SARA WILD ROSE COUNTRY
Imagine the map of Canada. If you placed your finger on the Pacific Ocean just north of the U.S. border and dragged it east across the Rocky Mountains until the topography flattened out and the states of Idaho and Montana were stacked below, you’d find the city of Calgary sprouting between the foothills and prairie of Alberta. In the 1970s an oil boom doubled the city’s population and sent skyscrapers shooting up along the bank of the Bow River. The cold mountain water sliced the wealthy western quadrants into north and south before it converged with the Elbow River, vertically splitting the city’s southeast side in two. Beyond the suburban sprawl was a sea of mustard yellow farmland thick with barley, and in every direction a sky blue as the ocean. From September to early June, temperatures dipped as low as minus thirty degrees Celsius and snowstorms buried entire streets of cars under snowbanks frozen like waves in midcurl. When the chinook winds from the west raised normally frigid temperatures above freezing, people swarmed the streets in short sleeves. The summers came and went quickly, and the long, desert-dry days were broken up by storms that rolled in from the south and the east in cinematic scope. Hailstorms of golf ball–size ice exploded windshields, split foreheads, and dented cars. The sun didn’t set until 10:00 p.m.
My twin sister, Tegan, and I were born at Calgary General Hospital on September 19, 1980. Our parents had met six years earlier at Saint Mary’s High School. Both arrived in Calgary under duress as teenagers: my father an orphan from Vancouver, and my mother fresh from Catholic boarding school in Saskatchewan. Our mother briefly dated our father’s brother, and our father dated our mother’s best friend. After graduation, our father took a job working at a lumberyard, and our mother attended community college, where she earned a diploma in youth and child development. They began dating in the autumn of 1977 and married in June of 1978. With money for the down payment from our grandfather, they bought a house, and our mother became pregnant with twins. Thirty-two weeks later, we were prematurely born into the world eight minutes apart. Baby number one, born at 5:56 a.m., was my sister, Tegan Rain Quin. Baby number two was me, born at 6:04 a.m. and given—according to my mother’s retelling—her second-favorite name, Sara Keirsten Quin. When Tegan and I finally left the hospital a month later, we were still so tiny that our mother dressed us in doll’s clothing.
By all accounts we were extremely easy babies, soothed by the sight of each other, delighting in hand-to-hand combat for hours on a blanket spread out on the living room floor. Our parents’ marriage, however, was difficult. Our father often seemed depressed and prone to long silences that stretched for weeks; our mother was explosive and at her wit’s end. They separated in 1984, and our dad took off for Mexico. When he returned a few months later, he slept in one of a set of wooden bunk beds in the unfinished basement of our house, his alarm clock casting a hellish red glow. The summer before Tegan and I started grade one, he moved out for good and the divorce was finalized. In 1987 our mom started dating Bruce, a handsome man who worked at a steel mill and drove a Camaro. He moved in with us in 1990, and though he and our mother were not married, we referred to him as our stepdad.
In the early 1990s, after Calgary’s economy bounced back from a recession, Bruce and our father worked for competing construction companies that built large houses in the subdivisions multiplying at the edges of the sprawling city limits. Tegan and I spent Saturdays with our father, who moved annually between sparsely furnished apartments and newly built homes. We lived with our mother and Bruce in half a dozen neighborhoods before we finished junior high. Mom hated the suburbs and the identical houses that duplicated and tessellated like cells, so she and Bruce bought a plot of land in the inner-city neighborhood of Renfrew and began to draft a blueprint for a new home.
Our relationship with our mother had grown difficult during our adolescence, but on this one fact the three of us could agree: the move would bring us near to the heart of the city. For our mother, it was a signal that we were moving up in the world. For Tegan and me, Renfrew’s proximity to the record stores, skate shops, and fast-food restaurants downtown meant freedom. In the spring of 1995, a land title for the house was submitted to the school board, proving our intention to relocate to Renfrew the following year. Though we would continue to live in the suburbs while the new house was being built, an exception was made and Tegan and I were officially enrolled at Crescent Heights High School. After Labor Day we started our first day of grade ten. This is where our story begins.
1. TEGAN WELCOME TO HIGH SCHOOL
“Tell her to get out. Tell her to leave us the fuck alone,” Sara screamed as we brawled and Mom tried to separate us. “Naomi’s my best friend. Tell her to get one of her own.”
It took all the air from inside me when Sara said it, like a bad fall.
The summer before we started high school, Sara and I were virtually estranged. During the day you could find me moping in the basement of our baby blue two-story house, deep in the suburbs of northeast Calgary, watching TV alone. If I wasn’t there, I was in my room with the door locked, playing music so loud my ears rang. While my mom and stepdad, Bruce, were at work, Sara and I either aggressively ignored each other or were at each other’s throats. We fought, mercilessly, for time alone, but I still felt a primal fear of being apart from her, especially as high school loomed. I was plagued with anxiety dreams all summer, in which I wandered the halls of our school searching for her. The dreams stoked the dread I already felt, adding layers of questions I avoided in the light of day like I avoided Sara. We hadn’t always been like this.
Naomi had complicated things. We met her in grade nine, our final year of junior high, when the French immersion program she was enrolled in moved to our school. Naomi was small, blond, with lively, sparkling green eyes. You couldn’t miss her in the halls. She dressed in brightly colored clothes and said hi to everyone. She oozed friendliness and kindness. Around her, a tight-knit pack of equally cool-looking girls we’d nicknamed the Frenchies was always with her. Sara and I became fast friends with all of them, but Naomi drew Sara and me in closest. For a time, we were both Naomi’s best friends. This was nothing new; Sara and I had always shared a best friend growing up. Our shared best friends acted as a conduit between us: we confessed to them what we couldn’t tell each other, and knew they’d pass along the message. We seemed to prefer it this way. But at the end of grade nine, Naomi and Sara forced an abrupt unraveling of this friendship after Naomi told us she and some of the other Frenchies planned to attend Aberhart High School, instead of Crescent Heights, like us, that fall. After that, Naomi and Sara acted as if Naomi were being shipped overseas, rather than across town. They isolated themselves as summer started, hid behind the locked door of Sara’s room, and left me out of their plans for sleepovers. I felt confused, injured, abandoned. I instigated violent clashes with Sara in front of Naomi when they left me out, further damaging whatever bond remained between the three of us. It was war.
* * *
After the fight, Mom followed me back to my room, where she watched as I sobbed on top of my bed, gulping back lungfuls of air, trying to calm down. Mom was an intake worker on a mental health line, working long shifts that meant Sara and I were free to kick the shit out of each other without a referee in earshot all summer. Throughout most of our lives, she balanced school and work, getting first a bachelor’s and then a master’s in social work while holding down a job. She was also a cool mom, someone our friends could confide in when they had problems at home or school. “Your mom’s so easy to talk to,” my friends constantly told me. But as she watched me cry, I felt her analyzing the situation, and me, and I felt resentful; I just wanted to be left alone.
“I don’t know why you two aren’t getting along anymore. You used to be so close. I mean, my god, you used to cry the first day of school, every single year, because you weren’t allowed to be in the same class together.”
It was true. When Sara’s name was called and she reluctantly walked away from me toward her own class, my eyes would fill with tears every time, despite my attempts to will them away. When Sara turned back, she’d look stricken when she saw the tears racing down my cheeks. Growing up it had hurt to be without her, but somehow by the end of junior high, she had turned into someone it hurt to be around.
“She’s … mean … I … don’t … know … why … they … leave … me … out…” As I tried to get out an explanation through hiccups and near hyperventilation, Mom just nodded sympathetically, which made me want to throw myself out the window.
“You might like having your own best friend,” she suggested. “You’ve always had to share with her, Tegan. It could be nice for you to have someone of your own. Don’t you think?”
I didn’t bother answering. She couldn’t possibly understand what Sara had taken from me that night. It wasn’t just the loss of Naomi; it was that no one could replace Sara.
* * *
The morning of our first day of grade ten, while Sara and I waited for Bruce to drive us to the bus stop, I suggested we steal a few loonies from his ashtray so we could buy Slurpees. Sara egged me on and kept a lookout as I pocketed the change. I felt united with her in our entitlement to his money. We blamed him for moving us to the suburbs, where no direct buses to school went and none of our friends lived. An hour later I grabbed Sara’s arm as we pushed through the towering wooden doors at Crescent Heights into the two-story student center. “Come on. Let’s go find our friends.” Around us, arriving students permeated the space with the smell of fresh clothes and new rubber-bottomed sneakers. I sensed nervousness in the faces of everyone we passed, even Sara’s. Somehow, I felt calm. Junior high had been an endless shitshow, an exhausting hellscape that lasted the entire three years we were there, never letting up or letting go. High school couldn’t possibly be worse.
“There,” I said, grabbing Sara’s arm. “There she is.”
“Kayla,” Sara yelled, waving her arms wildly to get her attention.
Before we shared Naomi, we shared Kayla. I guess that made her our ex–best friend.
I had spotted her in the gymnasium on the first day of grade seven. She was lean and tan and had curly brown hair, and her eyes were every shade of blue. Those first few weeks of grade seven everyone vied for her attention: her friends, boys, me, and Sara. She moved with the confidence of a cheerleader, even though she had braces. We were impossibly uncool, clinging to the bottom rung of the social complex, but Kayla and Sara shared a homeroom and became friends, leapfrogging Sara from obscurity to notable best friend overnight. By proxy, I leapt, too. For a time, the three of us were always together in the halls at school. At sleepovers on weekends, Kayla always insisted our sleeping bags go on either side of hers. But the friendship was tumultuous, complicated by the shrapnel of adolescence, and by the end of grade eight Sara and I had emancipated ourselves from the larger group we shared with Kayla. Now that Sara was officially calling Naomi her best friend, I was secretly hoping to reconcile with Kayla to make her mine. All mine this time.
“Hi,” Kayla gasped happily when she reached us, throwing her arms around Sara and me. Kayla’s older sister was two years ahead of us in grade twelve, and the kind of popular that made you consider throwing yourself down a set of stairs to make room for her if you were in her way. Kayla gave off the kind of confidence endowed by a popular older sibling, and I basked in her embrace, hoping it might bolster me for later, when I would face the halls and my classes alone. At a minimum, I hoped that knowing Kayla meant anyone who might bother me would think twice about messing with me, a friend of Kayla’s sister.
An announcement over the P.A. ordered us grade tens toward the gymnasium. We joined a line of kids who were already making their way there. Inside, we left Kayla to find the table with the letter of our last name to get our locker assignments and student agendas.
“You’re next to each other,” the grade twelve said, checking off Sara’s name and mine from the list in front of her as she handed us our locker combinations. “Twins?”
“Yes,” we answered together.
We reunited with Kayla in the wooden bleachers and compared class schedules. I squealed when I saw we shared a class in sixth period called Broadcasting and Communications.
“What is it?” Kayla scrunched her face and laughed, locking her wide eyes on me waiting for an explanation.
“I can’t remember.” I shrugged. “Something about making movies? Who cares, we’re together, that’s what matters.”
When a balding man in a tan suit with a wide striped tie took the stage, the gym quieted quickly. In a booming voice that didn’t match his small frame, he welcomed us to our first day of high school and introduced himself as our principal. Then he explained the first day was a half day. This inspired a round of cheers. After that he recited the school rules, finishing with the rule he considered most important, in a stern tone of warning: “Crescent Heights has a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to drugs. If you are caught with any illegal substance on school property, or under the influence at any time, you will be expelled. No exceptions.” At this, the gymnasium exploded into hooting, jeering, and whistles that went on for a full minute. A group of guys from our junior high who’d been mixed up in a gang whistled and stood, high-fiving one another. I marveled at their disregard for authority, even if they were jerks. Kayla, Sara, and I rolled our eyes at one another as the principal shushed the block of students in front of him. “This is not a joke, folks. I don’t encourage you to test me on this policy, because I assure you we are quite serious here at Crescent Heights about drugs.”
Kayla, Sara, and I had dropped acid a few times that past summer, and it had unexpectedly mended the broken parts of our friendship with Kayla. But I also noticed that while we were high, Sara and I got along. We even had fun together. It had been so long since that had felt possible that I’d forgotten Sara could be fun. The two of us talked almost constantly, when Mom and Bruce weren’t around, about where we could find acid again and when we could do it next. After nearly an entire summer of not talking, we had found a way to connect with each other again. Acid provided a small square of neutral territory, relief from the war that had been raging between us since Sara and Naomi had bounced me from their union. But the LSD also provided a bridge. And it seemed that in order to get past where we’d been stuck for so long, Sara and I needed one. For all intents and purposes that bridge was drugs, specifically acid, which we couldn’t have been more thrilled about.
“I’m serious about drugs, too,” I whispered to Sara and Kayla, who chuckled conspiratorially.
“Shhh,” Kayla said, looking around guiltily as the principal continued his speech. “If my sister finds out I did acid, no—check that, if she finds out any of us tried acid, she’ll fucking kill us.”
“Well, don’t tell her,” Sara said.
“Yeah, don’t ruin it for us,” I added.
“Then keep your fucking voices down.”
“Alright, chill.” I laughed and threw my arm around her. “No one will find out,” I whispered.
Just then the bell rang and six hundred grade tens stood in unison, forcing the three of us to our feet. As we made our way down the bleachers, I clutched the back of Kayla’s jean jacket; behind me, Sara clutched mine. We slowly made our way toward the doors that would lead us to the hallways I’d been anxiously dreaming about all summer.
Before we got there, the principal took to his mic one more time: “Welcome to high school,” he boomed. “Good luck.”
Copyright © 2019 by Sara Quin and Tegan Quin