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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.”
2. SARA GRADE-TEN DIRTBAGS
At school, I took the hit of acid in my mouth and flushed the foil down the toilet. Through the seams of the bathroom stall, I watched the girls standing guard at the sinks. They brought hair dryers, curling irons, and pouches loaded with makeup, like they were going to a club and not first-period English. At lunch, in the student center, I watched them stroke their boyfriends’ faces and sit in their laps, while our teachers watched from the perimeter. In the halls between classes, my eyes locked on these girls’ chests, on the delicate jewelry disappearing into their cleavage, on the track jackets they draped off their bare shoulders. The clothes I wore to school every day in grade ten were two or three sizes too large for my shoulders and hips. I hid my breasts under layers—a T-shirt, a hoodie, and a heavy coat. My long wallet chain, cut from a spool of heavy metal at the hardware store, bounced off my side and left soft blue bruises on my thigh. Sometimes I noticed students shaking their heads at me in disbelief, even disgust. I tried not to look into mirrors when I was on acid. In those distorted reflections my armor sagged to reveal the body I hated underneath. With my jacket sleeves pulled beyond my fingertips and the torn hems of my pants dragging behind my heels, I looked rotten.
Sitting on the bus after school, those same girls from the bathroom noticed Tegan and me in the crowded seats near the back.
“What are you looking at?” one of them asked us. I stared out the window.
“What the fuck are they looking at?” she asked her friends. I kept my eyes pinned to the glass.
“She better not be looking at me.” I didn’t dare.
Those girls’ eyes were drawn to our bodies, too, tracking us with searing disapproval wherever we went. In those first few months of high school, I learned to avert my eyes, to show them submission, to be a ghost.
* * *
I was in sixth grade when the first suggestion of change occurred to my body. I stood in a hallway mirror that hung between the three bedrooms in our house, staring at my bare chest. I was afraid someone would catch me inspecting myself, but as with any gruesome discovery, I couldn’t stop looking. The permanence of the change upon me altered how I felt about my bathing suit. That summer, on vacation in Georgia and Florida, I started to wear a T-shirt over my one-piece. When asked why, I claimed I was cold. I devised ways to get in and out of pools and the ocean quickly and then plant myself belly down on the towel stretched next to my younger cousins. I hated how exposed I felt on the crowded beach while my mom rubbed sunscreen onto my back. My vulnerability and shame made me curl my shoulders.
That same summer I found myself unable to turn away from the older girls who lay out confidently in their bikinis near our family’s cluster of deck chairs. I was nervous that one of them might catch me looking in their direction, so I squinted and played dead when their eyes occasionally met mine. These roots of attraction didn’t yet register as sexual. Instead, I became obsessed with trying to look like them. I stopped wearing my hair up in a ponytail and let my curled ends fall past my chin. I stood for long periods at the bathroom mirror and wondered if I was pretty. It was clear to me that neither Tegan nor I looked or acted like those girls from the beach, but at night on the pullout couch that we shared, I never dared to ask if Tegan was scrutinizing them as carefully as I was. The physical intimacy between our aunt and her daughters that summer seemed like a language I’d forgotten between childhood and adolescence. Longing to be comforted, I watched Tegan and Mom embrace on the beach at dusk and found I could no longer close the gap between us. My body had become a stranger, and so had my mind.
* * *
During those early adolescent years, Mom’s bathroom was littered with makeup and electronics. Before classes at the college where she was earning her bachelor’s degree in social work, she doubled the size of her perm with a flat iron and rollers. Tegan and I perched on the closed toilet lid and watched as she painted her face brilliant pinks and reds and blues. She was the target of male attention everywhere we went. Horns honked, men whistled, boys from school blushed. Calling her “Mom” in public was shocking to strangers. Men and women alike insisted, “You look like sisters!” I was at ease with her beauty and adored watching my stepdad take pictures of her on the front lawn. Those black-and-white photographs were framed and placed with pride all through the house: Mom in profile, Bruce’s leather jacket pulled down off her shoulders as she cast sultry looks into his lens.
When my body began to betray me, it should have been her I turned to for guidance, but instead I disguised the change occurring beneath my clothes. I looted the vanity in her bathroom for deodorant, perfume, and cover-up that I applied ineptly over my pimples. Although she offered her closet full of trendy clothes, fashionable overalls, and black Doc Martens, Tegan and I opted for Disney Epcot T-shirts and our gramma’s hand-me-downs.
“Get your noses pierced!” Mom screamed excitedly at me and Tegan on a back-to-school shopping trip before grade seven. We stood paralyzed near the glass case of piercing jewelry, unable to accept her help.
* * *
In junior high physical education class, I developed a method that involved wearing multiple shirts in order to avoid removing my clothes entirely in the locker room. Running laps slowly only encouraged the leering from boys, so I began to fake injuries like a pulled muscle or a twisted knee and sat slumped on the lacquered floors beneath the basketball hoops, watching my flat-chested friends sprint across the court. Jumping jacks were out; so were push-ups. I stopped wearing my backpack on both shoulders, preferring to hang it off my right side and folding my left shoulder inward.
“Lily said you guys have floppy tits,” a friend told Tegan and me at a sleepover. I broke down into sobs, choked by shame. This cruel teasing forced us to finally suggest to Mom that we might need sports bras for gym class. At a department store downtown, we rode the escalator behind her in embarrassed silence. A measuring tape was tightly cinched across our breasts by a sales clerk in the lingerie section. I selected the first bra I found in my size, tugging it down quickly and then off again behind the locked dressing room door. “This one” was all I said as I handed it back to Mom. Later, in the privacy of my bedroom, I checked to see if the bra would restore me to my original flatness as I pulled my T-shirts and sweatshirts on and then off.
Among the popular grade-eight girls, our large breasts had been considered a joke, and their malicious gossip was the final humiliation that compelled us to address the situation. But when we returned to school our bras seemed only to inspire further contempt, and their punishment scaled with our cup size. We became the enemies they kept close, rejecting us and then returning when it suited them. When a much-desired senior, Matthew, asked for my phone number, these girls banished us once again from their circle. My crime, scribbled on foolscap, was folded and left for me to find on the corner of my desk the following morning: “You knew that Lily liked him.”
In exile, Matthew told me about his favorite band, Smashing Pumpkins, and loaned me his well-worn copy of Siamese Dream so I could dub it to a cassette tape. Matthew had assured me “Today” was the best song on the album. After school in the basement at home, I placed the CD in the tray and selected the third track. Tegan sat on the couch, and I remained crouched near the stereo. I turned up the volume.
“Today is the greatest day I’ve ever known,” Billy Corgan sang from the black foam of Bruce’s speakers. Goosebumps spread across my ribs as the bass sucked air in and out of the subwoofer. Each lyric provoked a desperate reply in me. I couldn’t wait for tomorrow either; I wanted to burn my eyes out, too; I wanted to turn someone on.
“Amazing, right?” Matthew asked me the next day in the library.
“Yeah,” I said, passing the CD to him.
“I’m going to bring you the Pumpkins’ first album, Gish. It’s gonna blow your mind,” he said.
Matthew was the first boy who shared something with me that I didn’t want to reject, but I had nothing to offer him in return. Over the holidays he stopped calling me, and by January he was flanked in the hallways by a girl who could have been his twin. In their arms, they were cradling skateboards, and their baggy pants were pulled low by the chains of their wallets.
“Hello, Sara,” he said, dipping his chin at me as they passed by.
“Hi.” I nodded back, avoiding his girlfriend’s eyes. Her indifference suggested that I posed no threat. She was exactly what I wasn’t. I shrank from Matthew’s greeting, ashamed I’d ever thought he was into me.
* * *
When the bus pulled up to the stop near our house, Tegan and I hurried past the girls who’d threatened us, grabbing our wallet chains in our fists, just in case we had to run. At home I went up to my bedroom and slipped headphones over my ears. They were Bruce’s, borrowed after much begging and a promise to handle them with care. The soft black leather ear pads and headband pressed against my head. I hit Play on a fuzzy recording of “Bullet with Butterfly Wings” that I’d dubbed from the radio. I pretended my hands were wrapped around a microphone, and I howled Billy’s words as if they were my own. The imaginary crowd watching me was filled with my friends, but also with my bullies from junior high and the intimidating girls from the bus. In my mind’s eye, I stretched myself thin and tall, erasing my breasts from my silhouette onstage. A single spotlight burned white on my face. When the song ended, I sat up and leaned across the mattress to press Rewind, then Play. I listened until my ears rang.
* * *
In the morning when my alarm went off, my hair was tangled in the headphones. Taya, the oldest of our three cats, was curled by my hip under the blanket. I let the dread of the day ahead foam up in my chest. In the bathroom I jerked a brush roughly through the knots in my hair before dropping it on the counter with a sigh. I grabbed my backpack and coat from my bedroom.
“Let’s go,” Bruce shouted up the stairwell.
Downstairs Tegan was rushing around in the same disorganized panic as I was. Her feet were wedged halfway into her purple sneakers, the sleeve of her jacket dragged behind her on the floor.
“Feed the cats!” Mom yelled down the stairs.
“We’re late!” Tegan shouted.
“Whose fault is that?” she answered, annoyed.
I grabbed my shoes and swung the interior garage door open, jumping down the stairs onto the cement in my stocking feet. Bruce had already pulled his pickup truck out onto the parking pad, and I could hear U2 blasting from the stereo. He leaned across the seat and swung open the passenger door. I slid to the middle—the worst spot, because you had to keep his leather briefcase between your knees—and balanced my backpack and shoes on my lap. The silver wrappers from the Wendy’s burgers he ate daily were balled up near the pedals on the floor. The dashboard and seats were dusted with grit from the construction sites he managed, and the whole car smelled of onions and his musky cologne. Tegan swung her backpack onto the seat and climbed in next to me. Before she’d even closed the door, Bruce backed into the street and joined the trail of red taillights headed for the highway. It was a ten-minute drive to the bus stop, just enough time to hear three songs from Bruce’s mixtape. The three of us sang the chorus of “Where the Streets Have No Name” in full voice as Bruce hammered his large hands on the steering wheel to the beat of the snare. His work clothes mostly consisted of Springsteen and U2 T-shirts that he hacked into muscle tees with scissors. His biceps were the size of my thighs and his skin carried a deep tan from working outside. When we’d first met him as kids, we’d been impressed by the long scar that ran between his shoulder and elbow. Drawing his fingers across the gash, he’d told us that the doctor who delivered him at birth was drunk and had nearly cut his arm off.
Bruce took a squealing left turn into the neighborhood of Abbeydale, where we caught the charter bus to Crescent Heights every morning. The small bungalows and split-levels were interchangeable with the houses we’d grown up in; I knew each floor plan like the back of my hand. The patch of yard outside our house in Monterey Park was laid with fresh strips of sod. Every driveway had a basketball hoop planted in it like a flag. The kids who lived in Abbeydale thought that living in Monterey Park made you rich.
Bruce pulled a U-turn across the intersection, stomping hard on the brake pedal in front of the bus shelter, where a group of kids was smoking and kicking at a pile of glass.
“Have a good day, girls.” He pulled a ten-dollar bill from his wallet.
I took it from him and smiled. “Thanks.”
* * *
The money Bruce gave us wasn’t enough for the new Smashing Pumpkins album, Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, but Tegan and I agreed that we’d go downtown after school anyway just to get a look at it. In the months leading up to the album’s release, I had carefully cut any mention of the band from the pages of Rolling Stone and Spin magazine and pasted them to the wall of my bedroom. I suffered a hunger to consume every new song in one giant helping. This would be my album, dislocated from the trauma of junior high and the disappointment of being ditched by Matthew. When the bus arrived at the stop, I pulled Bruce’s headphones from my bag and disappeared into my own world.
* * *
When Tegan and I got home after school, Mom’s Jeep was parked in front of the house. Her shift at the Distress Centre started after her university classes in the late afternoon. Most days we didn’t see her until after midnight, if we saw her at all.
“Shit,” said Tegan. “Why is she home so early?”
“Maybe she’s downstairs working in the office,” I said as Tegan punched in the security code beside the garage door.
We slipped under the garage door and into the house. The water was running in the kitchen: busted.
“Hi,” we both said.
“Where were you?” she asked as she stood by the sink, loading the dishwasher.
“Downtown at A&B Sound. The album was already sold out. I told you it would be,” I said, opening the refrigerator.
“What a shame,” Mom said.
“Sara…” Tegan stammered. I turned. Sitting on top of the kitchen table was Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness.
“Oh my god!” I rushed to grab it, holding it against my chest, laughing, nearly crying. “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”
“You’re going to pay me back,” Mom said, smiling. “And clean the goddamn litter box before you listen to a single note of that!”
Upstairs I unwrapped the package in my lap. The case squeaked open to reveal a bubble-gum pink disc inside. It was epic. I pulled it out, placing it carefully into the tray of my stereo. I pressed Play. A simple piano progression started. I removed the lyrics booklet and opened it across my lap. My face was wet with tears. Nothing had ever sounded more important to me. Billy’s words spoke directly to the places inside of me that were hurt. His suffering reflected my own, and briefly, I felt less alone.
Copyright © 2019 by Sara Quin and Tegan Quin