I don’t know why my sisters treat me in such a cold, calculating and cruel manner. I was not perfect growing up, but neither were my sisters. We all hurt one another as I expect all families do. One invariably wounds the people with whom one lives. It is part of being human. An integral part of being in communion with the divine, as we were raised to be, is forgiveness. It is essential to forgive the humanity of one another and move forward with the love, mercy and grace of Christ. None of us know how to do that. I am the only one who tries to do it in my family, but I am alone in that endeavor.
I hit Lil growing up, as I had been hit. I carried a lot of anger and hurt within me from being hit as a child. I had been taught that hitting was the way one handled one’s anger and rage. Hitting was the way conflicts were handled in our home though striking another never truly resolves conflict. Cissy and I had knocked hell out of one another often as teens as Cissy screamed in my face that she hated me and had hated me since the moment that I had come into the world. It was the sort of house in which we were raised. One picked up one’s broadsword and fought or perished in weakness. I had apologized many times to Lil for hitting her. I felt great guilt over the ways in which I had abused Lil. I abused her as I had been abused living in that home.
No one in my family ever apologizes to me for the ways in which I was hurt in our home. My mother prefers it that my sisters blame me for our dysfunctional home because then she is not blamed for her fractured family. I know that it is my mother’s tendency to rage that has created all of the pain and separation within our childhood home. I am merely the family scapegoat. Though I understand that, it still hurts to be treated in that way by my own blood.
As a university student, I find it impossible to live in that childhood home. After I return from Ottawa, I complete my final year at Western and work part-time at a men’s clothing store on Richmond Row. I start to date a man by the name of Kinger during that time. Kinger is friends with my boss at Crossings. He is not educated or Catholic but I go out with him for something to do. His house becomes a place for me to go and be away from my parents’ house in the same way Sé’s home was my escape in high school.
I leave home in March of 1987. It is a Saturday. I drive the family Ford Escort to my part-time job at Crossings Men’s Wear on Richmond Street in downtown London, Ontario. Lil comes to my work to take the car and she and I have words over it. She calls me a fucking bitch in front of her friends and drives off leaving me to take the bus home, which I do. When I walk in the door exhausted from an eight hour shift, my father lays into me with his hard, open palms and I fly back against the dining-room wall. He smacks me about the face and head as I try to protect myself with my slender arms and he repeatedly shouts, “Using that kind of language! Who dae ye think ye are? Bloody disgrace!” It becomes clear to me that my Lil rushed home to tell my parents that I called her a fucking bitch to prevent me from tattling on her, but I wouldn’t have said anything. I was never a squealer.
After several more thumps to my head and face, I spin round, and my hips bang into the kitchen countertop. My back is to my father, and I spy a jar of lemon spread on the kitchen counter top between an Italian loaf and a large bread knife. I stand next to the chipped, Formica counter looking at the lemon curd, which slathered on generous loaf was a favourite Saturday night snack of my father. He likes to eat lemon bread and drink beer while he watches Hockey Night in Canada in the basement family room. This was his weekly ritual after we got home from Mass on a Saturday night. The pungent citrus scent of the lemon spread assaults my senses as it competes with the putrid odour of blood thickening inside my battered nostrils. The taste of blood in my mouth mingles with the tang of lemon on my tongue as the lemon bouquet makes me recall its yellow, bittersweet taste. I think of plunging the accompanying blade into my father’s back, but I don’t lift it. Instead I turn and attack my father’s broad shoulders with my clenched fists screaming, “You fucking bastard!”
He turns to face me and flattens me with one thump to my face. I lie on the kitchen floor at the feet of my mother and Lil, who stands in silent observance as my father continues to beat me into submission. The look on Lil’s face suggests that she is horrified at the scene her lie has created, but not enough to tell the truth. She’s never seen me beaten like this before but it isn’t an unusual occurrence. My father hits me regularly once I become a teenager and it continues well into adulthood. My mother, who has a violent temper that she is unable to control, no longer strikes me as she did when I was a child. Once I grow taller than my mother I retaliate against her physically when she tries to strike me. She grows afraid of me and conscripts my father to beat me into submission instead. I refuse to be broken by my father’s fists just as I refused to be broken by my mother’s.
I run from the house as soon as I am able to escape. As I wait for the city bus to return me to downtown, I watch the streets for my parents’ beige Ford focus, fearful that they will force me to return home. My tear-filled eyes dart anxiously back and forth between the bus route on Adelaide Street and the crossroad, Osgoode Drive, which leads to my home on Cant Crescent. The 13A Wellington Road bus finally arrives and I slump into a seat near the rear of the bus and weep from exhaustion and in utter distress. I disembark on Richmond Street and walk to Crossings, sobbing the entire time. I have the shop keys since it was I who had locked up for the night. With the shop keys, I admit myself and shut off the store alarm. With shaking hands, I lift the store phone and call Kinger, the man I am seeing. He has been transferred to Toronto, and I call him there to tell him what has happened.
“Call Pup,” he tells me.
Pup is Kinger’s former roommate. Kinger’s room is available for me to sleep in and Kinger suggests that I move in with Pup until I can graduate in a few weeks’ time. I telephone Pup and he tells me to come ahead. I tell him that I need to go home to collect my things but will move in the following morning. I return home fearful I will be beaten again the moment I walk in the front door but am relieved to find that all are asleep by the time I get in. I go to bed that night and cry myself to sleep, which is a regular occurrence. I don’t know how I can move out and graduate from university, but I know I have to leave that house and the following morning I do. I have a knot of fear in my chest as I make repeated trips up and down the basement stairs to retrieve my books and clothes from my basement bedroom. My mother is at work, Lil is at school and Cissy has already moved out of the house, but my father lies in his bed and most certainly hears me loading up the car with all of my belongings. I dread another confrontation and another beating, but my dad, if he hears me moving my things from the house, ignores the sounds of my departure. He wants me to go. The last thing I do before I leave the house is put thirty dollars on the kitchen table that I had earlier borrowed from my mother. I want to owe her nothing.
I return the family car as soon as I unpack and take the bus back to Pup’s. I have to get a waitressing job to pay rent, and claiming to be an experienced server, I lie my way into positions at the Ridout Tavern downtown and another at Kiplings in the south end. I work until three in the morning seven days a week and soon find that I no longer have any time for school. My mother tries to get me to come home but I ignore her calls and letters, which are full of recriminations as she maintains that I am the problem in her otherwise perfect family. As I continue to ignore my mother, her anger escalates and she calls Pup’s house and screams terrifying and humiliating messages into his answering machine.
“You bloody-well get yer arse hame, ma lady! Who the bloody hell dae ye think ye are? I’ll bloody well gae tae the university and get ye flung oot! I’ll call the polis.”
“Ange,” Pup asks me. “Am I going to come home to find my car in flames in the laneway one night?”
Pup and I get on well. We laugh together and I feel safe there with him. With time, he confesses that he has feelings for me, but I don’t feel anything for him beyond friendship. At five-foot-three or –four, Pup is a short man, and I never find myself attracted to short men. He continually hints that Kinger has someone new in Toronto as though to make me vulnerable but my focus is on my new waitressing positions, paying my rent and finishing school so I can leave London forever. Kinger is already gone for me. Pup owns a big Rottweiler named Mace and I take the big, black and tan dog running with me at night. Mace is as gentle as a lamb unless anyone approaches me at which time Mace launches into action defending me in a way I have never been protected before by man nor beast. As I jog, Mace runs apart from me exploring surrounding bushes, but as soon as he senses anyone near me his black shadow suddenly appears before me and he warns away any encroaching passersby with a discernible growl. At home he is a different dog. He lies on top of me as if he is a newborn lapdog, and I can barely breathe beneath his sizable mass. Mace’s protective nature comforts me as much as the street light that shines into my bedroom window soothes me at night. The outside world offers me a nightlight by which to doze off.
Pup eventually becomes more forthright in informing me that Kinger is indeed seeing someone new in Toronto. She is his new boss’s sister and she is divorced and has a child. It stings, but only marginally and not for long. Kinger and I have only been dating a short time and we have never had sex. I never get serious about boys who are not Catholic. My faith is important to me though I question my religion and often challenge religious authorities. I also detest going to Mass every Sunday. Still my relationship with God is what sustains me in my life. I always turn to God for strength, comfort and guidance. I talk to God throughout my life. Even as a child, I poured out my heart to God. At night, I’d walk into the backyard of my childhood home, look up at the stars, usually with tears streaming down my face, and talk to a God I knew loved me. I am grateful that Kinger helps me when I have nowhere else to turn, but apart from that I am relieved to not be in a serious relationship with him or any man because I don’t know how to be emotionally intimate with a man. I am expressively numb, operating in survival mode after that last beating, which leaves me void of any thoughts of love or romance. Sex isn’t even on the menu. I complete my final months of university in a blur of fatigue caused by late nights’ cocktailing in bars. I miss a considerable number of lectures (all of them) as I sleep in mornings to recover from working three o’clock pub closings. As a result, I often don’t know what is happening at school as finals loom large on the horizon.
Pup asks that I never go into the unfinished basement but as my time at Western draws to a close I start to pack up my things and find myself in need of empty boxes. Pup is at work and I go into the bowels of his house in search of boxes. I switch on a light. I notice countless mounds of dry muck on the concrete floor and gag as I realized that I am surrounded by Mace’s desiccated feces. I am the one who takes Mace out for a run when I am home. Pup never walks the dog, but apparently prefers that Mace defecate in the basement. I hear someone call my name and realize it is Kinger. He comes down the basement steps to find me standing in the midst of Mace’s shit. I am wearing an ankle-length, floaty skirt, a white cotton shaker knit sweater and white KED sneakers, and he and I both look at the dog dirt and then at each other.
“I just came to say good-bye,” he says.
“Okay. Almost done.”
“Good. Good for you,” he says. “Come upstairs so I can say good-bye to you.” I follow him upstairs and he slides his arms around me and sweetly kisses my lips. “You okay?” he bends his 6’4” frame forward and looks into my eyes. I avert his gaze, looking down at our toes, which are touching through the tips of our soles. He pulls me into his chest and touches his forehead to mine.
“I’m fine,” I say. “Thanks for giving me a place to stay.”
“It was the least I could do,” he says. “I should have done more.”
“You couldn’t be here. Pup was here,” I say. “I had Pup.”
“You moving to Toronto?”
“Yeah. I want out of London.”
Kinger nods and kisses me once more. “You take care,” he says.
“I’ll be fine,” I say. “Don’t worry about me.”
“I don’t worry about you. You’re beautiful, strong, smart and sweet. I know you’ll be more than fine.” Then he lets me go.
I work later that night at The Ridout and the hostess puts forty-eight Frenchmen in my section. Two other waitresses are assigned to assist me with the Parisians who arrive on a tour bus on their way to the Toronto airport short on time and long on attitude. The three of us hustle to serve them in an expedited manner. One of the Frenchmen grabs my ass as I place his drink before him, then again when I serve his dinner. He brushes my breasts with his hand when I clear for him. I don’t say anything when he touches me repeatedly and makes lewd comments about me in French, which I understand, to his friends who laugh riotously at his sexual muggings. I just want to get through the shift and go home to bed. After they leave I find the man-purse of the grabby francophone nestled next to his chair. I hide the satchel in the soiled linens that I fastidiously strip from the table, and walk to the laundry with my takings concealed in the tablecloths and napkins bundled in my arms. Dumping the dirty washing into a laundry hamper, I stuff the bag down the front of my skirt and go to the ladies’ change-room to search its contents. Inside the protection of a washroom stall, I open the bag to find two hundred dollars Canadian tucked into one of the leather compartments. There is no passport inside but there is a Parisian drivers’ license. He looks even more like a dick in his government issued identification than he appears in person. I know that it is wrong to steal but if I take the money I can quit The Ridout that night and I’d never have to be molested by another of its patrons ever again. I stuff the money in my bra and conceal the leather satchel inside the front of my skirt again, tying a spotless apron I take from the fresh linen around my waist to hide the bulge at my abdomen. I return to the floor.
A couple of hours later, the tavern phone rings just as I am vacuuming the lounge. The bartender motions to me to stop and I switch off the power of the vacuum.
“Did anyone find a bag after the Frenchies left?” she shouts across the floor now empty of patrons as she presses the telephone receiver to her ample bosom.
We servers shake our heads ‘no’, and she promptly tells the individual on the other end of the phone that the bag has not been found. My heart pounds in my chest as I complete my closing duties and clock out for the last time. I walk home through Fork of the Thames Park at three in the morning, and once I feel that I am concealed by several trees, I fill the appropriated sack with heavy rocks and sink it in the water. As I scurry from the deserted park, I tell myself if the chap hadn’t sexually assaulted me as he had I wouldn’t have kept his money. Still, I know that it is wrong for me to take it. That internal voice, which I characterize as my Catholic conscience, tells me I am doing wrong. If it was the right thing to do I’d have felt better about my actions.
I am in my final week of school, and having written three exams the previous week, I have two more finals to sit. I mix up my final two exam dates. I stand outside the examination room cramming last minute details of Italian History into my foggy brain, and I notice that the students arriving to the exam are not those from my Italian history class but are rather my peers from the Russian history course. Immediately, I go to my Russian history professor and explain my mix-up.
“If you were here more regularly, then you’d know what exam you had on what day,” he says, as he continues to set out the exam papers.
With tear-filled eyes and a lump in my throat, I sit at a desk and write the best exam that I can before going home to study more for my Italian exam, which I am to set the following morning. Upon handing in that test the next day, I take the city bus to Sears in Maisonville where I rent a U-Haul van with my Sears credit card (the only credit card I possess as a student), drive it back to Pup’s, load it up with what little I own, write Pup a good-bye note, and drive to Toronto to start over.