The cool of the air-conditioning touched Desmond’s skin where the tangle of his blanket was absent. He lay still and concentrated on remembering the girl. He tried to remember her not as a dream but as she had been up until the very last instant before waking, as she had been before she had become unreal. The sun was warm against his eyelids and he turned his face away from it. A kaleidoscope of images flared and the fragments came together as a memory.
When he was younger, on winter mornings, before anyone else was awake, he would read by the heating duct in the dining room. He would lie under his quilt, with his pyjamas off, reading a book, waiting. Everything was quiet, until he heard a hollow click through the heating duct. After a time of distant humming, a second click predicted the arrival of a rush of dry hot air. He used the quilt to trap the heat around his skin and the warmth was wonderful, comforting, and special.
Desmond turned his face back towards the sun and opened his eyes. Its light was diffused by the condensation on the window. The memory of the girl was completely gone now. With his right hand, he took hold of his head and pressed his thumb into a spot above his right temple and pressed three fingers into a spot above the left. He concentrated and the moment passed. His head, and the spots where he had pressed, ached.
He rolled onto his stomach and the blanket twisted around his body. He looked at the condensation on the window again, at the stucco ceiling, at the desk, and the shelves pushed up against one wall of his cramped room. The TV, the VCR, and the Nintendo were jammed together on the desk. There were no decorations or posters on the walls. A clock radio lit up the time with a faint LED red. His alarm was about to go off. It was 8:19.
*The pressure in the house changed. Desmond stepped through the doorway and poked open the screen-door. It closed against his back and he slammed the front door, pulling it tight against its frame. He jiggled the key and coaxed the bolt into its hole. The screen door clicked shut behind him. From the third step of the veranda, he jumped to the pavement. Walking quickly, he checked his watch: 8:30.
*He headed towards Montreal Road, passing worn-down rental houses. The ground was wet and mounds of snow were still in the shadows. The air was fresh and the sun warm. He passed a circle of women, standing, smoking, talking, waiting for a school bus to come and take their children away. He did not understand a word of the French they spoke.
*The bus’s doors shut closely behind Desmond. He showed his pass and put it into his pocket. The bus was clogged with commuters and he pushed his way down the aisle. It swayed and jerked along with the flow of the traffic. He was a little breathless. He had to run to catch the bus and almost missed it.
At the back of the bus, between two blank-faced commuters, Desmond found an empty seat and dropped himself into the orange vinyl. He stuck earphones into his ears, turned his Walkman on, then up. The music filled his head, blocking out every sound except the bus’s engine. The shops shuddered and shifted away to the right, choreographed by the Cowboy Junkies. From his satchel, he removed a textbook and flipped its glossy pages to the section on the Quiet Revolution. He pulled the brim of his baseball hat lower.
*Desmond watched his reflection in the window. Obscured by shadow, his cheeks looked hollow, his eyes sunken. He wished his face, instead of being round and soft, looked that way. He looked at the faces of the other commuters. They were grey and matt. Some chatted at each other. Some arranged themselves so that without the effort of words a reluctant togetherness was communicated. Most of the faces were alone and the eyes were vacant and bored.
*The bus pass went back into his pocket and Desmond turned down the aisle. Looking up, he saw a girl from his twentieth-century world history class. She was alone and the bus was nearly empty. He hoped she would ignore him and he would be able to walk past unacknowledged.
She smiled and he replied with a movement of his hand. Unsure where to sit, he almost continued past but he grabbed one of the bus’s chrome posts and swung into the seat behind her.
She turned and pressed herself against the window and he pulled off his earphones, letting them fall around his neck. Her blue eyes, framed by her dark hair, were very bright.
“Hey.” He put his forearms on the back of her seat and looked at the floor. A single drop of cold sweat fell from his armpit to a spot above his ribs. “How’s it going?”
“I’m good.” The girl’s hair, long and fine, fell over her shoulders, catching in the wool of her thick charcoal-grey sweater. “How are you?”
“I’m alright.” He could not tell if she wanted to talk or if she was only talking because circumstance demanded it. He preferred they not talk, if circumstance was her only reason for doing so.
“I haven’t seen you on this bus before.” The girl’s voice was soft and the cadence of her speech was slow and deliberate. Desmond was reminded of chocolate.
“I don’t take it all the time.” From under the brim of his hat, he looked up at her. “Only when I miss the six.”
“I take that bus too.” Her voice brightened. “I missed it today.”
“Yeah, me too.” Desmond looked at her directly. “I guess that’s why we are on the same bus.”
“I guess so.” The girl bowed her head and looked at her hands in her lap. “I haven’t seen you on the other bus though.”
“We probably take it at different times.”
“I guess so.” The bus moved forward with a lurch and stopped. “I am running a bit behind today.”
Again, the bus lurched. Both of them swayed with it. “Are we going to be late for school?”
“Nah. I’ve got it all timed out.” The bus lurched once more and accelerated forward. “So long as traffic isn’t bad, this is the last bus you can take from the Rideau Centre and get to school on time.” The girl’s legs, in loose fitting jeans, stretched across the seat and ended in hiking boots. Hidden by the brim of his hat, his gaze followed the length of her entire body. “Before the final bell, anyways.”
“Good.” She leaned forward, gathered her hair into a loose ponytail, and released it as she sat up straight. “Where are you coming from?”
“Vanier.” Desmond adjusted his baseball hat, pulling on the brim and the back at the same time, forcing it lower. “What about you?”
“Sandy Hill.” She touched her forehead and pushed stray hair out of her eyes behind her ears. “I get on the bus before Rideau.”
“So, why do you go to Glebe?” The girl rested her left elbow on the top of her seat and held her face with her hand. “Living out in Vanier, I mean.”
“I used to live by Gladstone and Parkdale, in grade nine and ten. With my mom. I moved to my Dad’s place in Grade Eleven and I didn’t want to change schools.” He shrugged. “So as far as the school knows, I still live with my mom. All the mail goes there.”
“Lucky. I had to apply for a cross boundary transfer and everything to avoid Lisgar.” The girl’s eyes dropped. She looked through the window over her left shoulder, down at the pedestrians on the street. “That’s why I’m in the bilingual program. It’s the only way I could get into Glebe.”
“Why’d you want to avoid Lisgar so much.”
She looked him in the eye. “It’s Lisgar.”
Desmond pushed air through his nose abruptly, as a kind of laugh. “Yeah.” He nodded a little and looked at her. “Fair enough.” She smiled and he returned his gaze to his hands.
The cuff of the girl’s sweater extended past her wrist, covering her thumb. Her nails were short and looked chewed, not trimmed. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the East Block of Parliament Hill pass.
He felt the girl looking at him but when he looked up she was watching the traffic and the buildings outside the window opposite her. He remembered her name was Andrea and the large seal of the American Embassy went past.
“How was your weekend?”
“Pretty fun.” Her eyes returned to him. “I went to Broadstreet on Friday. It was totally crazy.”
Desmond remembered Broadstreet: a dark and cramped spot in Hull, with loud music, cheap beer, and underage drinkers. He had gone once, with some of his Army Cadet friends and, in the washroom, ran into someone from school he did not really know, who was obviously underage. They said something to each other, peeing in adjacent urinals, while someone puked violently in the toilet.
“It doesn’t seem like your kind of place.”
“Really. You don’t think so.” Andrea knit her brow, her eyes narrowed, and she looked down. Her thumb picked at something at the tip of her ring finger. “It can be fun, though.” The bus’s engine was loud and he had a hard time hearing her.
“Who’d you go with?”
“People from school.” She noticed herself staring at her fingers and looked up at him abruptly, smiling. “Craig Williams. Doug Taggard. Cristina McCrery and Cindy Harmer. You know them, right.”
Desmond let his eyes meet hers. She smiled and looked away, running her fingers through her hair. The bus turned left onto Bank street and Desmond realised how much he wanted to touch her and be close to her.
“Maybe. I don’t know.” Desmond looked again at the back of the seat in front of him, unsure what to do. “They might be in a couple of my classes.”
“Probably.” Andrea frowned a little. “On Saturday, I went over to Tom Reynolds’s place. He got back from France. He was there for like three weeks.”
“France.” Desmond fell back into his seat, slapping his hands on his thighs. “He skipped school to go to France. Must be nice.”
“His parents are loaded and he’s pretty smart.” She looked towards the direction the bus was traveling. “He gets good grades.”
Desmond looked out the window to his right, as she turned back towards him.
*He was the first to speak again. “Did you study for the history test?”
Andrea faced him, with the smile of a guilty little girl. “No. I totally forgot. I think I might have to skip. What about you?”
“I went over the chapter a couple of times.” He motioned with his head to his text book on the seat next to him. “There’s not a whole lot of stuff to remember. I bet if you skimmed it, you’d be alright.”
“It’s better than getting a zero, I suppose.”
“I could probably look at it during English.” She looked at the bus’s ceiling and pressed the top of her head against the window. “There’s always time to do stuff in other classes.”
“I know what you mean.” Desmond sat up and put his arms against the back of her seat. “I’m taking Canada in a North American Perspective and Mr. Beck is fucking retarded. He takes like thirty minutes to do attendance. I show up, let him know I’m there, and, then, me and my friend Derek go get curly fries at the cafe. We come back twenty, maybe thirty minutes later, and he is still taking attendance. It’s fucked.”
“I know. Doug told me about it.”
“It’s shitty you know because the class could be so cool. With all the free-trade stuff going on.”
“So much of high-school is like that.” She stared at an advertisement for a new flavour of sugar-free chewing gum. “Filling time.”
“For sure.” The bus started to move more quickly as the traffic thinned out. Looking out of different windows, Desmond and Andrea watched the scenery pass.
*Desmond forced himself to break the silence. “Where are you going to university next year?”
“I don’t know, really.” Andrea shrugged slowly, with only her right shoulder. “I was thinking Queen’s because so many of my friends are going there. I don’t know for sure though.”
“What are you taking?”
“Arts, I guess.” She crossed her arms in front of her. “I don’t know about a major really.”
“Arts?” Desmond squeezed up his face in disgust. “I thought you were a science-type. Biology and stuff like that.”
“I am taking mostly sciences and maths for my OACs but my parents think I should keep my options open. I like science but maybe it’s not like right for me.”
“Why do you say that?”
“I don’t know.” She made a laugh that was forced. “Girls don’t like science, right.” She stared at her thumb and pushed it into her closed fist.
“That’s bullshit.” Desmond looked away and shook his head. “Seems a waste of time to do all that science only to do an arts degree at university. I mean, you’ve liked it up till now. Why would that change?”
“I like it, for sure.” Andrea frowned and shook her head. “I don’t want to cut off any options, I guess.”
“Like what? Unemployment. You can’t get a real job with an Arts degree.”
“I don’t know. We’ll see.” She pushed the palm of her hand up and down her right thigh. “I haven’t done a lot of history and stuff.”
“So?” Desmond screwed up his face and shook his head dismissively. “Buy a book. Read it.”
“I guess.” She stared at the toes of her boots. “But there never seems to be enough time.”
“How long are you taking to graduate? Four or five years?”
“You’re fast-tracking, eh. Me, I’m taking five.” Desmond stabbed his chest with his thumb and put on a big smile. “I could have done it in four but I took afternoons off last year and this year too.”
“Yeah. I was suppose to get a job but I couldn’t find one. I convinced my dad the extra study time would help me get the big grades for my OACs. In actual fact, I mostly nap in the sun with my cat.”
“Really?” Andrea smiled but her eyes looked disappointed. “There’s no rush, I guess.”
“Exactly.” Desmond slumped back into his seat, Andrea watched the scenery, and he watched her profile. “No rush at all.”
*“What?” Andrea moved her head sharply to look at Desmond. He leaned against the back of her chair again.
“Do you have any idea what might end up feeling right?” Desmond turned his hand over, as he motioned towards her, revealing his palm. “Do you know what you want to feel right?” Andrea looked confused. “For university. What you want to do there.”
“Oh.” She looked away and gave her head a quick shake. “No. Not really.”
“What do you mean, not really? There’s nothing you want to do? At all?”
“I don’t know.” Her brow knit and her fingers fidgeted with the bottom of her sweater. “I’m going to take time off and travel to figure it out.”
“Cool.” Desmond pushed his baseball hat so it sat on the back of his head. “Europe?”
“No. Not Europe.”
“Come on now, everyone goes to Europe to find himself.”
Andrea shifted her weight and faced him. With her elbow on the back of the seat, she rested her chin on her fist. “I have family in Europe and it would be nice to meet them all. I could probably stay for free in a lot of different places. But. Europe’s not really different.” She frowned a little. “It is different but it’s not like really different, you know what I mean.”
Desmond nodded, raised his eyebrows, and stuck out his lower lip. “It’s been done to death.”
“There’s that, for sure. But, I mean it’s not really different enough. You know, like the culture. I want to go somewhere where the culture’s really different. Like, Peru, or Argentina, or something.”
“You’re not going alone are you?” The bus went through a Queen’s Way underpass and Desmond was reminded that his stop was coming up. “It could be dangerous.”
Andrea sighed. “My parents said that, too.” She sat up and pressed her back against the window again. “But, no. I’ll go with Sue and Catherine. Although nothing is definite.” She shrugged her shoulders slightly. “It might not even happen. You know. If they can’t go.”
“It sounds really cool to me. You should make it happen. Even if you have to go alone.”
“Really. You think so?” Andrea’s eyes softened. “Thanks for saying so.”
“You're welcome. I guess. ”
Andrea smiled and pushed her hair behind her ears. “Do you know what you’re doing next year?”
“University, probably.” Desmond rubbed the back of his neck with his right hand and he stretched. “I’d like to travel but I don’t have the money. I don’t know. Maybe I will take the year off to work or something.”
“Are your parents paying for school?”
Desmond made a sharp sound, pushing air through his teeth. “Not a chance. Student loans. It’s my own fault, I guess. I never got a summer job. So, I haven’t saved any money. When you combine the recession with my complete lack of experience, I don’t think I’ll be able to get anything decent this summer either.” He crossed his arms and motioned at her with his chin. “How about you, are you paying for university?”
“Yeah. Pretty much.” Andrea looked towards the large front window of the bus. “I’ve saved lots, though.” She shifted back and forth, trying to see how far the next stop was. “I suppose my parents will help a bit, too but it’s another reason I want to travel. I want to enjoy some of the money I’ve saved. Not use it only for practical stuff.”
“Awesome.” Desmond yanked at the bell. “But, if you are paying for university, why are you worried what you parents think?”
“About what you take at university. It’s not like they are paying for it, right.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, if they aren’t paying for it, why listen to them? Do whatever you want.”
“I don’t know.” Andrea looked at him with a knit brow. “They’re my parents.”
“Whoopee-fuck. Like that gives them the right to tell you what to do with the rest of your life. Fuck’em.” Desmond waved his hand dismissively, slid to the edge of his seat, and turned towards the backdoor. “This is the stop I always get off at it.” He stood and walked down the aisle. He was surprised when she followed and stood with him at the backdoor.
*The street was quiet, tree-lined, and residential. The homes were large and well-groomed. The street and sidewalks had recently been re-paved and the street-sweepers had already been over them. Teenagers walked along the street, alone, in pairs, and in small groups, heading towards the school. They went in and out of the tree’s shadows.
Desmond spoke first. “It’s funny, when you think about it.” Andrea looked from the sidewalk to his eyes. “How no one seems to know what they want to do. You know, with their lives.” He looked at a pink flamingo stuck in a lawn across the street. “It’s like everyone is trying to put off the decision.”
“You mean, it’s more than only me?” Andrea laughed, mechanically.
“That’s what the media keeps trying to tell us anyway.” Desmond motioned towards her with his right hand. “It’s weird too because, if this were thirty years ago, we’d know exactly what we were doing for the rest of our lives.” He held out his index finger in the air between them. “We’d all be getting married after graduation, if we bothered to graduate at all.” His middle finger popped out from under his thumb. “And, we wouldn’t be kids, we’d be having kids.” He pushed his shoulders towards his ears. “Now, we’ve got four more years of what basically amounts to mandatory day-care and, even then, if we are lucky enough to get a job with the way the economy is, we probably won’t hold whatever shit job we get for more than a couple of years. Thirty years ago, you’d get one job and keep it your whole life.”
“You would.” Andrea watched the ground in front of her. “I probably wouldn’t even be allowed to get a job.”
“Well, exactly my point.” Desmond pointed dramatically at her. “You’d be married and pregnant and that’d be the end of that.”
“I’m so not ready for babies.” She raised her chin and snapped it back down. “Sure, I want them some day but not anytime soon.”
“What about all that stuff they keep saying about women being barren if they think too much and forget to use wrinkle cream?”
“I hear stuff like that all the time.” Andrea shook her head. “Like being more likely to get killed by a terrorist than finding a husband after thirty. I almost don’t want to read women’s magazines anymore.”
“Maybe you could convince the terrorist to marry you before he kills you.”
“Like a dating service.” Andrea laughed and she used her fingers-tips to push her hair behind her ears. “Assuming I want to get married.”
“Come on now, every girl wants to get married.”
“Someday. I suppose.” She shrugged. “Not now. Not for awhile.”
Desmond nodded. “Back in the day, you wouldn’t have had much choice in the matter -- even if you thought you had the choice.”
“I suppose I could be a secretary or something.”
“Or something is right.” Desmond made a sharp sound by pushing air through his teeth and lips. “More like a whore.”
Andrea slapped his arm playfully.
“Seriously.” Desmond pulled away in mock terror. “They call it the world’s oldest profession for a reason.”
“I suppose.” Andrea held his gaze and slowly turned her head forward, until she watched him out of the corner of her eye. “I think I would have been a secretary.”
“Same dif.” Desmond fluttered his hands in the air in front of him. “Everyone thought secretaries were whores anyway. Looking to steal a husband or something.”
“Not much room for choice, I guess.” Her eyes fell to the ground in front of her. “Get married or be a prostitute.”
“Pretty much.” Desmond’s lower lip pushed out and he raised his eyebrows. “You know, come to think of it. There wasn’t much room for choice for anyone. Period. You know, for men or women.”
“What do you mean?”
“Sure, some men had choices but most didn’t really. You know, like, if your Dad was a farmer, you’d be a farmer. If your Dad had a shop, it became your shop. A person’s life -- man or woman -- was pretty much settled the day they were born.”
“You don’t think it’s like that anymore.” Andrea, genuinely surprised, looked into his eyes.
“No. Not all.” He pointed at her. “Why, do you?”
Andrea looked away. “Sometimes. Maybe.” She pushed her lips tightly together and looked at the sidewalk in front of her. They stepped down onto the road to cross it and loose gravel scrapped underfoot. She sighed, shaking her head. “No. I guess not but I think it was worse for women. Not having a choice, I mean. In the past.”
“Probably but I’m not so sure.” He stepped up onto the sidewalk. “What about war? Think of all the men who had to go die in wars, like every twenty years.”
“Yeah, yeah.” Desmond looked towards Andrea and she was already looking at him. “Basically, about every twenty years, there was a war big enough for a whole bunch of men to go off and die.”
“Sure.” Desmond took his right hand out of his pocket and took hold of his satchel strap. He motioned with the left. “ Not any more though. There hasn’t been a real war since Vietnam. For Canada, not since Korea. That was like the fifties.”
“What about Iraq?”
“Operation Desert Storm?” His head fell back and he laughed. “Please. That wasn’t any kind of war. What, it lasted a hundred hours or something? And besides, it only proves my point. They were all professional soldiers doing the fighting. The average guy doesn’t go off to fight in wars anymore.”
“I guess not.”
“But, they used to and they had no choice in the matter.” Desmond saw a faded black and white picture of his uniformed great-grandfather who had fought in three wars. “And, if they didn’t die, they were totally screwed up by it.”
*They were almost at the school’s parking lot. Desmond thought Andrea looked unhappy and her face had the tautness of thought in it. He broke the silence again.
“You know, I was being kinda sarcastic with all that marriage and whore stuff, right.”
Andrea looked up abruptly and smiled. “I know.”
“People sometimes miss the sarcasm.”
“No, no.” She smiled and touched him on the shoulder. “I got it.”
“My only real point in all of this was that, sure, things are shit but things are a lot better too.” Desmond slouched over his motioning hands and he watched the sidewalk. He felt as if he wasn’t saying it right. “You know, better than they were.”
“I suppose.” Her head fell towards her right shoulder and she looked up at him.
“You might be able to get a job you hate rather than no job at all and I’ll get a job I’ll hate instead of dying in Flanders Fields.” He smiled. “Much better, really.”
“I guess so.” Andrea forced a smile towards the pavement.
“Moral of the story is that all these Gen-X whiners can go fuck themselves.” Desmond gave both fingers to the air in front of him. He dropped his hands to his side and looked at Andrea, smiling.
“Yeah.” She turned towards the main door of the school and Desmond cut in front of her, continuing straight ahead.
“I usually go in at the side door over here.” He looked over his shoulder at her, pointed, and continued to walk away. “It’s closer to my locker.”
“Oh. Ok.” She gave him a short quick wave. “See you in history, Desmond.”
“Don’t forget to study.”
Andrea sighed loudly, stopped, put her hands on her hips and smiled. “I won’t.”
*“Close it behind you, Desmond.”
The final bell rang and the voice on the PA system said, “Please stand for the National Anthem.” Desmond manoeuvred through the other kids, who slowly and grudgingly stood up. A familiar flourish of synth-pop notes caused some of them to groan out loud. He slapped his binder on his desk and faced the front of the class, watching everyone else in the room.
He could tell the music did not mean anything to them, including the teacher. Their eyes were glazed. Their heads hung and their postures were deflated. Their fingers fidgeted. Their feet shifted. The singer tried very hard to make the words meaningful and only made them mean less.
Desmond shook his head, crossed his arms, and stared at one of the floor’s linoleum squares.
The voice on the PA system asked, “Please stand for a moment of silent meditation.”
Desmond looked up and around the room. One or two heads were bowed solemnly. A girl, who had previously been slouching, stood up straight, and mumbled something underneath her breath. For the most part, the stares around the classroom remained blank and empty.
Desmond’s eyes rolled towards the back of his head and he tried to remember if he had done all the homework he needed to do for the day.
High school always started the same way every day.
*Through the rush and press of the other kids, Desmond glimpsed Derek, standing on one leg, the other bent, with his foot pressed flat against the locker, the knee jutting out. Derek’s shoulders were rolled forward and his eyes were low, watching the feet go by. He chewed a yellow disposable pen and his clothing hung on him like he was a hanger. He had lost a lot of weight in the past year.
“Where have you been?” Desmond slapped Derek’s shoulder with the back of his fingers. “I haven’t seen you in days.”
Derek raised his eyebrows and half-smiled. “Been sick.” The pen remained close to his mouth and he returned to chewing it when he finished speaking. The pen’s end was crushed flat.
“Just a cold.” Derek shrugged his shoulders. “Any reason to skip school is good enough for me. Especially, now that I write my own notes.”
“I know what you mean.” Desmond bent over, as if preparing to vomit. “I came from math. It was so fucking boring.”
Derek shook his head and looked at the ceiling. “I don’t even know why I bother to come to school.”
“Here, let me take a guess.” Desmond held his chin with his left hand and made a thoughtful look. “Because you don’t want to drop out in your last year, never get a decent job, and turn the last five years of your life into a complete waste of time.”
“Drop out?” Derek rolled his eyes. “I’ve got all the credits I need for my diploma. I’m only here for my stupid OACs and I don’t even know if I want to go to university.”
“If you don’t go to university, you won’t get a decent job.” Desmond worked quickly through the combination of his lock. He slammed the locker door open and tossed his text book in. It hit the back of the locker with a tinny thud. “That job at the library may seem pretty plum now but it won’t be ten years from now.”
“At least I have a job, asshole.” Derek pointed at Desmond with the chewed end of his pen.
“Ease up, I wasn’t being sarcastic.” Desmond held his binder as a shield; then, he shoved it into the locker. “It is a pretty plum job. All I’m saying is that you won’t want to be checking out books for the rest of your life.” He pulled out another binder, slammed the locker door, and locked the lock in one smooth motion.
“I could go to college.”
“Yeah, you could, if you were stupid. Only stupid people go to college and that’s because they didn’t bother to get their OACs and can’t get into university.” Desmond pointed at Derek with his left hand. “Just get your fucking OACs and leave your options open.”
“You’re one to talk like some kind of guidance counsellor. You’re the one always complaining it’s only a hoop to jump through.”
“I know I do. And it is.” Desmond opened his arms wide and looked purposively from one end of the hall to the other. “Just like I think this fucking day-care is a bullshit hoop to jump through, but, you have to do it, I have to do it, and, besides, it beats working.”
Derek shrugged. “I kind of like working.”
“What?” Desmond reached for Derek’s forehead, as if to take his temperature. “Have you gone mad? Are you crazy with fever?”
Derek swatted Desmond’s hand away and took a step back. “It beats the shit out of this. You know, you do something. You get paid. You accomplish stuff.” He waved dismissively at the hallway. "This. This is all here only to fill in time.”
“I know, I know. Day-care to keep us out of the labour market.”
“I don’t care why.” Derek leaned against the locker again and knocked it with the back of his head. “I can’t stand it.”
“You’ve got like two months left.”
“I hate it.” Derek looked down the hallway, away from Desmond. “I hate every fucking minute that I am here.” Classroom doors began to click shut. “It’s a total waste of time.”
“Look. I know it, you know it, anyone who has a fucking clue knows it but you’ve got to get through it, man.” The hallway was very quiet and their voices echoed. “Shit, I’m going to be late for class. See you at break.” Desmond jogged away from Derek, who continued to lean against the locker, staring at the corner where the ceiling and the wall met.
*Desmond’s erection pushed up into his pants. The ache went through his whole body, to the tips of his toes, and to the top of his head.
The girl was three chairs in front of him and two rows to the right. Tall and slender, she had good-sized breasts and a great ass. Her hair was long, straight, golden and fell to the middle of her back. He had never been close enough to check her eye colour but he knew it had to be blue.
Usually, she wore jeans. Today, she wore a skirt.
Desmond forced his attention to the work in front of him. He was three-quarters of the way down the page. It was a mess of scribbles and crossed-out letters, words, and sentences. He hated writing without a computer. His handwriting was terrible, he frequently made mistakes and, because he changed his mind so much, the page filled up with scribbled out deletions.
In the centre of the top margin, underneath where he had written, beautiful cliché, he added, if I ever need to write a sentence that starts with x, I’ll buy a fucking dictionary. He pressed the pen hard into the paper and the extra ink released by the ballpoint bled out and distorted the shape of the letters.
He added a hard exclamation mark and a set of smiling teeth underneath the words. He thought of the Cheshire cat.
Out of the corner of his eye, Desmond noticed the girl in the skirt again and his erection twitched. He orientated his head and body towards his work and his right shoulder towards the girl. With his left hand shielding his eyes, he could watch her without being noticed.
Her white shirt clung to the shape of her breasts and it followed the curve of her waist. He watched the shape of her legs, as they crossed underneath her desk, the shape of her knee, the curve of her calve, the slight bobbing of her heeled penny-loafer. With the tips of her fingers, she rubbed the extra bit of thigh her skirt had revealed when she sat down. Desmond’s erection swelled and pushed harder into his pants.
He closed his eyes, squeezed his head with his left hand, and concentrated. He pressed down on his erection with his left forearm and the ache of it felt strangely good. He removed the pressure of his arm, took a long breathe, and released it slowly.
His heart raced, his blood throbbed, and he was kissing her. The shape of her ass was in his hand and she was smiling. His hand was moving under her shirt, at her waist, and her skin was smooth. He was unbuttoning her shirt and cupping her breast with his left hand. Her nipples were hardening at his touch. She was leaning back against the desk, away from him, holding onto his right hand. Her legs were open and he saw her underwear. She was smiling and pulling him towards her. The end of his cock was burning. He felt the wetness of his pre-cum against his underwear.
Desmond forced his eyes open, sat up straight, and focused on the class room clock. His fingertips drummed the top of the desk mechanically. His right foot went up and down rapidly. Even with his eyes open, he could still see himself fucking her. Her legs wrapped around his waist, her hands holding onto the back of his neck. One breast exposed. He fucked and fucked and fucked. She moaned and moaned and moaned.
A pen poked the back of Desmond’s left shoulder and startled him. He took a deep breath and looked over his shoulder. Deborah leaned towards him over her desk, with her pen still outstretched. Her hair was dark, short, and curly.
“Do you mind, Desmond?”
“Mind what?” He raised his eyebrows at her and his forehead wrinkled.
“Not tapping your pen and shaking your leg like that.” She sat back into her chair. “It’s distracting.”
“So what? I’m thinking.”
Deborah shook her head and widened her eyes. “Well, think quietly for Pete’s sake.”
Desmond turned completely around. Letting his head hang forward, he looked up at her. “So what, I got to change my habits because you say so.”
“Yeah, well, you disturbed me by asking me to be quiet.” He wrapped his lips slowly around each syllable. “Maybe you should learn to be a little more tolerant of other people.”
Deborah rolled her eyes, looked at her page, and started writing again.
Desmond faced forward and the teacher made a back-to-work motion with his chin. Desmond picked up his pen and made a loopy spiral from the left margin to the right. When the teacher stopped watching and was reading his novel again, Desmond dropped the pen and pressed his head against the cold of his desk.
He closed his eyes and, in the darkness, the feeling of the fantasy returned and he smiled.
*Derek sat on the floor, with his back against his locker and his legs stretched out in front of him, studying a sheet of paper. To Derek’s left, opposite Raymond and Nam, Peter and Scott stood together. Desmond stood at Derek's feet with his back facing the rush of students streaming by.
“Did any of you guys walk through the centre hall with all the Grade Nines.” Desmond pointed over his shoulder. “It fucking stinks in there.”
Peter looked at Desmond’s stomach. “I never walk through there; it’s a zoo.” His gaze flicked into Desmond’s eyes and then fell again.
“Yeah.” Scott nodded. “With all those wannabe homies and home-girls, acting like their so tough.”
Raymond folded his arms at his chest and shrugged. “It doesn’t bother me.”
Nam jabbed him in the ribs with an elbow. “That’s because, you're a big fat giant man.” Raymond grabbed him by the shoulders and pretended to choke him. Nam cringed and laughed.
Desmond pointed at Scott. “Yeah well, you know, there was a fight there the other day. Between two girls. It broke out right in front of me. Vicious, too. And quick.” He nodded towards Raymond and Nam’s scuffle. “You know how guys stand there breathing into each other’s faces, waiting for someone to break it up. Man, these girls were like, fuck you; yeah, well, fuck you; and bam.” Desmond punched the palm of his left hand with his right. “They were rolling around killing each other.”
“Oooh, cat-fight.” Scott smiled at Desmond. “Did you watch?”
“Nah, it was stupid. I kept going.”
Scott held Desmond’s eye with an expectant look. “And?” Scott rolled his hand over at the wrist, slowly revealing his palm. A smile crept on to Peter’s face.
“They were fat and ugly.”
“I knew it.”
“No but seriously. It wasn’t like that.” Desmond looked away over his left shoulder, fighting his grin. “It was stupid, really. Seriously.” Peter smiled at him. “I didn’t want to encourage them, you know. It’s all for show. They only do it to get attention.”
Scott put his hands into his pockets and shrugged. “If it’s all for show, why not enjoy it.”
“Ah, I don’t know. Because, it’s fucked.” Desmond dismissed the topic with a wave of his hand and a flick of his head to the right. Through the mess of kids clogging the hall, he saw Tania walking towards him smiling.
“Ok guys, you ready?” Desmond turned towards Derek’s voice and he took the paper Derek handed him. “Check it out and pass it around. It’s the order we’ll be picking in Saturday’s draft.”
Tania’s hand pressed softly into the small of Desmond’s back. A lump ballooned in his throat, catching his breath. He swallowed it away, as she rested her chin on his shoulder. Not knowing how to react to her closeness, Desmond stayed very still.
“Desmond, could you come over here, I need to ask you something?”
“I’ll be down in a sec. I’m in the middle of something.” He passed the sheet of paper to Peter without looking at it and used the movement to pull away from Tania.
“Alright. I’ll be talking to Sarah and Chloe.” Tania walked backwards, away from him, smiling. “See you soon.” Her straight dark hair twirled and he watched it settle at the top of her shoulders. She wore a red sweater, over a long dark dress. Her patent leather shoes had heels and small silver buckles.
“What’s that?” Scott leaned in towards Desmond with his eyes wide open.
“That is some Grade Ten I met at a cast party.” Desmond shoved his sweaty palms into his pockets and shrugged.
“She’s pretty hot.” Scott made a grotesque face to emphasize the point.
“Yeah, I know.” Inside his right fist, Desmond crushed his bus pass. Its sharp laminated edges pressed into his skin. Inside his left fist, he clenched his house key. “So what?”
Scott raised his hands and flicked his fingers wide-open at Desmond’s face. “So, what the hell are you talking to us for.” He pointed in the direction Tania had walked. “Go talk to her.”
“I’m not going to drop everything and run after her because she wants me to.” With his hand, Desmond made a circle that included everyone. “We’re in the middle of something here.”
“Jesus Christ, yeah you are.” Scott grabbed Desmond’s shoulder, pulling. “Mush, mush, bitch. Mush.”
Caught off balance, Desmond stumbled towards Scott. He wrenched his shoulder free and pushed Scott away. “Ease off, asshole.” Desmond glanced in Tania’s direction.
Derek jumped up. “He can’t go anywhere yet anyways. We need to talk about the order of the draft picks for Saturday first.”
“Forget the game. For once in our lives, let’s forget the stupid game.” Scott pushed his face into Derek’s. “We are talking about a girl. A hot girl.” Without looking in his direction, Scott swatted Desmond on the shoulder with the back of his hand. “One who clearly has the hots for dumbo here.”
Desmond looked at the yellow stitching of his black leather shoes. “What makes you say that?”
“Didn’t you see the way she molested you?” Scott groped the air in front of Desmond’s stomach.
“That doesn’t means anything.” Desmond pushed air though his teeth with a dismissive tone and slapped Scott’s hands down. “Girls do that all the time. Especially, theatre-chicks. They’re more touchy-feely.” He poked Scott hard with two fingers, in the shoulder. “And besides, it’s meant to keep idiots like you, who are gagging for it, on a short leash.”
“Like you aren’t gagging for it.” Scott looked for something hidden, near and around Desmond. “I don’t see the women exactly dripping off of you, stud-boy.”
“Hey, just because I don’t kiss and tell, doesn’t mean I don’t get any action.” Desmond looked away over his right shoulder. “I got all kinds of life you guys don’t know anything about.”
“Bullshit.” Scott waved his hands at Desmond and then let them fall back onto the top of his thighs. “You don’t ever kiss and that’s why there’s never anything to tell.”
“Hey, you can believe whatever makes you feel better.”
“I’ll believe whatever I know to be true.”
Derek snatched the paper from Peter’s hands and pushed it against Scott’s chest. “I think you should be a little less concerned about Des’s love life, Scott, and more concerned about the fact that you’ve managed to wheel and deal your way to picking last in the first two rounds of this season’s draft.”
“So what?” Scott snatched the paper with both hands and stared at it intently. “I traded my first and second picks for the best quarterback in the CFL.”
“Yeah but your linemen suck and your quarterback isn’t a scrambler.” Derek looked at Raymond. “He’s going to get sacked all the time.”
Raymond widened his eyes and pointed at Scott. “My linebackers are going to eat your quarterback for lunch.”
“You wish, fat man.”
Raymond grabbed Scott by the shoulders but Scott broke free quickly, dropped the paper, reached under Raymond’s knee, and pushed him over into the locker. The sound of the tinny metal rattled through the hall and heads turned to look. Derek snatched the paper out of the air and handed it to Peter. Nam flung himself onto Raymond’s back, laughing. Desmond watched the melee, shaking his head, smiling.
*Desmond checked the clock again. There was only five minutes left in the break. He had to talk to Tania or he would look like a complete asshole.
“Hey, where are you going, lover-boy?”
Desmond pushed down the hall, swallowing away the lump in his throat. Sarah noticed him first, looked a bit surprised, and said something to Tania. She spun around, smiling, and skipped out towards him. They meet at a distance from the girls’ circle of conversation. Desmond waved over at the other girls.
“My parents are away this weekend and I’m having a party. You should come.” She poked him lightly in the belly with the tips of both index fingers. “You’ll have to promise not to puke though.”
“Woh, woh.” Desmond raised both hands, palms towards her, and waved them slightly. “I have my ways and they simply must be tolerated. No questions asked.” His hands went into his pockets. “Besides, if you want to experience the godly magic that is me drunk, it’s the risk you got to take.”
“Well.” She dropped her left shoulder, pushed her head towards it, and twisted up her lips. “Can you promise not to puke on anything important.”
Desmond drew air in through his teeth, against the saliva on his tongue. “Alright.” He smiled and relaxed into a slouch. “I’ll make this one concession. I will promise to do my best not to puke on anything important.”
“Goody.” She leaned into him, smiled, and raised her right hand to pat him on the cheek. “You’re such a good boy.”
Desmond yanked his head away and threw up his hands defensively. “Don’t pat me like that.” He cut the air with a short move of his hand, the fingers hard and straight.
“Pat you?” Tania’s hand remained in the air between them.
“Yeah, I’m not your dog.”
“What do you mean?” She pushed her eyebrows together in confusion.
Desmond watched her eyes. He did not understand what she wanted explained. She lowered her hand, took hold of the other with it, and her head fell forward. He looked away, over his shoulder, and saw Scott and the others watching. He looked over his other shoulder and saw that Sarah and Chloe were not. Tania, he decided, was pretending not to understand.
“Look, forget it.” Desmond flicked his hands dismissively. “Forget it. Whatever. It doesn’t matter.” He turned away, took three steps, stopped, and looked over his shoulder. “Hey, when’s the party? Friday?”
“No.” Tania watched a spot on the floor. “Saturday.”
“Shit.” Desmond took another step away, raised his hands, and let them fall against his thighs. “I can’t come. Sorry. I’ve got plans.”
“Plans?” Without moving her feet, Tania turned towards him. Her eyes were hard. “Like what?”
“Me and my friends are starting our football league Saturday.”
“It’s a game.” Desmond shook and rolled imaginary dice with his left hand. “With dice and shit.”
“You’re joking.” Her hands went to her hips and her head cocked to the right.
“How nerdy is that?”
With his elbow at his waist, Desmond held up his left palm. He motioned his head towards it. “Yeah well, I am a nerd.”
Tania straightened her back and pulled her head back. “Shane’s coming to the party.”
“So what? He’s not part of the league.”
She sighed loudly. “So, you’re going to play a stupid game on Saturday night instead of coming to the party.”
“Yeah, it’s fun.” Desmond shrugged. “And besides, I already said I’d be there. If I had known about the party first, it’d be different. Besides, there’ll always be other parties.”
“Not at my house there won’t. Not when my parents are away.”
Desmond looked in her direction and a long slow breath went in and out of him.
Tania broke her stare. “Fine. Come if you want; don’t if you don’t. Do whatever.”
“Yeah.” Desmond smirked. “Thanks for permission, Mom.” He made a short sharp wave with the thumb and the first two fingers of his right hand and turned his back to her. “See you later.”
“Yeah, see you later.”
Desmond walked down the hallway, watching the back of Raymond’s head. He was disappointed and relieved at the same time and didn’t understand why.
*Desmond flipped absently through MacLean’s magazine. His history textbook was on the couch next to The Sun Also Rises. He was ready for the test and did not feel like reading. He looked up from a car advertisement and saw Cassandra enter the library, arms filled with books and loose paper. She went by without noticing him.
Desmond flipped each page in the magazine, from the front to the back and to the front again.
He stretched and used the movement to peer over his shoulder towards the encyclopedias. In his periphery vision, he saw Cassandra sitting alone at one of the work tables, with a pile of books in front of her. She was hunched over and her left arm moved furiously. He faced the magazine rack again, let out a long breath through rounded lips, and decided to go talk to her.
Cassandra’s face was very close to the movement of her pencil crayon. She was colouring a large blob of Saskatchewan red. Her thick dishwater blond hair was long again and a piece fell into her eyes. She puffed it away, without stopping her work.
Cassandra’s eyes were green and intense above her wide white smile. “Desmond.” She sounded happy and he felt an ache inside his chest.
“Hey.” He glanced in and out of her eyes and settled his gaze on her map. “How’s it going?”
“You weren’t here when I came in, were you?” She sat up straight and looked around the library. “I didn’t see you.”
Desmond motioned with his left hand and his head. “I was over on the couch by the magazines.”
Cassandra looked at the couches and cocked her head to one side. “Funny, I didn’t see you there.” She shrugged her shoulders and frowned at the map.
Desmond shrugged. “It’s no big deal.”
Her eyes flicked up and caught his gaze. Desmond forced himself to hold it. “I’m glad you stopped by to say hello but.” She crouched over her books "I can’t really talk right now because I’ve got a whole bunch of work to get done before my next class.”
“Yeah, that’s cool.” Desmond shrugged and shook his head slightly. “Whatever.”
“Thanks.” She flopped dramatically on top of her books and looked up at him through her eyelashes, biting her bottom lip. “You’re wicked.”
“What’s with the colouring?” Desmond motioned with his chin towards her books.
“It’s a bunch of stupid stuff for geography.” Her eyes rolled and she sat up straight. “Eighteen years old and I am still doing colouring projects for school. Can you believe it?” She slapped the back of both hands against the paper. “I’ve got to get it done, though. I’ve skipped class too much this week already but I’ll call you tonight, ok.”
“Sure. I hope you get it done alright.”
“Thanks.” She gave him a wide smile and a short wave. Her eyes fell immediately to her work.
Desmond turned and he headed back to his spot on the couch. Inside his fists, he pushed his fingernails into his palms. He watched the carpet and concentrated on walking naturally.
*The phone rang and then stopped. Feet thumped downstairs underneath the sound of the TV and Caroline, his father’s wife, called up the stairwell. Desmond opened his eyes, cleared his throat, sat on the end of the bed, and picked up the phone’s receiver. He covered the mouthpiece with his left hand and tried to remember when he had fallen asleep.
“I’ve got it.” Desmond put the phone to his right ear. “Hello.”
“Cassandra, hey.” He pressed the palm of his left hand against his face and dragged it down across the skin to get the sleep out. “How’s it going?”
“Why didn’t you call?”
“What? Ah, because you said you would.”
“Did I? Oh.” He felt something like a pout behind the static of the line. “Even if I don’t call you, you should call because sometimes I get distracted and forget.”
“That’s fine.” He shrugged. “If you forget, it means you aren’t in the mood to talk to me. So why would I call?”
“That’s not true. I always want to talk to you, Desmond.”
Air went sharply through his nose and it whistled in the receiver. “Sure. Whatever.”
“It’s true. I love talking to you. I love the sound of your voice but I wished you’d talk more. I’m tired of me always talking. I want you to talk.”
“What do you want me to talk about?”
“Tell me your problems.”
“Problems?” Desmond screwed up his face and drew his chin in towards his neck. “I don’t have any problems I need to talk about.”
“Everybody does. I always tell you mine.”
“Please Desmond, just talk. Okay. Go.”
His eyes rolled back and he watched the ceiling, listening to the static.
“I’m sorry.” He motioned with his left hand. “I haven’t got any problems I need to talk about, alright.”
“We go through this all the time. Why won’t you talk to me?”
“What are we doing right now.” Desmond touched his forehead with his finger tips and then pulled his hand away sharply. “Isn’t this talking?”
“You know what I mean. Talk.”
Desmond tapped his knee and waited.
She sighed. “Fine. Suit yourself.” Her voice brightened suddenly. “I had a good day, today.”
“Really. Good.” Desmond rolled his eyes and shook his head. “How so?”
“By the way, I’m sorry I couldn’t talk in the library earlier.” Her voice became childishly serious. “I was super-busy.”
“Sure.” Desmond shrugged. “It’s no big deal.”
“It’s cool, though. You know. So many people, especially guys, make such a big deal when you don’t drop everything and talk to them.”
“If you’re busy, your busy. No big deal.”
“For not being stupid.” Desmond patted his belly and sighed. “Gee, thanks I guess.”
“Don’t twist it like that. Why do you always do that?”
“Do what?” He collapsed back onto his bed.
“If I say something nice about you, you twist it to make it not sound as good.”
“I don’t twist anything. I call a spade a spade is all.” Desmond wrapped the phone cord around his index finger. “Besides, I thought girls were supposed to be sick of guys being arrogant all the time.”
“This is different”
“I don’t know. It just is.”
“Ok, then.” Desmond cleared his throat. “Are you going to tell me what happened today or what?”
There was a moment of static. “A really cute guy asked me out.”
“Really?” He made sure his voice sounded relaxed. “Cool.”
“He’s a really nice guy, too. Real cute.”
“I think he is.” A moment of static. “Or will be at least.”
Desmond frowned. “What do you mean, will be?”
“He’s not the sort of guy I go out with normally.”
“So?” He motioned towards the ceiling. “Why are you going out with him then?”
“He’s cute and he asked me.” Static. “He said he has had a crush on me for long time, too”
“Wow, that does sounds good” He kept the sarcasm in his voice light. “When are you guys getting married?”
“Shut up, you big jerk.” She laughed and Desmond felt the look she always gave him when she laughed that way. “It’s better than nothing and it’s not like I’ve got a line at the door to choose from.”
“What the hell are you talking about?” He put a laugh into his voice. “As long as I’ve known you, there’s always been a line. You’ve never had any problems getting a boyfriend.”
“It doesn’t count if the line is filled with jerks.”
“Whatever. A line is a line.” Desmond pointed at the ceiling. “Your problem, as far as I can tell, is not having a boyfriend.”
“What do you mean?”
“You know exactly what I mean. You go from one guy to the next, without ever thinking about it, without ever being by yourself for awhile.” His fingers drummed against his chest. “You’ve been saying it yourself the past few weeks.”
“So, do you think I should not go out with him?”
“Honestly?” A lump formed in his throat and Desmond swallowed it away. “I don’t think you should be going out with anyone right now.”
“No. You need to spend some time by yourself, sorting stuff out. I mean, you got out of a two year relationship a few months ago and ever since then you’ve been going from one guy to the next.” He poked himself in the chest. “Of course, I don’t think anything I say is going to make any kind of difference. You’re going to go out with this guy like you always go out with whatever eligible bachelor turns up behind curtain number one and then you’ll break up with him and spend two weeks telling me how this time you really are going to be by yourself for awhile and sort things out. That is until, the next eligible bachelor turns up.”
“Oh.” Static. “Do you really think I’m like that.”
“The experience of the past six months speaks for itself.”
“I guess so.”
“It doesn’t mean you can’t change the pattern, though.” Desmond felt empty. “You know, now that you see it as a pattern.”
“You’re right I guess.” Static. “Desmond, do you think I’m some kind of a slut.”
“No. Of course not.” He wanted to touch her. “Why do you ask that?”
“Well, I go out with a lot of guys and I have sex with almost all of them.”
Desmond’s stomach turned and the his saliva soured. “Going out with a lot of guys isn’t the problem so much. Or even the sex.” He cut the air with the edge of his hand. “It’s why you go out with so many guys that’s the problem.”
“What do you mean?”
“I don’t know. You don’t even think about it. It’s like you do it because you think you are supposed to do it. Not because you want to do it.” He wrapped the telephone cord around his wrist. “You know, it’s not like the actual guy makes a difference. Just so long as there’s a guy there, any guy will do. Do you know what I mean?”
Desmond stared at the closed door of his room and then inhaled sharply. “Okay, it’s like you are trying to fill something but don’t care what you fill it with. I don’t know. It’s like you’ve got a glass or a bowl or something and you think you’ve got to fill it and keep it full all the time.” He untangled his wrist from the cord and cupped his hand. “So, you keep filling it with whatever’s around even though you haven’t asked yourself why you’re filling the bowl in the first place. You don’t know why, so you end up filling it with all kinds of stuff, stuff you don’t want or don’t really want.” He moved his hand around in the air in front of him. “Then it dehydrates or evaporates or whatever. Or you dump it out. And then you’re like, I’ve got an empty bowl. I’ve got to fill the bowl and off you go to fill it again, without asking why you need to fill it, pretty much guaranteeing that you aren’t going to get anything you want into the bowl. Hell, why are you even carrying the bowl in the first place, you know.”
There was static and then Cassandra giggled. “I was going to ask the same question.”
Desmond pushed air though his nose as a laugh. “I’m not making much sense am I.”
“No.” Cassandra laughed. “Not at all”
“Well, that’s the best I can do right now.” Desmond sighed. “I’ve been doing math tonight, ok. I have a test coming up.” He cleared his throat again. “Speaking of which.”
“You have to study. Ok. No problem. But Desmond.”
“We have to talk tomorrow, ok.”
“Sure. Whenever you want.”
Desmond put the phone down, sat on edge of his bed, and his shoulders rolled forward. With his fingers interlaced, his hands hung between his knees, and his left thumb rubbed the palm of his right hand. His gaze fixed on one of his plaid shirts hanging in his closet.
Desmond stood up and moved to his TV. He turned it on, flipped through a few channels, and turned it off again. He opened a drawer, scanned the video games inside, and closed it. He picked up one of his novels, stared at the cover, and then tossed it to the floor. He pushed his math textbook from the bed and got into bed. With his eyes closed, he squeezed his head with his right hand. A sound escaped from his throat and he turned over, pressing his face into the pillow to hold back the tears.
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