I am living in Mississauga with three male room-mates. I borrow the beat-up, red Cadillac of one of my male room-mates and drive fifty-minutes from Toronto to Hamilton to meet with my best friend from childhood, Lina. She lives in Hamilton where she has studied nursing at McMaster University for four years. I find her flat on Herikmer Avenue without any difficulty, but it takes me some time to park the red boat that has ferried me there. Lina’s boyfriend, Chubba, is with her at her apartment and I meet him there upon climbing the steps of Lina’s three-story walkup. He looks exactly like Jay Leno. When I tell Lina where I parked the car, she tells me that we will need to move it to avoid getting a ticket.
“Call Kuner over,” Lina tells Chubba as she and I leave the flat to move the car. Lina and I laugh hysterically at the sight of us in the old, red jalopy as we circle the block several times looking for a more suitable parking spot. The car backfires and bounces intermittently.
“There!” she shouts and I stop in front of the vacant space she has spotted.
“Oh, God. I need to parallel park in there,” I wince. “In this boat!”
“You can do it, Griffin,” she winks at me. “Come on.” I successfully inch the rouge vessel into the seemingly miniscule space. “See? You can do anything,” she smiles and I realize how much I have missed her as my best friend.
Chubba did call over his best friend, Jack Kunst, who lives a block west of Lina. When she and I walk back into her flat, I see a striking young man with a deep, summer tan sitting on Lina’s sofa. He has thick, dark, wavy hair and big, beautiful green eyes. It is my future husband and my first impression of him is that he has the kindest eyes I have ever seen. We go for lunch as a group, and Jack tries to impress me as he regales us with teacher stories. It doesn’t excite me when he tells tales from his Grade seven classroom. His wrists hang loosely before him as he recounts the antics of twelve-year-old mischief makers that I neither find interesting or particularly funny though I laughed politely along with Lina and Chubba. Silently I wonder if perhaps the tall, fine-looking teacher with the gentle manner and the sparkling green eyes is not perhaps gay.
I daily met millionaires in my position as a corporate insurance representative in Toronto. Men who owned their own companies, airplanes and several houses. I have no confidence that I can make it alone financially and I hope for a husband who will support me financially so that I can retreat from the world. A teacher is the bottom of the achievement totem pole in my estimation. It is a boring job for uninteresting, weak people. After our lunch, I make ready to return to Toronto. When Jack holds the car door for me, I sweep my legs into the red Cadillac and I notice the mild-mannered educator look lustfully at my legs. I conclude that he is indeed straight. I feel certain that he will ask Lina for my number as I drove back to Toronto that night. Intuitively, I feel that Jack will play an important role in my life. It is that small voice whispering to my heart again, preparing me for a new chapter. I hope that he will not be my future husband, however, because I don’t want to be poor and struggle financially for the rest of my life.
I am not in contact with my family when I meet Jack, but I eventually call home to tell my mother that I am alright and living and working in Toronto. I want them to be proud of me, but their approval continues to be withheld from me. My mother is very gruff with me on the phone. She is not at all welcoming, gentle or warm.
“Are you coming tae this bloody wedding or wha’?” she demands.
“Wha’ wedding? Ye know wha’ bloody wedding! Yer sista’s!”
A sharp pang of sorrow cuts through me at the realization that Cissy is to be married in a few weeks’ time, and has not invited me to her wedding, but to my mother I state calmly, “I didn’t receive an invitation.”
“Ye didnee receive an invitation,” my mother mimicks my voice. “Don’t you act it, ma lady! No one knew where the bloody hell you were!” my mother shouts.
My mother is always shouting. It is her way of thumping people into submission who might otherwise challenge her. The fact that my family didn’t know where I was in the summer of 1988 becomes the excuse as to why I did not receive an invitation to Cissy’s wedding, but I know my disappearance is what Cissy has always hoped for. As my mother screams at me on the phone, I immediately regret calling home. I wish that I had not contacted them to tell them where I am and how I am doing.
Jack pesters Lina for my phone number and she calls me to ask if she might give it to him. My American corporate insurance employer has sent me to train in the Atlanta, Georgia head offices for three weeks that July, and that is where Lina tracks me down. “I do need a date to my sister’s wedding in August,” I tell her from my Atlanta hotel room before agreeing to Jack having my number.
I don’t know how I feel about Jack having my number. He is handsome but he is a bit goofy in my estimation, and I don’t feel excited at the thought of him. I really am not in a place to either love or be loved. I have so much healing to do but do not think of it in those terms at age twenty-three. I think I believe, as others do, that a love relationship can heal all wounds. Or perhaps I feel that getting on with life despite feeling wounded by it is what one must do. It is certainly what I have always done. I just get on with living.
Jack’s and my first official date is to Cissy’s wedding on August 12, 1988. As my wedding gift to Cissy, I arrange to have a Scottish piper at her wedding to pipe her and her groom into the hall before the reception. She doesn’t seat me at the family table with our grandmother, who is over from Scotland for the wedding, and our parents. Instead, she sits neighbours we have known since childhood at the family table though they are not our blood, and she sits me at the back of the hall with the people she and I worked with in McDonald’s as teens. These are people I have not seen in several years. I feel humiliated by this, especially in front of the stranger I have brought with me as my date to my sister’s wedding. No one in my family invites us to stay with them so Jack and I make a reservation at a local hotel. I don’t want to stay with my parents anyway. The family situation is still too ghastly and I choose not to deal with it anymore.
The wedding reception is held at the Gun and Hunting Lodge off of Southdale Road. There is no air conditioning in the small, wooden structure and we all melt on the dance floor. Jack and I dance together all night, and when we walk outside for some cool air Jack tells me that he has found in me that for which he has long searched.
“Since the moment I saw you I haven’t been able to think of anything else,” he tells me, and I think him desperate for wanting me.
My family repeatedly delivers the message to me that I am worthless both with words and with fists. My mother criticizes me and my sisters constantly, and as a result neither I nor my sisters ever feel that we are any sort of prize. When my mother asked my older sister why she was marrying her husband, a man my mother thought unattractive and uneducated, Cissy said, “Well, I’m no oil painting.”
My mother curses us with her sharp tongue throughout our lives and my father is silent, never professing love for any of us. Criticized and rejected, each of us learns to criticize ourselves without any compassion and condemn one another without mercy. Cissy curses me with her words too.
“Once a guy sees you for the bitch you are,” Cissy tells me repeatedly, “he’ll dump you.”
I dated a few men in the years before meeting my husband in 1988, but largely I kept to myself. I didn’t know how to open myself to love so I remained blockaded against any and all advances. Many men dogged me sexually and a few other men pursued me for a relationship, but I persisted in a solitary and sober capacity. I never let any man get close to me for fear he’d see how horrible I was and then leave me. I always left first; I was always running from relationships. In fact, the more a man liked me the faster I bolted out the door. I never allowed myself to be in a truly vulnerable position until Jack showed me his heart and earned my trust.
I sleep with Jack in our Quality Inn hotel room after Cissy’s wedding. I don’t want to have sex. I just do. Jack tells me that he loves me that night. He says it in sign language as he stands naked in the doorway of the washroom, and then reveals to me what it means. I really can’t stand how soft he is. He seems weak. I don’t like his skinny body. The following night he invites me to a wedding in Oakville and I agree to go with him. I am feeling hung-over the day after Cissy’s wedding and waiting for Jack to pick me up at my Mississauga condo, I fall asleep on the sofa. I feel that he won’t come since we had sex the night before, on our first date. I feel ashamed and wonder what I will tell Lina about all of it. I will have to explain why the man with whom she set me up never called me again. It is because he thinks me a slut, I’ll say.
The doorbell rings at the Mississauga condo, and I answer the door to see Jack grinning on my doorstep. He apologizes for his tardiness. He was stuck in traffic on the 401. We have fun at the Oakville wedding and Lina and Chubba, who are also at the wedding, come back to my Mississauga townhouse to crash afterwards rather than drive all the way back to Hamilton that night. When Jack follows me to my room, I see Lina’s eyes get big. I feel ashamed in that moment. I let Jack sleep with me too quickly, but I don’t always know how to say no to men sexually.
I am sent for the second part of corporate training in Atlanta, Georgia after Jack and I begin dating. I room with a girl named Emma-Lee. She is from Georgia, married to her high school sweetheart and has two young sons under age four. She goes home for the weekends to be with her family who live near Stone Mountain, Georgia so I have our hotel room to myself over the three weekends that we are obliged to stay there. Emma-Lee invites one of the male sales reps – a short, pasty, homely man with thinning hair and glasses – into our room one night, and he sees a picture of Jack and me next to my bed.
“You could do better,” he tells me and I wonder if he means him.
“Aw no. That there’s a pretty man, honey,” Emma-Lee drawls. “He looks like JFK, Jr.. He’s a pretty man. Just look at those long eyelashes.” Jack is pretty. There is no denying it. That male sales rep confides in us that he has just lost over a hundred pounds. “I wish I wasn’t so fat,” Emma-Lee says. “But when I say that to my husband he just tells me, ‘Honey. Maybe you wouldn’t be if you didn’t think about breakfast the minute your eyes opened in the morning.’”
I like Emma-Lee. We have a lot of laughs together. She is a shorter version of Roseanne Barr and she can say the most insulting things to the folk in our class with a slow, sweet southern drawl, and no one bats an eye. If anyone calls her on the things she says, she twangs, “Aw! Now I wouldn’t say that, honey. I’m a mama.” We joke about the mean things she says to the others. “You could never say the things I do, honey,” Emma-Lee tells me. “Lookin’ like you do, if you said the bitchy things I say, they’d all eat you alive, sugar.”
Emma-Lee and the male rep leave the room to attend a party down the hall in one of the other rooms, and I stay in to study for the test the next day. We are tested daily on the legal contracts used by the company. Legality is not my forte, and I have zero interest in insurance. I find that I need to study every night in ways the others seem not to. After I study for several hours, I decide to go for a run along the hotel grounds, which are beautiful. The night is still warm even at ten o’clock and I am blanketed by the thick-as-cotton air. I think about Jack as I jog amidst the fragrant and brilliantly hued orange and pink blossoms that decorate the hotel grounds. I wonder if I have met the one that God has intended for me in Jack. I don’t know. I feel so lost. Where Jack is concerned, I need to stop and catch my breath. I need time to reflect on our relationship and future before we get in much deeper, but Jack doesn’t want to give me time and space for fear it will lead me away from him. Jack is so sure of what he feels for me that he never allows me to discern what I feel for him. Our time together turns into a complete whirlwind. I don’t think to pray to God and ask Him for discernment. That is not the sort of relationship I have with God.
As I return from my jog, I find myself walking towards the rep from Chicago, who has become increasingly sexually aggressive towards me, with two other male sales reps from our class. As I try to pass them in the hotel corridor, the Chicago rep grabs me, throws me over his broad shoulders, and carries me to his room. “I’m tired of you teasing me, little girl,” he says. He throws me on his bed with such velocity that I bounce and hit the back of my skull against his headboard, then he climbs on top of me. I squirm beneath him, tell him to stop and he lets me go. I bolt from his room back to my own to peals of his sadistic laughter.
The men in the class tease me. They call me the Snow Queen because I won’t sleep with any of them. “Do you drive a white car? I bet you do. Does the company give you a purity discount?” the Chicago rep asks in front of the entire class.
I laugh at his remark because ironically I do drive a white car. I bought a white Mustang with a red stripe along its side when I was first hired by the company because it looked like the car Farrah Fawcett drove in her role on the 1970s series, Charlie’s Angels. When one of the female reps, who is sleeping with some of the men in our class, receives roses from her boyfriend in California, I lament that no one ever sends me flowers.
“Maybe someone would if you started putting out some!” the Chicago rep says.
When Emma-Lee goes home to see her family that weekend I am awakened at three in the morning by hammering on my hotel room door. The male rep whom Emma-Lee had welcomed into our room earlier in the week pounds on my door demanding to be admitted. He sounds intoxicated. He has likely been out with the guys from the course and has stopped before my room door knowing Emma-Lee has left to go home to her family for the weekend. I wake to him screaming outside my door, ordering me to open up. I become so terrified that I crawl from my bed and cower in the corner of the room with the telephone, poised to call the front desk if he somehow manages to get into my room. I think of calling Jack in Canada, but what can he do? I sit trembling, and listen to the drunk colleague as he continues to pound on the door. Finally, he goes away, and I slip back into my bed, shaking.
The head of the company, a small, white-haired southern gentleman, takes a shine to me and tells me in his genial intonation how happy he is to have me on board in Canada. “If there is anything you ever need, you come directly to me,” he tells me. When I approach him about the sexually aggressive behavior of the male reps, he isn’t happy. In retrospect he was likely seeking to sleep with me himself when he made such an open-ended offer of help. When I speak against the drinking and philandering of the sales reps, the southern big wig tells my Toronto boss that he has a disgruntled employee in his office and suggests that he keep me in line. I am reprimanded for telling the truth of the lascivious behavior of my male counterparts. I am also punished. My desk chair is taken away so I have no place to sit in the office. The message is that I am to stay out and not come back to the office where I am now unwelcome.