She doesn't believe the story I tell her about the boy who went nuts in his goalie gear, but it really happened.
"It doesn't matter," she says. "It's such a boy story, such a man memoryóhow do you remember these things?"
I tell her that it's the kind of thing I remember.
She would rather talk about her friend Roo, who has just declared herself a lesbian, to the surprise of no one except my friend Brian, with whom she's been living for seven years. Roo met Brian at a party and they started dating a few weeks later. She went to Berlin for six months, and he saw other people, but they got back together when she returned. While she was gone, he could never really say for sure what she was doing thereówhether it was for a job or for a course or for fun. She came back with a blonde, German woman who stayed with her for a month. Brian could never say what the woman was doing there, either.
"How did Roo not know she was a lesbian before this?" I ask her.
"Roo says that she and Brian didn't have sex for the last three years," she tells me. "You'd think that would have tipped him off."
"Brian can never see what's coming," I say. "He was always a little out of it."
Brian and I grew up at the far edge of a subdivision. There was a park about ten minutes away that was just an empty lot with a set of swings and a jungle gym that looked like a giant, cracked egg stuck halfway into the dirt. We used to chase girls off the swings and up the sides of the monkey bars. Anything they dropped became a hostage, like the My Little Pony with the coy look and the faggy star on its cheek that I buried in the dirt with its legs in the air. We never tried very hard to catch the girls, and wouldn't have known what to do if we had. The point was to terrorize them.
Brian brought us our first cigarettes at school. He stole them from his mother's purse. We would stand by the bicycle racks, trying not to look at the smouldering paper in our hands, keeping a lookout for teachers, as girls ran by in waves.
"Roo is going to quit smoking for good now," she says. "She was only still doing it because Brian smokes like a chimney."
"That's not fair," I say. "To make it all his fault."
Brian smoked in high school even when the rest of us didn't. He would stand out in the smoking section with kids three and four years older than him. He had a job delivering junk mail door to door, so he could afford to smoke. It made him a target, tooóhe was always having to deal out cigarettes to Jamie and Corey. With Jamie it was simple: you handed over a few smokes at the beginning of the day, and then didn't see him again. He might not even hit you up for a few days. Jamie was like an old, cranky bear, he kept to a few areasóthe metal shop, the cafeteria, the parking lot. His younger brother Corey was smaller but more feared because he was unpredictable. He roamed freely. He was known for beating his victims far beyond whatever the offenceóreal or imaginedócalled for. Most kids knew to run for the grass if Corey came after them, so at least he couldn't bang their heads on cement. Corey sometimes took everything Brian hadócigarettes, money, everything.
"People thought Corey was gay," I tell her.
"Why is that always the biggest thing with boys?" she asks.
"He had an earring for a while," I explain to her. "And his voice was weird. Really high and squeaky. Jamie told everyone he was gay."
"Boys are rotten," she says. "What did Brian do about this guy?"
"He gave him whatever he wanted," I say. "He didn't have much choice."
"I can't see Brian in a fight," she says.
Brian did one brave thing a few years ago. Someone climbed up onto the fire escape outside the window where he and Roo were sleeping, and Brian, in his underwear, chased the man all the way back to the ground. They were living in Parkdale, and even though he liked it there and it was cheap, they moved to a better neighbourhood because Roo couldn't sleep after that.
"If Roo needs our help, we need to help her," she tells me. "She hasn't decided if she's going to move out just yet."
"Well, one of them has to," I say. "And she's the one breaking them up."
"She's very vulnerable right now."
Brian and I took the same bus to school as Corey and Jamie, the one that went way out into the country. When the bus stopped for them, you could feel a wave of fear move through the seats. Jamie would hit people with his elbow on the way to the back, and Corey would stare at every little kid, just looking for an excuse. Usually they cancelled each other outóJamie would pick on Corey, and Corey would sit there and simmer. Jamie was twice his size, there was nothing he could do. Jamie wouldn't even let him take it out on anyone elseóhe'd tell him to be a man and hold him down in a headlock until he'd almost pass out.
"How did you stand it?" she asks me. "All that violence?"
"We were used to it," I say. "It was nothing. It was normal."
"It's not normal."
"Girls fight too," I say. "There were always girl bullies, weren't there?"
"Yes, and they were vicious," she admits. "But that was mostly psychological. They just wanted you to cry and feel shitty about yourself."
"That's why the violent way is better. You get catharsis."
"There's never any catharsis!" she shouts. "How can you even say something so stupid?"
Brian never complained about getting picked on. They only ever went after him for his smokes, so it was never too serious. He seemed to take it as if these were dues he had to pay, and it would all balance out in the end.
Corey was a better target, anyway. After he got his earring, Jamie made his life hell. Corey was stupid enough to get it done in the wrong ear the first time. He got the other one done right away, but you could still see the little hole in the other lobe. It got infected too, all red and swollen. He always put the ring in on the bus so his dad wouldn't see it.
"I used to put on makeup in the bathroom and wash it off before I went home," she says.
"Brian kept a toothbrush and toothpaste in his locker so his breath wouldn't smell of smoke. I used to call him Mr. Clean."
"Brian has awful breath," she says. "It's like something rotten."
"That's because Roo makes them use that herbal toothpaste," I say. "It just doesn't work. And their toilet paper looks like pressed oatmeal."
"I respect her for all that, for trying to make a difference."
"She made a difference with Brian, didn't she?"
Brian told me a month ago that he was going to try to get them into some kind of counselling. Roo was already seeing a therapist. It must have been working for her, because when he brought up the idea of seeing someone together, she hit him with her new-found lesbianism.
"She can't help who she is. Would you rather she kept lying and was depressed all the time?"
"I just wish Brian wasn't getting rolled over on this," I say. "He tried hard with her. If it had been him coming out of the closet, everybody would be saying how selfish he is. He's taking it really well, considering. He hasn't kicked her out."
"Maybe he should beat her up and get some catharsis," she says.
"That's not funny at all," I say. "Though, can you imagine?"
"Roo would kill him."
"She probably would."
Brian had girlfriends all through high school, but they all dumped him after a few months. He was just too oblivious. He was like that about everythingóhe used to sit near the back of the bus, right by Corey. He said it was quieter back there, away from the engine. He almost ended up in the middle of it when Jamie ripped Corey's ear in half. Everyone else had been waiting for the situation to explode. Jamie couldn't handle the ring hanging out of his brother's ear. One afternoon, he just reached over and pulled it out, right through the lobe. Corey started screaming, and within seconds his shirt was covered in blood. Jamie just held the earring between his fingers and laughed with surprise.
"See, that's the kind of thing girls do to each other," she says. "Maybe they were bothgay."
It was such a shock, everyone on the bus started laughingówe couldn't help it. I think we all understood that something had been set into motion. I told Brian that something nasty was going to happen. He just kept saying, "Like what?"
I know what Brian will do nowóhe will immerse himself in his job for a few months, and no one will see him. He'll stop going out and stop playing basketball on Wednesdays and stop saying much on the phone. He's going to sweat this out like a cold. He's probably already buying supplies. Then, in six months or so, I'll start getting calls to go out for drinks or to go to a movie. In a year, he'll be dating somebodyósomebody from work, who will be totally incompatible, and that won't last long, but it'll be a start. And he will never say a single bad thing about Roo. Not that he'll want much to do with her, either.
"What if Roo wants to stay with us?" she asks.
"That's fine," I say, "as long as it's not for long."
For a couple of days, nothing happened. Jamie and Corey got on the bus as usual, but Corey would sit at the front and stare at the road running past the door. He had a bandage on his ear, and he kept touching it and wincing. Then, one day, he didn't get on the bus in the afternoon. Without him, all the kids were more relaxed. We talked loudly, speculating about Corey. Someone said they saw him leave school early and walk out to the highway to hitch a ride home. Jamie and Corey were the last on the bus in the morning, so they were the first off at the end of the day. When we pulled up to the end of their driveway, everyone went silent. Corey was standing in the middle of the driveway, wearing all of his goalie equipment, except for his skates. He was even holding his stick, and was squatting slightly, as if ready to play.
The sight made everyone a little reckless, and we stared openly at Jamie to see what his reaction was going to be. He looked shocked for a second, then started laughing, but it sounded forced. We were seeing something we had never seen before: Jamie was unnerved. He got off the bus slowly and just stood there.
"No one tried to stop this?"
"Brian thought the bus driver should have tried to stop what was about to happen, but I made him shut up and watch."
The whole bus was at the windows, staring out. It was totally silent in there until Corey raised his stick up, and Jamie didn't make any move to dodge it.
"What were you all doing?"
"We were waiting for something beautiful."