In Ottawa I find a room in a newly renovated duplex on Charlotte Avenue, which I share with four other people. It is owned by a brother and sister. The brother, Keith, occupies the attic room above us. A girl from Prince Edward Island, Hannah, lives down the hall from me. She occupies the master suite complete with balcony and sunroom. A black boy from Toronto lives at the other end of the hall in a small room similar to mine. Keith’s sister, Lydia, lives on the other side of the duplex with several more tenants. Lydia is studying to be a lawyer, and dates an older gentleman who is short, bald, hilarious, kind and very wealthy. The house is situated across the park from Sé’s place. I shouldn’t take a place so near his but this is the only area in Ottawa with which I am familiar, and I am also hopeful that he and I will run into one another and eventually, he will see what he is missing, and come back to me. I do not yet know the best thing a girl can do when a man treats her as I am treated by Sé is to get on with her own life. One cannot dip into the same river twice. It is best to never look back in life.
My parents drive to Ottawa to make sure I am settled. My mother asks me to book them a hotel room, but I am not able to do that without a credit card. No one will rent me a room. One Middle Eastern man who manages a derelict motel off of Bank Street, just around the corner from my rented accommodation, looks at me like I am a prostitute looking for an hourly rate. I finally manage to get my parents a room in a B&B off of Embassy Row – the area in the city where foreign attachments are located. My parents arrive very late and are unable to access their room at the B&B. They rent a room in the rundown motel off of Bank Street.
The following morning my mother tells me to meet her at the B&B, which I do. She is very angry that I failed to secure them a hotel room, and I know that she is going to scream and shout at me and the B&B proprietress, and my mother does not disappoint. She carries on in front of the proprietress like a lunatic. She tells the woman that her home is a dump. I feel embarrassed and hurt for the lady who owns the house. She had been so kind and helpful to me, the only person willing to rent a room to a young girl for her parents. Of course, she does not charge my mother for the room since they are unable to get in late at night and in view of my mother’s obvious disappointment over the three-star accommodations. I show my parents my room on Charlotte Street and they turn their noses up at it as well. Nothing is ever good enough and all they think about is what my living away from them may potentially cost them financially, especially my mother. We have breakfast together in the Market. When it is time to say good-bye, my dad holds me tight to him, and refuses to let me go. He is crying, and I am too.
“Okay. Okay. Come on guys,” my mother says. “Joe. Joe. Let her go. Come on now! You’re making a fool of yourself.”
My dad and I both hold onto one another and cry. He has always told me that I am not allowed to move out until I get married, and I have always balked at that notion. Even in high school, I was determined to have my own place and be free. When I was angry and threatened to move out and get my own apartment, he’d say the same thing.
“Aye. When yer married! You’ll move oot then. No before!” he’d shout.
It is hard for my dad to leave me in Ottawa, seven hundred kilometers north of London. The love he demonstrates for me this day should be what I hold onto then. I am lost and in need of someone to reach out and hold onto me. I know that I should turn my back on men like Sé and hold tight to the love my father wants to give to me. But it isn’t possible for me to do that. My mother isn’t comfortable with the love my father has for me nor the love I hold for my father, and she interferes in our relationship. She comes between us time and time again.
Sé and his cousin, Tish, have a party for the big Panda football weekend, a game between the University of Ottawa and Carleton University, and Tish invites me to come. Another friend of Tish’s is there too, Dana, who has told me that she has a huge crush on Sé.
“He looks like Tom Cruise,” she gushes.
At the party, Tish asks me to go with her and Dana to the football game the following day, and I agree that I will. When I meet Tish at her flat the next day, I see Dana’s outfit from the previous night’s party strewn on Sé’s bedroom floor. His bedroom door is ajar and from where I sit in the living room, I see white panties lying next to Sé’s bed. It is the bed that he had shared with me only a few weeks earlier. Sé and Dana sit holding hands across from me in the living-room. I can’t breathe but keep still, silent. I make it through the Panda football game but tears well in my eyes behind my sunglasses and constrict my throat. I break all contact with Sé and anyone I’d met through him after that, and I start to slip back into a fog of depression.
I walk into the Carleton campus rape crisis center many times while I am in Ottawa, but each time I do I take pamphlets and leave again without speaking to a soul. I become close to my housemate, Hannah. She is a Nordic blonde who attends the University of Ottawa, speaks French fluently, and comes from old Maritime money. She has a posh voice, pronouncing vowel sounds with a toff British air. Her father committed suicide when she was little. He hung himself using her jolly-jumper. As a result, she receives an orphan’s allowance from the government, which pays for her superior accommodations on Charlotte Avenue. She occupies the big room with the enclosed sun porch. I drag Hannah to a few football games, and she sits on the sidelines reading while I try to engage her in a sport in which she has zero interest. With time she confides that she too had been raped when she was eighteen. In fact, of the five women who live in our house on both sides of the duplex three of us have been raped before age eighteen: me, Hannah, and Keith’s law-student sister, Lydia. Hannah gained a lot of weight after her sexual assault, she tells me, but she lost it again and had then struggled with bulimia. She teaches fitness classes off Bank Street while we live together on Charlotte Avenue. She rides her bike to the studio even in snowstorms, teaches two classes back-to-back, and then on her way home she stops into the Duncan Donuts at the corner of Bank and Cobourg and buys a dozen chocolate glazed donuts, which she refuses to share with anyone in the house. Hannah and I go to a club together, and Sé is there, seated at the bar. I point him out to my house-mate.
“Your friend is fat, Angela,” Hannah puffs in her faux British intonation.
I look at Sé through her eyes in that moment, and see him the way he is, not as he was in high school. He is short at five-foot-ten, he is getting fat – his love handles hang over his trousers – and he is losing his hair though he is but twenty-one. Suddenly I see that he is nothing to cry over.
I confide in Hannah that a boy who lives down the hall from Sé tried to have sex with me when I was sleeping at his flat one night. It was when I had first taken the room on Charlotte Avenue, but before they had cut keys for us Keith and Lydia had us use a combination lock box that hung on the front door. I had been on a booze cruise with Sé’s neighbor and three of his friends earlier in the evening. When I got home, I was quite drunk and I was unable to work the combination lock box in which there was a key to unlock the front door. After several attempts, I began to panic. My heart was pounding in my chest and I was perspiring as I looked all around me, afraid I’d be assaulted by someone emerging from the park. I pounded on the front door of the Charlotte Avenue house, but no one came to open it to me. I tore back across the park to Doug’s place, and he said I could crash in the bedroom.
“I’ll take the sofa,” he said.
Other people were also staying the night at Doug’s, and I saw them sleeping in the living-room from the front doorway. As I began to drift off to sleep, I felt Doug on top of me. He was a big six-foot-four guy and played football at Carleton. As I pushed him off of me, there was a slight struggle, but he let me go and I ran out of the apartment in terror. I sprinted back to my place on Charlotte Avenue, and was able to open the lock box on the first try.
Over Thanksgiving weekend, Hannah and I plaster the hallway that separates Doug’s flat from Sé’s with pamphlets we had gathered from our campus rape crisis centers. We don’t leave one inch of white space on the walls. After Thanksgiving, I run into Sé and he tells me that he laughed hysterically when he saw the hallway, especially after his neighbour told him that he felt certain that I had done it. I wonder if Doug told Sé that he had tried to have sex with me against my wishes one night. It is doubtful that he did, but perhaps Sé has guessed that’s what happened between Doug and I. Doug is furious with my handiwork and after the prank he makes my life hell at Carleton where we are both students.
While I am at Carleton, the school quarterback begins to talk to me on campus but then he starts dating a far more beautiful girl. I feel humiliated and rejected. I am not good enough. I continue to be harassed by Sé’s neighbor and some of the boys on the football team for having liked their team-mate. Again and again I see that young men try to make women feel insecure so that they then can profit sexually from her vulnerability.
My mother calls me constantly and screams at me about money, and I cannot withstand another assault, even at that great physical distance. Very quickly, I feel that I am beginning to remove myself from life again. I withdraw from Carleton University and move out of my room on Charlotte Avenue, away from Sé but too away from my housemates who have been wonderful friends to me. I take a one-bedroom flat near the Parliament Buildings, and work three jobs to pay for it. Despite the fact that I have three jobs, I feel that I am unable to function normally. I am slipping into what can only be characterized as depression though I have no concept of what is wrong with me. I dread the day when I have to go back to Western University in London, but I also know I cannot remain at a standstill in Ottawa. Somehow I have to get a hold of myself and push forward.
I had stopped going to Mass earlier in the year but suddenly, when I need something to hold onto, I find myself making my way back to church. It anchors me. I am a speck on the abyss of the ocean, and I need a power greater than myself to give me a secure mooring.
At the end of the year, I call my parents to come and get me and they do. My mother thunders and storms that they had to drive ten hours north to retrieve me. My dad remains silent. Quietly, he paints my flat with me, which I had agreed to do in order to break my lease. My mother screams, shouts and shakes her fat fists at me throughout the entire weekend as we pack up my things, and make ready to head back to London, Ontario. As we drive home, I block out the sound of my mother’s retributions with music from my Walkman. My tears slip down my face behind my sunglasses. I am lost. I need tenderness to hold me steadfast.