What if it had been you, that day at the pool with Drew and Theo, and you’d bumped into Jen Hamilton and Tessa Brown? What if you’d never met Jen and Tessa before that day because they went to Cornwallis but you’d heard about Jen letting Eric Bruhm finger her under the blanket at Drew’s house last Halloween while everyone was watching Scream 2? What if Drew hugged her by the waterslide and then introduced you and you were showing off your backflips for a while before Tessa and Jen started giggling and pointing at your crotch. What if the words “baby carrot” were used? What if Jen’s voice had that weird pool echo and you suspected that everyone—the lifeguards and the little girls wearing water wings and the Aquafit ladies with their swimming caps—were now peering at your peen? What if you were already self-conscious enough, being thirteen and not growing fast enough and having seen the other guys in the dressing room at the hockey rink? What if you regularly measured yourself with a ruler? What if part of you deeply hated Jen but she looked so Neve Campbell from Wild Things that a larger part wanted her to laugh at your jokes and pat you on the chest the way she laughed-and-patted Drew after they hugged by the waterslide? What if you tried to adjust your trunks but you could see it was obvious and useless and you cursed your mother for buying this white-and-blue striped bathing suit and you could feel your cheeks going thermo-nuclear? What if you couldn’t leave because Theo’s mom was picking you up at five and you had no money or bus tickets and you didn’t know the route home from Clayton Park anyway? Wouldn’t you climb to the top of the five metre, thinking you’d do something mega-rad? Wouldn’t you look down to make sure Jen and Tessa were watching and then half-run to the end of the platform, thinking swan dive, then thinking cannonball, then deciding on jackknife when it was already too late? What if you weren’t totally sure what happened but you thought you slipped a bit and then you were in free fall, totally crooked, arms churning air-butter? What if your side-shin hit first and then your ribs connected and all you could think of was those science class videos of sperm whales smacking their tales against the water? What if you stayed under, as long as possible, just feeling that gigantic pain, worshipping it? What if when you came up you felt surprisingly not-that-bad and Jen and Tessa and the guys were all standing around laughing but this time they were laughing in a less mean way and when you hauled yourself onto the deck you stretched your arms toward the slanted pool roof, exposing a streak of purple-red water rash down your whole right side and everyone started to cheer? What if Theo told you that was the gnarliest bellyflop of all time and Tessa chuckled and said, “Hilarious,” and you decided right then that although her looks were subtler she was actually prettier than Jen?
This was how Gavin learned to cope. At some point in Grade Seven, he realized he was never going to be the tallest or the handsomest or the most athletic kid. But the pool incident of the following December helped him to figure out that he could still be cool, still be liked.
How? Antics. What antics? Kid stuff. Funny stuff. Like enormous bellyflops. Like pushing over mailboxes. Like egging teachers’ houses. Like writing “Tessa is Magnificent” in huge letters on the gazebo at Ardmore Park. Like dropping an entire case of stink bombs through the window Mr. Aucoin the chain-smoking vice-principal left cracked in his Pontiac. Like dry-humping mannequins in full public view at Sears. Like vandalizing the “Deaf Child” sign at the end of Theo’s street so it read “Shush: Deaf Child.” Like mooning Theo’s loserish former best friend Ted Clarke as he walked by Theo’s window on the way home from his Warhammer league.
Gavin knew it was cheap and fragile. He knew he was a clown. But what else could he do? The world was rapidly splitting into those who laughed and those who were laughed at. He had to pick a side.
“Stand back!” Gavin shouted. “Big one. We’re talking atomic.”
He was on the couch at Theo’s house, legs pitched in the air, lighter in hand. Theo’s parents were split up and his mother, Nancy, was a navy engineer who spent her summer vacation reading thrillers in the backyard. Nancy wasn’t around much on school days, so they Theo’s place every day during lunch and after school.
Gavin sparked the flame and Drew and Theo jumped back, a gaseous blue stripe peeling through the room. Fart sound turned into butane hiss and the boys went manic, shouting and snorting, their eyes welling up. Gavin rolled off the couch, plopping onto the floor and cackling as he clutched his butt. “I think I scorched my ass pubes!”
Howling, Gavin headed to the upstairs bathroom. Checking himself in the mirror, he found that he was all right down there. A bit red, maybe, but otherwise okay. On his way back downstairs, he passed Nancy’s room.
What compelled him that day to look in? Clownish as he was, there were certain lines he wouldn’t generally cross. Such as entering the bedroom of your friend’s single mother, the one who is pretty with frazzled black hair and who compliments your sense of humour and encourages your songwriting even though Theo isn’t supposed to show your lyrics to anyone. Such as glancing around the strange-smelling female space and honing in on the top dresser drawer, thinking whatever Nancy had in there might give you some code of entry into Tessa’s heart. Such as opening that drawer and seeing a blue, tubular device and not knowing what it is at first and then thinking No, it can’t be. Such as grabbing that device and racing downstairs and charging into the TV room waving it overhead.
“Dude,” Drew said, squinting. “What the shit is that?”
Theo’s face went parental. “What the hell, man?”
“I got it from Nancy’s bedroom.” Gavin held it up to his nose and sniffed hard. Then he pushed a button, made something whiz. “I call it Blue Velvet.”
Drew laughed. “No way! Sick!”
“Gavin,” Theo droned. “Put. That. Back.”
Gavin spun, tube flailing in the air, its robotic head gyrating.
“Put it back or I will hurt you.”
Gavin danced over to Theo and shoved the whirring machine into his face. Theo sprung up, but Gavin was already out of the room, feet thumping hardwood. A few grunts and thuds and he was out the front door, Theo close behind him.
The two boys raced down the street, sock feet slopping March slush. Gavin held the blue tube over his head, laughing and shouting, “Blue Velvet! Blue Velvet!”
They peeled around a few corners, deked a crew of Grade Sevens, and wheeled across Summit. A car slammed on the brakes and Gavin, entering Jackie Chan mode, leapt and slid over the hood, wagging his blue wand at the driver. With Theo’s breath hot in his ear, Gavin got low and burst for the next corner.
Up ahead was the busy intersection across from the school. A string of cars was turning left and neither walk sign was on and just as Gavin was deciding what to do he felt hands on his shoulders, weight on his back. A lurch, and he was tumbling.
He landed palms-down in the snowbank, watching the blue tube arc through the air. Theo’s fists were thumping, searing into ribs and kidneys. The vibrator hit the pavement, cracked a little, and rolled under the tire of a minivan.
The light changed, and the van rolled forward.
Whenever the phone rang, Gavin went half-psycho. He started coming home from school early, just so he could check the messages. Six weeks later, Nancy still hadn’t called. Gavin’s parents had no idea about the Blue Velvet incident. Part of Gavin wanted to write Nancy an apology letter. He craved some sort of penance, yearned to drain his guilt with words. But he was so used to the simple rhythm of either getting away with things or getting caught that he knew he couldn’t atone on his own. He thought that discipline only came from the outside.
Every dream was a terror. One, in particular, kept recurring. He was in the principal’s office, getting grilled by Mr. Aucoin. “What’s this I hear about you parading around with a sex toy? I understand you’re at an experimental age, but … ” The dream always ended with Nancy showing up, bringing the smell of rain into the office with her. Mr. Aucoin would tell Gavin to apologize and he would try to say sorry but Nancy would always get a call on her cell phone and leave the room before he could get the words out. Then he’d be teetering on the edge of the five metre, trunks see-through, Aquafit ladies giggling, pool echo getting louder and louder. He’d look down and start to lose his footing. This time there was no water below. Reaching behind him, he would try to grab the platform but there was nothing there. Nothing but bleachy blue tiles rising toward him and the echoing laughter in his ears, almost deafening now.
Theo cooled off after a couple of weeks. Neither he nor Gavin could afford to stop hanging out with Drew, so they put up with each other. Before long they were back to their usual routine of weed-smoking and mailbox-dumping and pretending they weren’t always pining about the same two or three girls. Months passed. Summer vacation started. Without really noticing, Gavin had a growth spurt. One of his mother’s prettier friends said, “You look so teenagerish.” Drew told him he should probably start shaving unless he wanted a skiv-stash. The summer swelled and flexed. Gavin’s social group multiplied, probably because he knew some girls who knew some older boys who knew how to get liquor. Nancy still hadn’t called.
Gavin found Theo and Drew at Ardmore, taking turns with a king-sized Sharpie. The marker oozed chemical gum as Theo scrawled his stupid tag, “Hellzbellz.” The second zed curled down and sideways, stretching into a pitchfork.
Drew pumped Gavin’s fist. “What’s the word, Big Turd?”
“What’s on, Small Dong?” Gavin reached into his backpack and pulled out a Gatorade bottle, two-thirds full of murky brown liquid.
“Whiskey, rum, vodka. Splash of schnapps. I call it Hybrid Vigour.”
Gavin took a long gulp. Gasping, he clutched his stomach, made a puke face, panted: “Effing delicious.”
Drew laughed, reaching for the bottle.
Soon their bellies were warm and toxic as they walked down to Westmount, chasing rumours of a field party. The August sun was setting on the far side of the field. Jen and Tessa were there, with six or seven of their Cornwallis friends. There were also a few older kids from QEH. Brian Adamo handed a tall can to Gavin. Tessa was smoking a cigarette and he tried not to stare at her lips.
Soon Theo and the biggest Cornwallis dude were arm wrestling and Drew was staggering around, shouting, “Hybrid Vigour!” Gavin was on his second beer and he’d had some drags of Tessa’s cigarette and was starting to teeter on the far end of a buzz. He was trying to get closer to Tessa, but Brian kept holding his shoulder and talking man-to-man.
When Brian loudly mentioned the electrical tower by the mall, Tessa leaned in, eyes sparkling. Brian said last year he was an arm’s length from the top when the cops showed up and started pouring everyone’s beer out. The cops were so stupid they just herded the kids out of there without ever looking up at the tower. When they were all gone, Brian climbed quietly down, a full bottle of citrus-flavoured vodka safe in his backpack.
“That’s so cool,” Tessa said. “We should do that tonight.”
Brian shrugged. “I’m not getting stuck up there again.”
“Whatever,” Tessa said, looking around. Gavin caught her eye. She beamed. “Gavin’ll climb it.”
Gavin laughed and shrugged and Brian slapped his back and soon they were all crowded around the electrical tower, everyone shouting Gavin’s name. Drew yelled, “Hybrid Vigour!” and Brian handed Gavin the tall can again. He took a long drink and gave the beer to Tessa. She kissed him on the cheek and said, “Good luck.” Gavin beamed. And then he started to climb.
At first it was nothing special: just climbing a ladder. The voices below got quieter and he wondered if the crowd was losing interest, but when he looked down he could see everyone huddled by the ladder, necks cranked backward as they watched him. Tessa held the tall can up and wagged it at him like a trophy. He kept climbing.
Gavin could see cars pulling out of the West End Mall and the hill rising up from the Rotary, houses and street lamps glowing. In the middle of it all was the Northwest Arm, cutting into the city, lights glittering off the wavering blackness of the inlet. Looking up, he saw that he was fifteen or twenty rungs from the top. He got eager, charged higher. Then he felt something strange. The air crackled and closed in around him. His arm hairs pricked. There was a chatter in his teeth, a buzz in his ears. He imagined himself standing on top of a huge blue whirring mountain.
Looking down, he saw Theo, Drew, and Tessa. They were all waving their arms frantically. They were so far away.
What if it was you, now, alone in the middle of the stark night sky, clinging to those shuddering rungs, hot terror searing like cobra venom? What if a dry panic clutched your throat and your bones went jittery and you both knew and didn’t know what was going on? What if you heard that same pool echo from that day on the five metre but this time you knew it was just your own warbling ears? What if underneath the warble people were screaming and you were sure you recognized Tessa’s Sarah Michelle Gellar-like voice trilling in the unthinkable distance? What if it was you, then, who looked out over the clouds and the stars, and it was you who were in space and under water at the same time? What if there was a smell like burning hair and you saw the Aquafit ladies flying through the night sky, riding huge blue lightsabers and jabbing vibrating wands in your direction, and you couldn’t tell if they were trying to save you or hurl you into an angry electric abyss? What if the charge was still building and all your muscles were twitching and the ladder was starting to char and every nerve and muscle was urging you to flee? What if the sky, then, turned unspeakably clear and lovely and the Aquafit angels were beckoning and a soft breeze soothed the burn and you were sure, for a moment, you could ride the wind? Wouldn’t you dive toward the Northwest Arm, shooting for the glittering black pool? Wouldn’t you think that maybe the cool water could save you, that once you landed safely Tessa would run down to the water, tearing off her clothes, and jump in beside you? Wouldn’t you be astonished as you found yourself soaring not toward the Northwest Arm but straight for a leafy elm that made you think of Nancy reading in her shady backyard? Wouldn’t you go full reverential when as some small branches broke your fall you heard a voice lilting from the core of the tree, sounding just like Nancy, pleading for you to come closer? What would you do if when you landed between two large but merciful branches you heard that same silky voice saying you could forget all about Blue Velvet and the apology letter you never wrote? What if, as you lay there, wheezing in the tree’s embrace, you ceased to wonder about life and death, ceased to pine over Tessa Brown? What if, when everything else was gone, you apologized and meant it and knew, more than you would ever know anything again, that Nancy understood?
David Huebert is a PhD student at Western University. His poetry and fiction have appeared in journals such as Grain, Event, Vallum, Matrix, and The Dalhousie Review. A first book of poetry, We Are No Longer the Smart Kids in Class, will be published by Guernica Editions in fall 2015.