Behind the Fence (I’m constantly updating this draft until its finished. I know, I’ve made a big mistake in not making it scary yet. I’m gonna edit it)
Her eyes looked calm, almost dreamlike. I couldn’t believe that moments later I would be
No. It’s too early to talk about that.
First, two warnings. The most important of the two: if you live at or find yourself travelling near North of Toronto, Ontario in Canada stay away from an area east of a university known as York University known as Droningdale park. It is of utmost importance that you do not approach it. The area does not appear on any map I know of but, fortunately, there is no real entrance into the park. It is surrounded by a wire fence. Behind the fence are large, deciduous trees with large mossy trunks.
Never cross this sign. Do not go through the arc into the park, no matter what.
Secondly, this tale is an unfortunately true account of a time I and a group of friends attempted to change our bitterly dull lives. It is a cautionary tale against drinking, violence, abuse, driving while tried or frightened, and hoping to turn one’s life around. There will be much violence and subject matter that isn’t suitable for most.
That is my warning. Do not blame me if you continue to read.
I should tell you all who I am. My name is Maria Welch, a medical intern training to become an ophthalmologist (though I don’t know if I’ll ever finish my internship). I grew up in a poor family in Toronto and never moved out of the city. I was raised by my mother and older sisters. My mother was relatively neglectful. She was constantly tired and almost never cheerful. Her best friends were her television set and her mood changing medicines. But I knew she loved me, even if she never acted on that love. My sisters have nearly killed me playing rough. I don’t know whether they loved me or not but I really do not care now. They were always such beautiful little angels when their teachers and friends were around, but were mercilessly scathing about them when they weren’t. I didn’t get any of their false pleasantry, though. My sisters made my life a living hell when I was ten. Being the weaker of my sisters for years until high school, I unwillingly played the role of their cat-toy. My hair was their ball of yarn, and my body and all of my things were their chew toy. They hung me from trees, threw me into pools and anything I had that was remotely valuable. You’ll notice I never mention them by name. I like to pretend I forgot them, and sometimes I convince myself I have.
Growing up with so many morally-questionable women is it truly so strange that I hung out with more men? From elementary school (third grade, after the cat incident) to high school and all throughout university I stayed far away from gossiping girls in favor of dirty, trashcan kicking boys. I didn’t hang out with any nice man o woman because I could imagine the things I thought they said and did behind closed doors. I surrounded myself with people who didn’t hide when they insulted someone, smoked publicly and put up no fronts about their delinquency. They’d often insult me but that was okay because they insulted, and fought, each other as well. I was more afraid of the flowers hiding the bee than the buzzing hive.
I avoided all nice people. the only exception was Nicholas. Nicholas was my cousin from my deceased father’s side living in Saskatchewan. My mother always avoided anyone from his end of the family, but Nicholas was special. He made my mother laugh when television couldn’t cure her of her depression, my sisters acted differently when he was around. They were a little bit nicer and I dare to believe it was possibly legitimate. Nicholas, since he was seven, was the comedian of his family. He aspired to make everyone he met laughed and even if he wasn’t always successful with other people, he had a perfect record with me. Ten out of ten, one hundred percent.
I realize I’m probably making you uncomfortable right now. I assure you that my relation with Nicholas was never anything closer than that of a little sister, though he was actually my cousin and a boy. I’m only telling you the good things of how he affected my life because, right now, I don’t want to talk about his annoying habit of belching into his jacket, or that his jokes weren’t always in great taste (remember how I said he almost made me laugh? A good percentage of that was nervous laughter or pity chuckling) or that even when he made me smile I still felt the cold grip of melancholy my life had inflicted on me most of the time. I only want to write of the good things of him.
When he visited I spent less time with whatever group of boys I hung out with. Bad and upfront about it was acceptable, but soft and kind without a hidden stinger was great. We would talk about our plans for the future (I had none so I made stuff up), and hang out in shopping centers while seldom planning to actually buying anything. When he moved to Toronto in 1997, I was in my final years in high school. That was the year I stopped hanging out with delinquents and I supposed that little fact was responsible for me passing most of my classes and graduating. After one victory lap year in high school I was accepted into University, something nobody else in my family can claim, even if I included Nicholas, which I usually did.
This would be such a great way to end my story. I wish I could stop writing here, I really do. This story actually beings a few weeks back, during Spring break.
The Jane and Finch shopping center was not the largest or cleanest of malls, but it was within walking distance from our houses. It also had a large variety of stores for such a small place. I was with Nicholas sitting at a table eating Indian food in front of the food stand we bought it from. We were waiting for two of Nick’s friends to arrive, which would have been boring in any other mall but this one was diverse enough to keep us entertained and small enough so that one of us could leave the table to browse the stores. I did so after ten minutes of waiting.
I told him “I’m gonna go browse the bulk store, okay?”
“Sure, sure. I’ll call you when Modupe comes,” he told me. I walked to the bulk store at the other side of the shopping center, meaning a half a minute walk away.
I walked into the store and avoided the aisle with the nuts. I’m not allergic to nuts, I just detest the smell. My mother used to roast raw almonds every week. She did so while smoking out the kitchen window. Now the smell of nuts and the smell of cigarettes are intermingled in my mind and I simply can’t separate the two. It was bad enough, but she had been roasting nut only raw almonds but also peanuts and cashews the day I left for the last time. That was now a tainted memory even though I was so happy to move out. I won’t tell you why as of now but I don’t know if I’ll need to later to make this story make sense. I’d skip it if I could get away with doing so.
Unfortunately for me the store was really small, so as I browsed the candy aisle the smell of nuts was inescapable. I tried opening some containers of M&Ms and gummy worms to overwhelm the nuts.
I was beginning to tear up as I smelled the nuts remembering the smell of smoke and the sound of a chopping board my mother always used. Using my sleeve to cover my face and left the store, where Nicholas and his two friends were approaching.
“Maria? Are you okay?” Nick asked me. I told him that I was fine. I had met his two friends before and, sadly, this was not the first time they witnessed me in crazy mode. I won’t say I was sorry that I ran out of the store like a psycho but I will say I was embarrassed people saw me do so.
Modupe, a tall woman of Arabic descent, was Nicholas’s girlfriend of two years. I was with him when the two of them first met. She never spoke to me much when Nick was around but we were on friendly terms. She chewed a lot of gum and her constantly minty breath was what came to mind first whenever I thought of her. I know I shouldn’t have felt angry when she looked so taken aback at me then and there, but I did. I really regret being angry now, but I was.
His other friend, Michael, had been a friend of Nicholas since the days he visited my family only once every few months. He had curly orange hair and kept the bespectacled look throughout his life despite claiming to want contact lenses. Michael lived across the street from where I used to live and always came over when Nick came. He and Nick shared many interests. In elementary school they liked many of the same hockey cartoons. In High school they were in love with the same celebrities. And they shared the same ambitious energy but for different passions; Nick wanted to perfect his stand up routines and Michael wanted to own his own bar and grill.
Nick removed his hand from Modupe’s side and put his hand on my shoulders. He knew about the thing I’m not telling any of you. “Do you want to sit down before we go?” he asked me. I told him no and to give his hands back to Modupe. I sometimes suspected that she was the jealous type, even if I was Nick’s cousin. Perverse, I know, but I suspect it to this day.
Michael and Modupe didn’t feel like browsing any of the stores at the shopping center and Me and Nick have been waiting there long enough. We left the building and made for Nick’s car. He had bought it used after saving up money for years. I remember seeing him showing off his car the day he bought it, looking the he had won a Nobel prize. I don’t remember what the brand name of the thing was even though he kept repeating it over and over again.
Give him credit though, even though his car meant so much to him Nicholas wasn’t stingy about me and his friends eating take out in it and dropping fries everywhere. I don’t remember most of what we did that day. We drove off to downtown, our usual hang out spot when driving. We drove, we watched some street performers, we ate too much and I think I might have convinced them to let me browse a book store for a few minutes.
I remember laughing at jokes I didn’t understand. I remember the way Michael’s face resembled a mad killer when he laughed especially hard about something. I remember the Nicholas, ever smiling, ever polite even to the many unscrupulous people we came across. I remember a lot about Modupe; I remember how her accent made me think some of my favourite authors who have written about Africa (Uwem Akpan, Barbara Gowdy, Henning Mankell, etc.), sometimes distracting and sometimes in the back of my mind. I remember how she spoke differently with Nick than with me and Michael and how seamless she was with shifting her tone. I remember one time, and I can’t remember when or where this happened, when she said that she could never be in a movie because she looked foreign, as opposed to actors who look only somewhat foreign.
When the sky was black, not just dim or dark blue but black, we were all hanging out at Queen’s Park. That is a meadow in the middle of the city surrounded by thin roads and old fashioned buildings of mortar and stone. I remember it as the park with the large horse statue in it. The only attraction to the area that we had was how spacious it was and how safe it was to lay down me and Modupe, who were as drunk as a beggar, or everyone over 18 right after The Phantom Menace aired. We had visited a bar and grill to finish the day and now Nick was the only sober person. Modupe, who was usually excessively flirty when drunk, was too vertically challenged to do anything but stare at the sky and giggle about things. Nick lied down beside her for a little bit, but then left her disappointed to speak with Michael.
Nick and Michael were talking about something five feet from us. I couldn’t hear what it was they were talking about but the subject seemed to engage them both. I’m still surprised at how strong Michael was. He was the thinnest of us all yet he could probably out drink an auditorium of Irishmen. Modupe, being all but cut off from the target of her giddiness and affections, turned her body to face me.
“So, what’s your story?” she said to me, her voice slurred.
“My what?” I asked.
“I mean, what tales do you have to offer? What do you want in life? What’s your tastes in men? What keeps you awake and hot throughout the night?” she asked, laughing.
“You really hammered off tonight, didn’t you?” I said, bewildered and amused.
“What’s your story, girl? I want to know what kind of psycho I’m lying next to! Tell me your story, my good white lady!” she said, poking me in the shoulders. I was bewildered. I figured that since that I’ve seen her drunk with Nicholas, so was this how she was drunk with other people?
“Stop, you’re drunk,” I said. I stopped her from poking me. She gave a cackling laugh.
“Yeah, I am. But I really want to know, though,” she said. ” I like listening to people. I mean, people are more interesting than we give them credit for, you know?”
“You think?” I decided not to mind her until the men came back.
“Like, really interesting! People are really fun sometimes. Even boring people have very interesting lives,” she said.
“Mm hm,” I said. I was trying to indicate that I wasn’t listening so she’d stop, but I really hanging on to every word. The thing about Modupe was that it was really easy to pay attention when she spoke. Maybe I just found her accent attractive, or maybe it was her fun and interesting tone that promised something worth your while if you just listened up, like a master storyteller’s tool.
“So I want to know your great story, Ms Welshy. Like, anything you want to talk about,” she said.
“Welch. It’s Welch, not, Welshy,” I said.
“I can’t even remember my own middle name right now,” Modupe said.
I tried to sit up and regretted it because I must have looked stupid wobbling around on my butt. Modupe followed suit, still looking at me.
“So? Nicky’s too busy with Mickey over there to give us the time of day so lets chat!” she said.
“Well, I don’t have anything to say, really,” I said.
“Let’s just talk about whatever you want. If it’s not interesting I’ll make something up,” she said. I didn’t know what to say. I usually enjoyed having either Nicholas or Michael between me and her when we were all talking. It was easier, less personal.
I starting talking about life as a doctor in training. All of the responsibilities and work of life in the medical field. I began naming statistics and talking about how hard it was to find work. It was surprising that Modupe could keep up with me and even contribute to the conversation. I didn’t know until later that Modupe was a financial journalist and had written essays about the medical community. I had assumed she was some girl who had quit schooling after high school. Unconscious racism runs in my blood, I suppose.
I spoke for two minutes, not really caring about what I was talking about. I was mainly repeating things I had read about or things my professors back at University had told me. It was only after Modupe stopped me that I realised how uninterested I must have sounded.
“Okay, girl. Not that what you’re saying isn’t cool or anything, cuz it is, but I can tell you don’t really want to talk about any of that,” she said.
“I…yeah, you’re right. I don’t really know what else to talk about,” I said. Medicine was something I was good at. It was my safety net subject when breaking the ice, though I wasn’t really passionate about it.
“Well, I’m gonna talk about myself, if you don’t mind,” Modupe said. She lay back and looked up at a park lamp. “Have you ever hung out in the bad neighbourhoods?”
“We were in Jane and Finch this morning, weren’t we?” I said. Jane and Finch were considered the de facto “hoodlum” intersection of North York region Toronto. There was a mugging there every week and I’m sure those were only the ones tragic enough to get news coverage; the kinds where someone either dies or needs surgery or therapy.
“Oh, yeah, there’s that mall, but have you ever actually hung out in the neighbourhoods? Like, travel the toads, meet the ghetto tattooists in their garages? Met the pot dealers, all that?”
“Yes,” I said. Modupe didn’t expect that.
“Really? You’re a Jane and Finch prowler?”
“I’m a veteran of the area,” I said, feeling just a tiny bit proud. I usually didn’t tell anyone this but if Modupe was a Jane and Finch girl herself then maybe we had much more in common than I had thought.
“Okay, so then you know about the tattoo garage in house twenty eight?”
“Gary? Yeah, me and some of my old friends used to hang out there during junior high! We stopped going to him after he got a bad rap, though.”
“You mean when he used a bad needle on James Kincaid and gave him HIV?” Modupe said.
“Oh, it was James Kincaid? I never knew! I remember how he used to walk around with his red skull jacket, then we just stopped seeing him around.”
“Oh my God, girl you really are a Jane and Finch girl!” Modupe said. “I’m sorry, but you always struck me as a major bookworm. Now you have to tell me about yourself. Like, what schools did you go to? Who did you hang out with? Jared McCaw? Niles Bramford? Brandon Singh? Any of those ringing any bells?”
“All three,” I said. Maybe it was the alcohol making me more comfortable than I had any right to be, but I started listing off all of the boys I used to date and/or hang out with. Modupe herself knew almost all of them, She was closer to most of them than I had ever been and we told stories in reminiscence. I remember Modupe smiling all of the time while speaking and I think I myself was smiling too. I wasn’t just grinning or laughing, I was smiling.
I rarely truly smile for anyone other than Nicholas. I grin, but I’m usually too lost in my own thoughts to laugh and be happy about anything. Speaking with Modupe was cathartic as I hadn’t anyone else to reminisce with. Nick was never a “bad boy” and I hardly knew Michael as anything other than “that guy who hangs out with Nick.”
It was nice talking to her about Jane and Finch. It would have continued being fun until she noticed a little fact I had been hoping to side step: that all of my friends, all of the bands of ruffians I enjoyed hanging out with consisted of penises. Not one pair of x chromosomes invaded my social life. When she asked me why I tried to pass it off as a coincidence, or some subconscious decision. I said I just didn’t like hanging out with my own sex in middle or high school. But if I learned anything that night it was Modupe was sharper I have would have ever given her credit for, even drunk.
“No, girl, you’re holding back,” she said. “There’s some deep psychological shit you’re not telling me about.”
“I just felt uncomfortable around women,” I said.
“Yes, but why? I know there’s a reason you didn’t want any boobs around you, Welshy. Did you grow up with too many sisters?” Damn it, what a sleuth. Even if it was just a guess it impressed and horrified me.
“Maybe my sisters had something to do with it,” I said. This admittance was like a non drinker taking the smallest sip of Bud Light.
“I’m just guessing here, so don’t be offended or anything, but were your sisters just the littlest shits?” she said.
That made me smile. “The worst. They are the worst possible people, I think,” I said, though I didn’t really believe that.
“Girl, I know all about having little shits for relatives. My sisters bugged the hell out of everyone when we were little. Me, my mom, my cousins, my friends, everyone,” Modupe said.
“My sisters only tormented me and my mom. They acted like little angels around everyone else so they could get away with making my life Hell,” I said.
“Oh, I hate people like that. At least my family were honest with their evil. So what were their names? Did we go to the same school?”
“I actually don’t remember,” I said. “I just remember by the nicknames I gave them in my head.”
“And what’s that?” Modupe said.
“Bitch and Bitchwurst, pardon my French,” I said. We laughed. “They were the littlest shits. We had a portable campfire tin in our backyard. You know those little tins that you burn paper in? They always through my stuff in there.”
“Whoa, are you serious?” Modupe looked horrified.
“And then when my aunts or their friends came over they’d bat their eyelashes and make adorable little statements that were actually insults, and I just wanted to scream out that they were totally little bitches, but I knew that those fucking idiots wouldn’t believe me, and…” My drunken ramble went on for a while. Modupe must have been pretty patient, letting me vent like that. I’m glad it was dark and she probably didn’t see that I was crying at the end of it. “Anyways, that’s why I hung out with only men. Yeah, they were horrible people, but they were upfront with it.”
“Oh, yeah. I get you,” Modupe said. “But what about your mom?”
“Her, I don’t want to talk about,” I said. I buried my face into my knees. That’s when I realised that I could probably stand up without wobbling.
“You know what I did when I couldn’t stand my family,” Modupe said.
“Go on a wanton murder spree?”
“I wish! No, I wrote a novella about them,” she said. This wasn’t the answer I thought I’d hear, though knowing what I do now it makes sense.
“A novella?” I said.
“A short novel.”
“I know what that is. Why did you do that?”
“Well, my life sucked. It sucked, but it was juicy. Plus, I was a pretty big reader and I thought I’d try writing to drown my family out. I got pretty good at it,” Modupe said.
“Really? So, do you still do that?”
“Not as often, no. I slowed down when I started drinking,” she said. “But I’ve finished, like four stories just about my family. I still have them back home.”
I pulled her up and helped her get steady. Then I walked her over to Nick and Michael, which was hard because I was still pretty wobbly when I walked.
“You girls getting along?” Michael said. “I heard a lot of noise over there.”
“Just getting to know Nick’s cousin,” Modupe said. “She was freaking ghetto back in the day!”
We walked back to the car (well, me and Modupe got walked back to the car) and Nick drove us back to Michael’s house. We went in for coffee (I needed it, Modupe needed it, Nick had water).