My grandmother said, you can’t choose your family, but you can choose your friends, so choose wisely. But I didn’t so much choose my friends as they chose me. At school, we clung together, an island of dark heads in a sea of blond and medium brown and dyed green and purple ones. We got our periods in the same week and we pooled our extra lunch money to buy lipsticks that we kept in a secret locker for common use. We were the ones who never talked about Saturday night’s party on Monday morning, because none of us had been at the party. If I were ever foolish enough to say the word “party” to my mother, she would shout, “Party? Party? You think you deserve to go to a party, after you brought home a math test with a B-plus? And now you want to party with idle wastrels instead of studying? Get up those stairs now!” If I failed to move immediately, she would jab at the back of my legs with a broomstick to make her point.
But I am getting ahead of myself. The time when I had friends was a new season in my life that only began when I started Grade Ten at Angus High. Before that, I went to Ashdown Girls’ School, a private school that cost thousands of dollars a year. We had to wear a burgundy blazer, white blouse, navy socks and a burgundy and navy plaid kilt to school every day. Most of the girls at Ashdown were much richer than I was. My dad was a doctor, but he had just opened his practice after years of studying to get his Canadian qualifications, and my mother didn’t have a job because she said making sure us children turned out decent and respectable already took more hours than there were in the day. The only reason I got to be an Ashdown girl was that I won a scholarship.
Ashdown was hell and I hated it. When I was younger, some of my classmates invited me to their birthday parties or played ponies with me at recess, but then we started junior high, and the other girls’ conversations changed from kittens and our favourite candies to rock stars, actors, and boys. I didn’t know anything about rock stars or actors because my mother refused to have a television in the house, and we were forbidden to listen to anything but classical music. My father was German and played Beethoven and Brahms obsessively, and we all played a string instrument – violin for me, viola for my brother and cello for my sister. As for boys, there was no chance of me meeting any. The other girls encountered them at their families’ clubs and summer cottages, or at dances with our brother school, St Alban’s, which of course I was not permitted to attend.
My cloistered life became a class joke, immortalized by an exchange between myself and the Queen Bee of our class, Lacey Roberts. She had asked me rhetorically if I was ever going to get a boyfriend, and I had responded, as always, “I’m not allowed,” to which she said scornfully, “You’re not allowed to do anything. I bet you’re not even allowed to cross the road.” My ill-thought-out but truthful response, “It depends which road,” cemented my status as “loser of the class,” as Lacey put it.
Being the loser of the class meant that I was subject to constant harassment, like girls stealing my white gym shorts and staining the butt with grape juice, or telling me there was a boy around the corner visiting from St Alban’s who wanted to meet me, and then pushing me into the path of the old, pot-bellied janitor. But my classmates reserved the bulk of their viciousness for my mother. Her accent and her brightly coloured flowery dresses stood in stark contrast to their mothers, starved skinny to fit their tight designer jeans, highlights refreshed every three weeks.
The final humiliation came when my mother bought clothes in my size from a thrift store where Jennifer Saperstein’s mother was volunteering for charity. This confirmed that my mother had committed the cardinal sin of being Poor, and therefore I was also Poor. The rumours grew. We couldn’t afford to pay our water bill. We didn’t shower. We smelled. We had to get our food at food banks.
The toll of being both the loser of the class and Poor began to show in my grades. My mother screamed and threatened me with a future sweeping streets and cleaning toilets, demanding to know why I was no longer achieving. She was so serene in her belief that our family was living the right way that I could not bear to tell her that she was wrong, let alone inform her of the daily abuse she and I were receiving. In this vacuum of knowledge, my mother decided that Ashdown was the problem. It offered a superior education in the lower grades, but now I was underachieving due to boredom, and for high school, a more rigorous environment was required. She did her research and discovered the International Baccalaureate program at Angus High.
Angus was an immense public school made of grey bricks with barred windows. I had passed it for years on my way to Ashdown. I took the city bus – another strike against me, as most of my classmates were driven to school in their parents’ BMWs and Audis – and groups of teens frequently got on and off at Angus. They wore leather jackets with studs, they exchanged cigarettes with one another, and they said “fuck” a lot—they seemed to me as unreal as characters in a young adult novel. If one of them noticed me in my Ashdown uniform, they would smirk and make comments I barely understood about lesbians and deflowering virgins. “I don’t think much of the school as a whole,” I heard my mother saying on the phone, “but the I.B. program is excellent. Several of their graduates get scholarships to Ivy League schools every year.” I also knew that, since I alone out of my siblings had won a scholarship to private school, my mother felt guilty that her other two children did not have the opportunity I did, and sending me to public school like them would eliminate this disparity.
Now that my mother’s mind was made up, I was forced to study for hours a day, on top of my regular Ashdown homework, to write the entrance examination for the International Baccalaureate program. I was also exhorted not to tell “your friends,” my mother being unaware that I had none, that I was doing so, “in case you don’t get in, because you don’t want people knowing you failed.” But I did not fail, and once Ashdown was notified that I was leaving, this cemented my status as Poor. I was now too Poor even to afford the extras scholarship students still had to pay for, such as the uniform and school trips, so I was being forced to attend Angus. Only Kristin Wishnowski had anything positive to say. “Ooh,” she breathed, “lucky. There’s some hot guys at Angus.”
“Yeah, if you like stoners and bangers,” said Lacey with a grimace. I knew what neither of those was. I just knew that my mother had unwittingly handed me a second chance.
The summer between Ashdown and Angus might have been an unremarkable stretch of violin practice and extra math tutoring had the Ashdown student council not decided to have a slave auction during the last week of school before vacation. When I got home and my mother asked about my day, I regaled her with tales about the teachers standing on the auction blocks and students bidding on them to be their slaves by making their lunches or lip synching to their favourite songs, all proceeds going to charity.
My mother’s voice immediately reached maximum volume. “They had an auction block? They bought slaves?”
“Yes,” I said, mystified at her reaction.
“And you just stood there?”
“Everyone did. It was a school activity.”
“You were a slave,” my mother spit.
“Your ancestors came from Africa as slaves.”
“They did? Aren’t you from Jamaica?” I didn’t know much about Jamaica, other that it was my mother’s homeland. She was very circumspect about what it was like there, frequently saying that she had come to Canada for “a better life” or “better opportunities.” I had been there only once, when I was three, and I had retained no memories of the trip.
That evening, my mother announced at dinner, “I want to take the children to Jamaica this summer.” And within the month, we were on a plane to Kingston.
Jamaica was an awakening for me. I had never seen so many people with dark skin in one place before. And, while I knew that my mother had dark skin, it somehow still came as a surprise to find that my grandmother, uncles, aunts and cousins did also. Where before I had looked at myself in mirrors, dissatisfied with my frizzy dark hair and toffee-coloured skin without really knowing why I felt that way, now I understood where I fit into the pantheon of my family, which had members in every shade of brown, including my own.
My cousins introduced me to Bob Marley and we sang “Good friends we have, and good friends we lost, along the way . . . ” They took me out to cricket games and shopping malls, and to my astonishment, boys approached me constantly. My cousins tried to take me down a peg by explaining this was partly because I was foreign. Once, a boy asked me if we could go on a date, and when my cousin contemptuously answered for me “Of course she can’t,” he said with approval, “I’m glad she can’t.” My cousin explained to me later,
“You don’t want to be the kind of girl who does whatever a boy wants. Those girls are whores.” This tenet was to become an important part of the belief system of my friends and I: girls who went to parties and dated boys and even had sex with them were whores, and naturally, the girls who were whores were white.
The other thing I did in Jamaica was sit with my grandmother in her bedroom in the afternoons. I would brush her hair or put lotion on her legs and as I did so, she told me things: little axes cut down big trees, let the Lord be your guide, and choose your friends wisely. My mother came and sat with us sometimes too. She was different in Jamaica. She laughed more than I had ever heard her laugh before and although she had insisted that my siblings and I bring our instruments and some school books on the plane with us, we barely touched them after the first few days. I came back to Canada convinced that with the confidence and knowledge I had gained in Jamaica, I would make lots of new friends at Angus, and Ashdown would fade into the haze of a past life.
However, my first day at Angus did not start out well. I was tired and irritable, as I had gotten my period the day before and had spent much of the night awake due to cramps. My mother drove me to Angus for the first day, and I shifted uncomfortably in my seat, feeling my bulky pad scratch against my thighs. My mother refused to buy brand-name pads discreetly folded into small pocket-sized squares inside pink wrappers, like the girls at Ashdown had used before switching to tampons. I was forced to rely on no-name pads she bulk-bought, long and white and unwrapped. Of course, it was impossible to tell my mother I had cramps, so she took my silence as recalcitrance, and berated me about my attitude the entire ride to school.
“I hope you’re not going to go to this school and mess around the way you did at Ashdown,” she began. “Because there are lots of bright kids in your class. Jonathan whats-his-name, you know him from church, his father’s a judge? He got straight As last year. You learned to read way before he did, but now you’re more interested in clothes and other nonsense.”
This was my mother’s belated expression of resentment at having to buy me some new outfits, since I no longer had a school uniform. I had convinced her not to buy anything at the thrift store, and we had gone to Eaton’s basement instead, where Guess jeans and slouch socks were on sale. When Ashdown had “plainclothes” days where uniforms were optional, Lacey, Kristin, Jen and the others “tapered” their jeans by folding them over at the ankles and pinning them with safety pins, then pulling baggy slouch socks over the top.
Today, I was wearing a new pair of jeans so pinned, with pink slouch socks and a T-shirt my aunt had bought me in Jamaica, white with pink satin flowers and birds appliqued onto it. My hair floated in a fuzzy mass down my back, secured with an elastic at the nape of my neck. My mother had insisted on performing her usual routine with my hair, which was to attack it with a fine toothed comb that snagged on each tangle, making me roar with pain, and then to brush it one hundred times with a boar bristle brush in a misguided attempt to make it lie flat and straight. The more she brushed, the more my hair expanded outwards, and the more she despaired. “What are you doing to your hair when I’m not around?” she demanded, confronted with my heavy black swirling thicket.
“Nothing,” I said indignantly. I wanted my hair to behave as much as anyone. In Jamaica, responsibility for it had shifted from my mother to my grandmother, who generally put it up in French braids my mother claimed not to know how to do. Until I went to Angus, my vast blanket of hair was universally seen as a nuisance to be managed and controlled, not yet transformed into the luxurious mane of curls that I would later sport in the hands of my friends, that would become my trademark.
“Look at who your father is! Your hair should lie flatter than this,” my mother had growled, defeated and angry, and I knew that she was negatively comparing me to my sister, whose fine waves flowed seamlessly over her shoulders.
When my mother pulled up to the back door of Angus, the first thing I saw was a group of kids, both male and female, their long hair teased and sprayed into elaborate cascades, smoking cigarettes as they leaned against a wall bright with graffiti. My mother flicked her eyes over them in disgust. “You see those people?” she said. “They are wastrels. They are not the ones you should be talking to.”
“I know,” I said as I shouldered my backpack and stepped out of the car into my new life. My first task was navigating the endless stream of students, all shouting and banging locker doors and seeming to know each other, to find my homeroom. When I walked in, I realized immediately why the slouch socks I wore had been on sale: no one was wearing them. Everyone’s jeans were baggy at the ankle, a relaxed, casual fit, and a much lighter shade than mine. As well, they had all pushed their desks together into small groups and were laughing and chattering excitedly. No one looked at me as I slid into a desk at the back of the room. Casting my gaze around, I saw Anna Davison, who had gone to my Sunday School until Grade Seven, when her mother laughingly said “She told me she doesn’t see the point of it any more, so I guess she’s going to sleep in on Sundays.” Church, like so many other things, was not optional for me, regardless of what point I did or didn’t see in going.
I managed to catch Anna’s eye and mouth “Hi” at her. She gave me a half-hearted wave and turned back to her conversation with two other girls. Sarah McKenzie, who played in the string orchestra with me, didn’t even look my way. I noticed something else about my classmates. Every single one of them was pale-skinned. It was jarring after Jamaica and my immersion into a society of dark faces. In addition, the girls all either had the sleek, shiny flat hair of my mother’s dreams, or fresh spiral perms with uniform whorls of curls carefully formed with handfuls of gel.
Throughout the morning, I carefully lifted items in and out of my backpack, being vigilant about not dislodging the white pads at the bottom. That had happened once at Ashdown and it had been bad enough to have the white pillow of my humiliation lie before the cackles of those girls – it was unthinkable that it happen here in mixed company. When my stomach began to seize in groaning spasms, I reached into my jeans pocket for an Advil pill and swallowed it dry. I knew from the girls at Ashdown that Advil was a sometime effective remedy for cramps, and while I would never ask my parents to buy me some, they kept a bottle of it in the kitchen cupboard and I periodically snuck a handful when no one was looking.
Finally, it was lunch time. I had begun to bleed heavily in the last few minutes of class and, scared that it had leaked through my clothes, I delayed getting up from my seat until the rest of the class had piled through the door, joking and flirting with each other. I shuffled quickly down the hall looking for a bathroom. Once I was inside a stall, I was relieved to see that the giant pad had held up. I changed it for another, pulled the safety pins out of my jeans, and twitched the legs down over my slouch socks. Feeling a bit better about myself, I made my way to the cafeteria.
The cafeteria at Angus was in the basement, a dingy space with no windows, with a booth at one end that housed the student radio station. The resident DJ, Clifford, was to become my first crush, but today he was the unknown source of a booming bass beat that shook the walls, melding with hundreds of raised voices into a mass of quivering energy. It was a far cry from the lunchroom at Ashdown where, even if none of the girls in my class would talk to me, I sat at the end of the table assigned to our grade and looked out through a picture window onto a lush garden of trees.
Hoisting my backpack onto my shoulder, I looked around for a familiar face and saw Anna from church, who had said “hi” to me that morning. I moved purposefully in her direction, reassuring myself that no one here knew I was the loser of the class or Poor. When I reached her table, I said “Hi, Anna. Is this table—”
“All the seats are full,” she said bluntly. “Sorry.”
I heard laughter rising like smoke as I stumbled away. My stomach clenched and I felt the terrible cramps returning. My vision grew blurry, and I feared I would faint, as sometimes happened when the pain got really bad. I staggered forward, wanting only to leave the cafeteria, when suddenly a shadow fell across my path and I looked up to see a stranger blocking my way. I was initially unsure whether the stranger was a boy or a girl, as the stranger was wearing an immense baggy hooded sweatshirt and voluminous jeans that concealed their body shape, and had short hair covered by a baseball cap, but when she spoke, I decided that she was a girl.
“Yo,” she said, “are you Black?”
I looked around, not sure that I was the person being addressed.
“You tripping or what?” She nudged my foot with hers. “I said, are—you—Black?” When I failed to respond, she said impatiently, “Black! Like from the islands. Or Africa.”
Comprehension dawned. I knew that there were people in the world called “Black,” but to my mind, they played basketball or made rap music. I also knew that my family members, like this stranger, had dark skin, but they were Jamaican.
“My mom is,” I said slowly, speaking my way through my spiritual rebirth.
“Your mom is what?”
“From the islands. Jamaica.”
“Well, then you’re Black,” she said, this lifeline I had just been thrown. Her face shone under the fluorescent lights as if it were underwater, a powerful, dark sun. “You’re a sister. You’re down. You can eat with us, sister.”
“Good Friends We Have” is the honourable mention for Room’s Fiction Contest 2020.
Here's what the judge, Rebecca Fisseha, has to say about Jones’s short story: “‘Good Friends We Have’ is a warm, funny, and surprising invitation into the life and mind of a young girl caught between identities, with a deeply satisfying ending that deftly signals the adventures to come.”
Zilla Jones is a criminal defence lawyer, mother, singer and writer from Winnipeg, Manitoba, who has been writing since the age of three, but only began submitting her work last year. In April 2020, she was longlisted for the CBC short fiction competition. She has just finished the first draft of her novel, The World So Wide.