had left for later. Lately I’ve been thinking about soda cans whenever I get nervous.
On the side streets near my building, the cars had to park on the curb. In the dark, they looked like giant cats lying on the road. The sun was all the way down now; the sky was as dark and cloudy as a crystal ball.
I thought about my beam routine. I thought about Angelica Perri giving Vince Lam a blow job on the bus. I thought about playing on the swings at a park not far from where I was walking, about trying to get the swing to go all the way over the top and back around. If you were able to do that you would be legendary. One summer I tried every single day.
I didn’t stop at the swings when I passed them. Most evenings teenagers smoked pot on the play structure, but tonight there was just one guy in a windbreaker leaning against the monkey bars. It was dark and the wind was pushing me home, hissing faster, faster, faster.
But then, I was always racing everything. My gramma said I was like a thoroughbred. She said if I was at the track she’d bet on me. When she said this, I would neigh and pedal my arms like I was rearing, my fists balled up into hooves. I had never seen a horse in real life but I could draw one almost perfectly in mechanical pencil. Shay and I spent a whole night drawing horses once. She drew them anime style, with round eyes and Pegasus wings, but I drew realistic ones, jumping over fences or running through fields.
I felt like I could gallop down the street just thinking about it. My heart was beating like hoof beats. I could hear them in my ears like sneakers on the street behind me.
It was dark but I wasn’t scared of the dark. Wind whistled through the trees like the sleeves of a windbreaker. I could see my apartment building, less than a hundred yards away. The lights in the window glowed like birthday candles.
In hindsight, I never stood a chance.
Amy Oldfield was born in Ottawa and lives in Toronto. Read more of her work in The Puritan, Bad Nudes, and This magazine.