by Kathy Friedman // from Vol. 6 Issue 1
“Promise me you’re going to look out for your brother,” my father said, glancing at us in the rear-view mirror, “at all times.”
“I’ll try,” I said. “But I’m not really comfortable promising.”
A motorbike cut us off as it glided across three lanes to catch an exit. My father mashed the heel of his hand into the horn. “Watch out!” my mother said, slamming her foot on an imaginary brake. Somehow, we whiplash-stopped in time, behind all the other cars also trying to cram onto the Don Valley Parkway.
“We have twenty minutes,” I said. “We are never going to make it.”
“I can take care of myself,” Jordan said. “I don’t need her to keep an eye on me.”
“Will anyone in this car who thinks Jordan can take care of himself please raise his or her hand?”
“I don’t know why you and Dad are always defending him. After everything he’s put this family through, and all you guys do is bend over backwards.”
My mother snapped her tongue against the roof of her mouth. “Thula,” she said. One of the few Zulu words I remember from back home: it basically means Be quiet!
“You have to start putting your foot down with him, that’s all I’m saying.” I’d been home from Ottawa for a week, ostensibly freaking out about exams, in reality avoiding my ex. I was like a dragon each time I opened my mouth. My parents were like villagers, frightened and running for cover. “Dad, you can go.”
“Go, go!” my mother said. “That car is letting you in.”
As we picked up speed, she gripped the ceiling handle to let my father know he was taking curves too fast.
“Slow down, Elliot,” she finally said.
“Don’t,” I said. “We are so late.”
“You don’t have to be rude to Mom and Dad,” Jordan said.
“Tell me you’re joking,” I said. “When have you ever showed them any respect or consideration?”
“Five minutes to go,” my father said, turning off the highway. “I think we’ll make it before the buses leave.”
A late shaft of light caught the archways of the Bloor viaduct. I searched in the distance for the spot where Jordan had fallen. “If not,” I said, “you could always drive us the whole way to the protest. You and Mom could join us. Think of it as penance for your colonial sins.”
“What sins?” my mother said. “What are you talking about?” Despite teaching us all about the Holocaust, she’d never so much as raised a finger against apartheid.
“I believe in globalization,” my father said.
Jordan leaned forward and karate-chopped his shoulder with a loud “Hiya!”
“Are you an idiot?” I said. “Dad’s driving!”
“Calm down, Stephanie,” my mother said. “It’s a joke they have.”
“Because he voted for Mike Harris,” Jordan said.
“I voted for him twice.”
“Oh my God,” I said. “You should never admit that to anyone.”
Of course we hit every single red light downtown, trapped behind a streetcar on College (I told him to take Wellesley), my parents agonizing about whether it was safe to pass, my brother and I screaming from the back seat, “Go, you can go!”
But the buses were there when we finally pulled up. The activists still outside in the lowering dark all turned to look, rigid as gazelles sensing a threat, when my mother cried out, “Don’t get arrested, sweethearts! Remember, you can’t afford to miss school!” Hauling myself up the tall stairs onto the bus, Jordan right behind me, I wondered if mortifying us brought my mother pleasure, and if so, whether she did it for the same grim reasons I poked at my parents’ wounds and watched them turn, snarling, on each other.
Three years earlier, when he was in Grade 9, my brother survived a forty-metre suicide leap off the viaduct—130 feet. The cause: according to his tearful confessions in family therapy, he thought our father hated him. Sure, Dad was sometimes hard on Jordan, but he deserved it: breaking curfew, using drugs. Compared to how he used to punish me back home, Jordan got off easy. Anyway, the aftermath: my mother, who grew up on a farm near Swellendam, scared of the Boers, terrified of what the African hordes might do if they ever got a chance, believed Jordan’s survival used up her good fortune and the universe might never smile on us again. My brother, on the other hand, still thrummed with recklessness, electrified by luck. And so my parents asked me to accompany Jordan on this little adventure. Maybe they sensed I was at a loose end, that I needed a change of scene.
The bus was full, and Jordan’s friends, Ari and Liz, hadn’t saved seats for us. Assholes. Ari was the one who got my brother into the party scene in the first place, taking him to packed warehouses and parking garages where amphetamines made them all feel like one. I wondered if they were looking for the same feeling in Québec. As we walked past them, Liz waved cheerily. Jordan headed to the back of the bus. I grabbed a seat near the front and tried not to stare at the curly-haired god sitting beside me.
The buses were organized by a group called Mobilization for Global Justice, or Mob4Glob, and the idea was to drive all night, hit Québec City around dawn, and spend the weekend protesting against yet another international summit where secretive trade agreements were drafted by the rich at the expense of the poor. A permanent marker got passed around, travelling hand to hand, so we could write a legal-aid number on our forearms in case we got arrested. What would the former chess champion of Manitoba have said about all this—Colin, my ex, Mr. Cerebral? Apparently, I censored myself too much for Mr. Cerebral—I was meek, I was doting, I was nothing like the firebrand he’d thought he was falling for—and yet there I was, on a Mob4Glob bus with a legal-aid number inked on my arm. He was full of shit.
We were keyed up, cheering, as the bus jerked out of the parking lot into the dark streets near the university. My parents were still sitting in their car. My father tapped his horn twice as we passed.
Beside me, a right leg jiggled, either from impatience or caffeine. The drooping corners of the god’s eyes softened the effect of his golden-haired beauty so that he seemed sleepy, and almost kind. He bunched up the black sleeve of his hoodie when I handed him the marker. There were four little moles just below his inner elbow and I wanted to trace the diamond between them, connect the dots.
“What does your tattoo mean?” I asked, pointing at his wrist.
“It’s the Japanese symbol for ‘courage.’”
The tattoo looked dumb, as if it had been smudged by fat raindrops or fingers. “Cool!” I said, anyway.
Over the next few hours, as the chattering buzz around us quieted, and the bus nestled into sleep, Vic explained that he wanted to torch the whole world and rebuild it lovingly, brick by brick, on the ashes of history. I said that sounded good to me. Then, around midnight, after three and a half hours of blather, he suddenly grabbed my hand, his thumb slowly moving on it, and I was like, YES!
“Are you planning to go right up to the fence?” he asked. The fence was a four-kilometre chain-link monstrosity around the summit site, referred to by many protestors as the Wall of Shame.
“I think I’m supposed to be keeping my little brother away from it. That’s technically why I’m here.”
“Well, I’m going to find the craziest fuckers I can and charge that thing.”
I’d crawled my fingers inside his hoodie. I was raking my fingers up and down his arm. “That’s really brave,” I said.
“Are you from England?”
My accent’s nearly non-existent; I was surprised he’d noticed it. When I answered, he asked if that meant my family spoke Dutch. “English,” I said quickly. “We’re Jewish,” and he said that’s what he’d thought, as though he was a multicultural epicure and Jews were to be savoured, like truffle oil. I took my hand out of his sleeve.
While Vic went on about his Jewish ex-girlfriend, I wondered if I’d been too hard on my brother. What bugged me was that he thought he had the family’s monopoly on sadness, when he barely even remembered South Africa. During our stopover in London after we left, my dad had taken me aside. He said he needed my assistance. My mom hadn’t wanted to leave, not really, and Jordan was just a baby, and would I be a big girl and help everyone and not be sad? He raised his eyebrows, like two arched caterpillars, and beneath them his black eyes looked pleading, even desperate. I said yes. My father—a judge, an important man—had never needed my help before. And so whenever the boys at school teased me about my accent, or Tessa Gordon rolled her eyes at my clothes, or I started to miss my friends, or think about my tenth birthday party—at night!—in our garden, with lanterns in the pawpaw trees, and the Knight Rider cake my mother had made—in Canada she had to work and didn’t have time to organize parties like that, and she often seemed so unhappy I felt harpooned in the chest—I remembered, then, that I was my father’s special assistant, and I swallowed down everything I wasn’t supposed to talk about. I didn’t have the right words, anyway.
This woman across the aisle leaned in to inform Vic that it was late and everyone was trying to sleep. I put my head against his shoulder, and his smell tore through me. Eyes closed, I counted one Mississippi, two Mississippi, three—
“You awake?” he whispered. There was a flash of heat, then his hands at my breasts, my hands in his lap, his belt unbuckling, a high-voltage gasp from him. “Careful,” I whispered. I laid my coat across our laps. “Quietly. My brother’s on this bus somewhere.”
“Do you care?” he panted. “Because I really don’t care.”
“Shh,” I said, my lips pressed to his neck. “Gently. Quietly.”
Just after 6:30 a.m., five of us wandered an empty hallway in the paint-smelling basement of Laval University’s athletic centre, on the hunt for breakfast. We were sort of lost, actually, and it was actually sort of my fault. I’d told the girl at the welcome desk I spoke French, which was true, but what was maybe also true was that I didn’t understand French the way I thought I did. And so there we were in the basement: exhausted, bellies rumbling. It was strange to see Vic under the fluorescent lights, his curls sticking up, his slanting eyes crusted with sleep, although my stomach still bobbed and dipped looking at him. Actually, Vic was looking somewhat pissed off, because we were all too embarrassed to go back and ask in English where breakfast was being served, so we decided to go upstairs and catch a couple hours of sleep instead. Vic said he’d find breakfast himself and kissed me to the side of my mouth, in front of my little brother, and my little brother’s friends. I decided I was too tired to wonder if I was being rejected.
Up in the gym, a few hundred or thousand bodies rolled up in sleeping bags were snoring away on the floor. My neck was cricked from not-sleeping on Vic’s shoulder, and all I had was my backpack for a pillow. Jordan’s friends had each brought pillows. “Nobody’s going to have one,” I’d told Jordan. It had seemed important not to announce we were from Thornhill, by overpacking. Way up above us, the lights blazed away. Fans chopped the stiff air. There was nothing so great about Vic. He’d seemed smart at first, but he was intellectually bibulous, sopped full of every leftist idea he’d ever encountered, and he kept mentioning Chomsky and Kropotkin the same way my aunt Debbie talks about clothing stores she suspects you can’t afford. Colin was smarter than him (he was smarter than me), but he’d been fat in high school, and, still convinced that the world was waiting for its chance to wound him mortally, he was a total snob. I kept telling him he was sexy, and hilarious—my hyperbole was embarrassing, actually—until, believing me, he decided that he could do better. Or maybe he just grew tired of me. Most people grew tired of me, eventually.
I opened my eyes and saw Jordan propped on one elbow, wearing that benevolently wise, blue-eyed expression that made everyone go crazy for him. I remember my Bat Mitzvah party, when my friends thought he was so cute they took turns letting him stand on their feet to dance. Even at my Bat Mitzvah, he outshone me.
“What happened to the chess guy?” Jordan asked.
“God, he was boring. You liked him?”
“I thought he made sense for you.”
My eyes were suddenly, stupidly, flooded with tears.
“What an idiot,” Jordan said quickly. “He obviously didn’t deserve you.”
“He was the chess champion of Manitoba,” I bawled.
“So what?” Jordan said. “I bet he can’t sing like you. No one can.”
“Thank you,” I managed, between sobs.
My chin was wet, meaning I’d fallen asleep. I rolled onto my side and watched the rise and fall of my brother’s sleeping bag as he breathed. He seemed to draw people toward him, no matter how many dumb, selfish things he did. I, on the other hand, always managed to push people away. At the time of his accident, I was in Milan, studying to be an opera singer. I’d just finished high school and was involved with a Greek ballroom dancer who constantly, and unfavourably, compared me to his ex-wife. I’d refused to give my parents a phone number, saying I’d call them once a week. It was ten o’clock in the morning when I read the email about Jordan. Afterwards, on a bench in the park, I ate fresh olives from a paper bag and watched the old men curse over games of chess. I stayed until the sky began to dim and I knew Kosta would be getting home from work. It was two days later that I bought my ticket home, after an accusing email from my mother that, in a nasty flash, showed me a part of myself I hadn’t wished to see.
I rolled onto my other side, toward the bleachers, where some kids were unfurling a red banner that said, NOT FOR SALE. A few voices started into that old union song, “Solidarity Forever,” and the whole gym exploded at the chorus. I mouthed the words and rolled the other way.
Sitting up now, lion-yawning, was Jordan. “Time to get up,” he said, with a confidence that was maddening.
It was colder in Québec City than in Toronto, and a few patches of snow caught the sun as we gathered outside the university. Liz tooted into a harmonica. Ari shouldered a huge Canadian flag.
“This country’s fascist, man!” a guy wearing a black bandana over his nose and mouth informed him. “Why are you carrying that fascist flag?”
“It’s a hammer and sickle, man,” Jordan said. Ari had tried to blot out the maple leaf by duct-taping the communist symbol onto it, but the symbol was so small it was hard to see.
“Oh, you’re right,” the guy said, squinting. “That is totally my bad.” Ari looked crestfallen.
I was wearing my dad’s tatty yellow raincoat with a bandana around my neck. A grey-haired couple in shower caps and plastic ponchos, swim goggles strapped to their hairlines, clapped along as a band struck up—three gutter punks on tuba, trumpet, and accordion. They drowned out Liz’s harmonica. “Hey,” Jordan said, “isn’t that guy on TV?” Way off to the side, a MuchMusic VJ leaned into a video camera before stepping out of the shot to let his cameraman pan the crowd. Ari waved his flag gleefully. Jordan raised his fist.
I felt a hand on my shoulder, heard a voice in my ear, and turned to find Vic, wearing a balaclava over his beautiful face. My insides fizzed as we locked hands and started creeping forward, chanting, “So-so-so-solidarité,” waving and shouting, “Venez avec nous!” to the locals who slanted from windows or watched from their fire escapes. I wouldn’t have minded being up there with them, looking down at the tall men thumping overturned buckets, teenage girls scribbling with sidewalk chalk, anarchists dressed in red and black, Haitians shouting “Aristide!” and puppets, dancers, pagans, punks, Ari and his flag, Liz and her harmonica, Jordan with both arms around his friends. Up there, all you’d have seen was camaraderie—joyful, history-
making—you wouldn’t feel how much it hurt being ignored, locked out, shunted to the wrong side of the fence. Another chant—“The people, united, can never be defeated!”—started up around us, and the muscles in Vic’s jaw moved under his mask while his fist pumped the chilly air. I wished he’d take my hand again.
We arrived at a fork in the procession. To our right, militant anger was climbing the hill to the perimeter while goofy frivolity continued straight ahead. We clumped off to the side to debate which way to go. Liz said she didn’t think damage to corporate property was a form of violence—poverty is violence, racism is violence—and she’d risk arrest, go up to the fence herself, join the Black Bloc in solidarity, if only she didn’t have an exam to write the following week. Ari said he’d stick with Liz. She kissed the tip of his nose.
A cheerleader wearing red-and-black-striped knee socks jogged up to us. Her pompoms were plastic strips cut from garbage bags. “Did you guys see which way my friends went?” she asked. Her eyes looked raw and shrivelled. “There was a group of us dressed like this.”
“What’s going on up there?” Ari asked. High above the buildings, a helicopter droned.
“The Black Bloc took down part of the fence, and the cops are going mental. I saw this one guy sitting on the ground meditating. They fired a can of tear gas right into his lap. I saw them do it. That’s some sadistic shit, know what I mean?”
“Fascist pigs,” Vic said.
“It’s a national disgrace,” said the cheerleader. We hadn’t seen her comrades, so she loped off.
“Jordan,” I said, “will you promise to remain with your very sensible friends if I go with Vic?”
“Your brother,” Vic opined, “should totally join us at the barricades. Magic fairies sprinkling fairy dust are not going to bring about the revolution.”
Two burly men, in crinoline and wings, really were marching toward us. One carried a pink sign that said, FAIRIES FOR FAIR TRADE.
“My very sensible friends?” Jordan said. “Why do you have to be so condescending?” It was as if our talk the night before had never happened.
“I’m not going to hold your hand all weekend.”
“I never asked you to.”
“You know that Mom and Dad will have a fit if you get arrested.”
“Mom and Dad will have a fit either way. It’s the only way they function.”
“Jordan,” I said, “how can you say that? Mom and Dad are sick with worry about you, you know that? It’s their health I care about.”
A stilt walker dressed in a business suit lurched by, laughing maniacally. A sign that hung from his neck said, I RAPE THE PLANET.
“What do they have to worry about?
“The lying…the drugs, your grades… Does any of this ring a bell?”
“Years ago. Clearly you haven’t been around much, lately.”
“Listen,” Vic said, “are you guys coming or what?”
“Mom calls me, crying,” I said. Even though I hated those calls because I never said the right thing, never managed to make her feel better, I was proud she phoned me, as though the calls meant I was loved. “In tears, do you get it? She doesn’t have anyone else.”
“That’s hardly my fault.”
“And the girl you were with when you jumped, your little girlfriend, do you remember what happened to her?” Jordan’s mouth opened fast, like a cut, but I couldn’t let him win, even after he blinked once, twice—blinking back tears?—and walked away. I had to scream at his back as he walked alone toward the Wall of Shame: “Tell me, when she had a nervous breakdown, was that your fault?”
In hindsight, I probably could have been a different, better sister. I hadn’t forgotten the sight of his frail body in that hospital bed—the casts, the splints, the tube through the hole in his chest—and with it a new, excoriating understanding that if things had turned out differently, the loss would have been absolute.
Yet even as I watched him climb toward the fence by himself, I thought, Next time, I’ll do better. Next time, I’ll go after him and bring him back.
“Sorry, guys,” I said to Ari and Liz. They just shrugged like Hey, whatever. The helicopter spiralled closer, hovering louder, louder, louder, and for an upsetting moment, I was sure it was coming straight for me.
“Ready to go?” Vic asked. He peeled the balaclava from his face and was golden-haired again. Then he pulled a gas mask out of his bag.
“Wow!” Ari said.
I soaked my bandana in vinegar and caught sight of myself in the window of a café, grim-lipped but happy, wearing pink ski goggles over my glasses and a torn yellow raincoat. With the bandana tied in place, I was unrecognizable, even to myself. Thick clouds of tear gas or maybe smoke rose from the hill. In all the chaos, Jordan and I would never be able to find each other again.
“Ready,” I said.
Kathy Friedman’s writing has appeared in many Canadian literary journals. A finalist for the Bronwen Wallace Award for Emerging Writers, she has also been runner-up for the Peter Hinchcliffe Fiction Award (the New Quarterly) and PRISM international’s short fiction contest. Kathy teaches creative writing in the University of Guelph’s Open Education program and is the artistic director of InkWell Workshops. kathyfriedman.ca