I start to think about high school, and I look through Cissy’s high school yearbooks and study the competition.
“Are the girls there very pretty?” I ask Cissy.
“Yes,” she says, delighting in my insecurity. She knows what I am truly asking. Will I fit in at high school, or will I not? Or more to the point, will I stand out there or will I be nothing special?
When I was small, my mother kept my hair short. At the beach, I would strip off my bathing suit top and run about with just my bottoms on. I suspect I wanted to be like my dad who wore only bottoms when he swam. I looked like a cute, bleached-blonde, blue-eyed boy. As I grew my hair long, if my thick waves became matted, my mother terrorized me by chasing me with scissors threatening to chop it off. On one such occasion I ran to my father for protection.
“Dad! Dad! Mom’s going to cut off my hair!” I was terror-stricken.
My dad chased my mother into their bedroom and threw her on the bed, taking the scissors from her hand.
“Gae ahead! Hit me! Hit me!” my mother screamed as my father sat on top of her on their bed. “I know ye want tae!”
I stood watching from their bedroom doorway. I was shocked that my father had done that. That is the only time I ever saw him touch my mother in anger. He didn’t hit her that night. He merely took the scissors from her hand.
“Yer nae goin’ tae break her spirit the way ye broke the other wan’s!” he declared getting up from her and leaving the room. I was so proud of my dad in that moment. I had wanted him to hit her though.
Before I go to high school, I decide to layer my long, thick hair. I go to the hair salon in White Oaks Shopping Mall in large part because I don’t know where else to go.
“I’d like it feathered like Farrah Fawcett’s,” I tell the stylist. “I still want it long, just layered a bit.”
The stylist’s scissors snip-snip as salon perm solution burns my nostrils. Cissy, who still hates me, sits slack-jawed watching Super-Cut Bitch butcher my locks. When the stylist swivels her chair, I face the mirror and my eyes fill with tears as I see my high school social life strewn on the salon’s chipped tile floor. No self-respecting teenage boy will look my way after such a Sweeney Todd hatchet-job. I don’t resemble Charlie’s sultriest angel. Sporting wispy layers, I resemble tomboyish Buddy on Family.
I put up my parka hood before we leave the salon. I walk through the mall at a hurried pace with my hood up. I weep all the way home. I pull off my parka hood as I enter my house. My mother stands in the kitchen.
“Why th’ bloody hell dud ye grow it oot for nine bloody years just tae dae that tae it?!!”
“I told her to feather it!” I try to breathe. “She cut it all off!”
I am not surprised when no tenderness is offered post-hair trauma yet one always hopes things will change and suddenly compassion will be offered in moments of distress. When Sister Maureen sees me at Mass and says the shorter style is the nicest my hair has ever looked, I am officially in hair hell.
Once high school begins, I am officially a Catholic Central Crusader and I wake at five o’clock each morning to daily shampoo and condition with Farrah Fawcett’s wheaty salon products as Farrah’s mega-watt smile encourages me to believe those elixirs will give me her look. Each morning I fastidiously use hot rollers and a curling iron. On days that my hair will not co-operate, I run for the school bus with hot rollers still in, hidden beneath my parka, which I remove once safely stowed away in a bathroom stall. I become self-conscious of my fourteen-year-old face when my mother sends me for professional make-up lessons but makes no such arrangement for my plainer, older sister and I understand that I am the sum total of my appearance. My mother doesn’t wear make-up. I don’t know why she presses make-up onto me.
I need to be perfect. I am disappointed after every cut, colour or blow-out because while the style might resemble the picture I showed my stylist, the face stubbornly remains my own and I am never perfect enough. My hunger for perfection means starving myself, banning myself from the beach as a young woman though I am five-foot-six and weigh one-hundred-fifteen pounds. I close myself off from living.
Cissy said of our mother, “Oh. You had to be perfect.”
My two sisters cut off their hair and get fat at an early age as I continue to vie for perfection throughout my own life. Cissy gets her hair shaved short at the local barbershop called The Man. For decades I fill four-inch binders with pictures of models with the loose waves and skinny hips I’ve long coveted. I squander years of my life and much disposable income on products that promise shine, bounce, straightening, waving, smoothing, detangling, defrizzing, and slimming. When I take horse pills to make my hair grow, the enormous capsules erupt in my esophagus and I burp up purple powder puffs for three days. I flirt with the idea of cutting off my hair, but my features are not delicate like those of women I admire sporting a pixie-cut.
I want to go to Laurier for high school. All of my basketball buddies are going there. Lina is going to the Catholic high school and so too was Nikki. There are only five of us headed for Catholic Central High (CCH) because at that time one has to pay tuition to go to the Catholic high school in Ontario. My mother says that we can go wherever we choose, my older sister and I. Cissy always does what my parents expect of her and so she chooses CCH. When it is my turn to choose three years later, I choose Laurier.
“Yer gain’ tae CCH,” my mother tells me.
That is the end of that short discussion.
I go to CCH and am miserable in the beginning. On the first day of school I drive with my older sister to CCH in her Mustang and I hear on the car radio that CCH will operate an annex that year because there are more students than the downtown building can accommodate. When I hear that radio announcement I pray that I will not be in that annex, which is an old elementary school next to St. Peter’s Basilica.
I am flagged to go to the annex because I fall into the right alpha. Students with last names from A to H have to go to the annex. My best friend, Lina Caro, is a music student so she is not expected to go to the annex though her last name begins with a ‘C’. Nikki’s last name begins with an ‘S’ so she is off the hook. I go to the annex for French and History in the morning and then we are bussed back to the main building for lunch. Lina and Nikki are on the first lunch together but annex kids are on the second lunch and I have no friends on my lunch.
In high school the Irish girl from our Grade three class re-emerges. Judy Lyrne had transferred to the arts school after Grade three where she became best pals with another Irish-Italian girl also named Lina. I see and hear the two of them singing together in the girls’ toilet on the third floor of CCH as they shellack their long, feathered hairstyles with Final Net. I am friendly to Judy because my friendship with my best friend is secure in the face of Judy’s own Lina liaison.
I look to Cissy for help and support but she abandons me. I seek out Cissy for the first school Mass that September. I don’t know where I am to go. I don’t know downtown London and have no idea how I am to walk from CCH to St. Petr’s Basilica. I feel panicked and look for Cissy to show me the way, to walk with me. I find her in the school cafeteria.
“How do I get to Mass?” I ask her, my throat constricted with emotion.
She smiles and shrugs. “Figure it out,” she tells me and pulls the hands of her friends, Nicola Zimmerman and Deirdre Royce, leading them from the cafeteria. Deirdre’s face tells me that she is shocked at Cissy’s cold treatment towards her younger sister.
I follow the rest of the blue and white student population to find my way there. As I sit alone in the cathedral, I silently weep. I can see my sister sitting ahead of me with her friends, laughing but I don’t see one friendly face. I am alone.
Whenever I asked Cissy for help with school work even in grade school, she called me “Stupid” and “Dummy”. If I needed to type up a report, she was incensed. She perceived the family typewriter to be hers. I could never type fast enough so she would do it for me and curse me the entire time. If I turned to her for help with heartache her response was standard.
“Oh well. Nothing you can do about it now,” she’d say.
She, like my mother, had zero compassion for me. In fact, both liked to see me hurt and kicked me when I was down. When I went to high school, my sister wasn’t going to extend herself to me even then. She enjoyed seeing me flail, fall and fail. It gave her immense pleasure.
In time I make friends with the A to H people on the annex bus and high school becomes magical. I soon come to love the Friday night triple headers. I love wearing jeans and sweaters and being out of the Catholic school girl uniform we wear from Monday to Friday at CCH. I am on the tall side of average and slender with a nice figure. I wear black, fur-lined, Cougar snowmobile boots when it snows and my brown, leather cowboy boots for dress. I tuck my skinny jeans into my cowboy boots and pair them with my dad’s Icelandic sweater belted at my waist. My dad complains that I wear his sweaters and shirts and return them to him stinking of perfume but I believe that he secretly likes to see me in his clothes. Sometimes I top off this look with my black cowboy hat and pink feather earrings. It is 1979 and at age fourteen I am flirting with fashion for the first time in my life. My friends and I put White Shoulders power under our eyes and wear frosted lipsticks. We look like baby prostitutes. We have bonfire parties at the Sem (St. Peter’s Seminary) and also at Camp Olalando after Friday night football games. Cissy is never included in these outings. In fact, CCH boys in my sister’s senior class who ask me out, have no idea who Cissy is.
“My sister is in your math class,” I tell a boy from her class who is inviting me out that weekend.
“Don’t know her,” he says.
“She’s short, thin, has short hair, freckles?” I try again.
“Don’t know her,” he repeats.
Cissy is invisible and it makes her detest me for being seen.