Katie and Me Fiction-by Kirsten Nash
Katie and me were sitting in the field and we were smoking. We were smoking grass, and not the kind of grass that you could brag about behind the backstop at school, but the kind of grass that you rolled in the paper insides of cigarette package foil. You needed a Bic lighter to run the flame under the tinfoil part until it kissed the paper goodbye. When the paper was lifted from the glue, we curled the hay up in it, because that’s what the grass really was…shredded hay, and we licked, twisted and snapped at the edges of the paper until we had a cigarette. We were desperate for any vestige of sophistication, and so we took long, languid drags from our “cigarettes” and pretended we were big city bohemians in bookish, jazz-laced coffee shops, arguing over the respective mojos of Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan. I thought Leonard Cohen was the sexy one, dark and lost, but Katie thought Bob Dylan was the renegade, the cool one. After all, he smoked pot with the Beatles! Then we pretended we were Bob Dylan groupies, which seemed kind of lame after awhile, so we changed to Katie being Bob and I was Leonard, smoking each other up at a rock concert, in San Francisco, 1968, backstage at The Airplane and Grateful Dead concert.
“Now that would be cool!” Katie had the joint, and was trying to get some continuity out of it.
“D’ya think maybe Jimi an’ Janis will be joinin’ us?” I was trying to lay myself out like I was reclining on the velvet couch on the front of the Janis Joplin record my stepbrother had left behind for me when he moved out.
“I don’t think so, man,” Katie droned in a mock stoned voice, “But we can check out Jimi at the Filmore next week, man…”
We sounded more like Cheech and Chong than Bob and Leonard, but we didn’t care. Whoever we were being wasn’t from anywhere near us, and that was all that we cared about as we dreamed our dreams on that late summer day.
Even through the smoke we could smell the shedding arbutus and the impatience of autumn. The week before the fields had been splendid, waving and arguing with the split beam fences, but now they sputtered and lisped with the urgency of time out of hand, ruing any wasted seconds of sunshine, heads bent, waiting for the thresher.
We both took turns sucking at the reefer, fat and bulbous, roughshod and lacking. Lacking in substance and conformity, it flared and stifled, and one match after another was sacrificed on the path to its’ eventual demise.
Katie’s new stepfather had false teeth that clicked. When I sat down to dinner with their family before our sleepover the night before, it was the one thing at the table that everyone knew but nobody talked about. Click-click…clack-slurp-click…all through the soup and the salad his dentures rubbed and crackled. Listening to him chew a steak was like hearing a drunk tap dance; no cadence you could count on, just spastic rhythms and sliding, grating tendons engaging in a kind of tribal, primal mastication.
Katie and I looked at each other across the table and she kicked my shin when I crossed and uncrossed my eyes in time with her father’s porcelain maracas, trying to crack her up. Then later, when we were in our pyjamas, we stood in front of her dresser mirror in her bedroom and I tried to show her how to cross her eyes, but try as she did, only one eye would reach it’s corner. Her other eye was a “lazy” eye, and stayed a few beats behind. But she could bend her thumb right back on itself, like there was no bone there at all, which was pretty cool once I got over the way it made me feel like puking.
When Katie’s new dad finished supper, he took out his false teeth for a while and set them on the table beside his chair, then lit a homemade cigarette (a real one, not like ours) and his face collapsed. He had a mechanical cigarette maker, cartons of hollow cigarette tubes and bags of tobacco that he set on the kitchen table with a box of red wine. When the butt was ready to be stuffed in the glass ashtray they got from Reno on their honeymoon, he popped his teeth back in then he and her mother sat down and took turns stuffing the tobacco in the metal groove and cranking the lever that filled each paper tube as they drank the wine box dry.
I tried to get the last gasps of smoke out of our hay cigarette, sucking my lips in like Katie’s stepdad, but there’s no way you can get the same depth with teeth in your gums to stop your cheeks from imploding. The best I could do was to look like a cross-eyed grouper fish on fire, with the smoke pouring from my nose and mouth. Katie started laughing like there might have been something more than hay in that cigarette, and I joined in, between coughs and wheezes. We laughed the kind of laughter that only two newly teenage girls can laugh, rolling side to side, convulsing under the harvest sun until, our stomachs both aching, the last giggle had been spent.
I can’t believe school starts tomorrow…Katie didn’t much like school. She didn’t have the clothes for it. All summer on the farm left the dust she wore thicker and less patchy than her t-shirts. No one saw fit to teach her about hygiene, and as her body changed no one seemed to notice or care about the new odours coming from her pubescent pores. Except for early last spring at school when her favourite teacher, Mr. Hines, had to take her aside and tell her that other kids were refusing to sit beside her because she was smelling so bad and went on to tell her how to properly wash herself and use deodorant. She was even more humiliated because she had thought he was going to tell her she had the lead in the new school play.
WHY DIDN’T YOU TELL ME? YOU’RE SUPPOSED TO BE MY FRIEND!! Katie yelled at me on the way home that day.
I didn’t really notice…honest! Maybe ‘cause I’m around you so much, maybe I’m used to the way you smell! I was getting angry. She was always blaming me for something she should have been angry with her parents for. I was proud that she looked up to me, but sometimes her trust fell a little heavily on my shoulders. Besides, most mornings I got up, the first thing I did was milk the cow and feed the chickens. I smelled more shit before seven in the morning than most people did in a lifetime. By the time I got to school, my nose was used to a funky smell. How would I know it was coming from Katie too?
It’s not like you can tell your best friend their smell blends in with your cow shit, so when we got to my house, I gave her one of my Dad’s old deodorants to try as a peace offering, after I picked a couple of hairs off first. I would have given her one of mine but I only had one, and it was the first one. Dad and me got it just a couple of weeks ago, with his sister, Aunt Jo, who was visiting us all the way from Nova Scotia and said “You know…” a lot in a high, twangy rasp and then usually went on to tell you something you actually didn’t know at all!
“You know, Abe, she really needs a trainin’ bra…an’ you know, some deodorant would be useful right about now too. You can’t just leave the girl growin’ wild like them raspberries out back, you got to prune her, clean her up now an’ then! Jaysus! Don’t her mother even come an’ take a look at her ev’ry so often?” And Aunt Jo paced the kitchen with her cigarette fidgeting in her hand, ashes in feathery chaos settling on the floor around her.
Dad took her rant in stride, fidgeting with the saltshaker as he stood by the counter. “I guess now’s just as good a time as any.” And he started walking to the front door and out to the car, just expecting us to follow, screen door slapping shut behind him. Aunt Jo jammed her cigarette in the sink’s hole and as it hissed a quick death she grabbed her purse and sweater off the bench she’d set it on when she first came in. Her wedge heels were shaky on the gravel driveway as she followed her brother out of a lifetime of habit to the truck waking and coughing beside the garage.
I stood for a minute more in the kitchen, trying to process what had just happened and what was about to happen. A bra? Deodorant? The awkwardness of the mission overwhelmed me. I was only thirteen! As yet, only one of my nipples had popped out, and the other had caved in! What kind of bra was going to work for me? Katie had talked a few months ago about getting a training bra, but neither of us could figure out what she should be trying to train her titties to do?
For me it went deeper than that. I had one of the best arms in the school. I out shot the boys in shot put, discus, javelin and I had a mean over-hand pitch. When I struck a boy out sometimes they would snort and smack their bat on the diamond or chuck it at the backstop and get a warning. They’d be blaming the wind, blaming the bat and the umpire for not calling my pitch a foul ball. They’d just about do anything than admit that a girl just struck them out. But up until now I hadn’t been much of a girl. If I were to start wearing a bra, that would be the end of it, there was no way the boys would let me keep playing with them.
Katie stood up. Bits of hay stuck to her pants and she was brushing them off but I was rolling on my back, side to side in the bristled grass.
“Whatchya doin’?” Katie cocked her head critically to one side, watching me writhing in the dust.
“My back’s itchy…” I jumped up, suddenly self-conscious and dusted myself off.
“What do ya’ think you are? Some kind of cow or somethin’?” She set off impatiently, shaking her head toward the gravel road without waiting for an answer that was in no hurry to come, and I followed, distracted, our footsteps absorbed by the matted field.
The road kicked up more dust as we set off to where my bike was waiting, leaning against the fence. My backpack, stuffed unceremoniously with my pyjamas, toothbrush and the training bra my aunt had picked out for me, was hanging off the handlebars. I would be waiting until the last minute to put the ridiculous pink contraption on. Just before our driveway there was a large cedar and cottonwood thicket, and therein was my impromptu change room. It would go on to serve me through most of grade eight as I did my best to fend off the inevitable changes that nature was hoisting upon me. Every morning I would stop in the thicket on my way to school, take off the bra and stuff it in my backpack, and rain or shine, wet or dry, every day I would stop on the way home and put it back on again. Not that Dad would have noticed its’ absence. I figured that he had made an effort in getting me the damn thing, so I ought to respect that by wearing it around the house. But the Devil’s ass would be frostbitten before I’d be shackled by it in the schoolyard.
The truth was, for a year or so nobody, even Aunt Jo, would be likely to notice if I was wearing a bra or not. Not like Katie. No boy had looked her in the eyes for a few months now, especially at the lake in her new two-piece swimsuit. She said she thought the boys were creepy, but I’d known Katie long enough to know that she thought boys were anything but creepy. Her body was just catching up to where her spirit had been all along. Soon, I knew, not only would she have her own deodorant, scented like lilacs, but she would be taking long baths almost every night and nagging at her mom for bath salts and musk oil soap.
We said goodbye a little stiffly and as I bounced along her driveway on my bike steering clear of the potholes, Katie disappeared down the forested trail to her house. Turning out onto the pock-marked country road, I was conscious of the slapping of my backpack on my hips as I pedaled through the maze of blazing maples, fields, fences and roadside brambles that marked my way home. It always seemed that around the end of summer was when things started ending and beginning. Some people think that the beauty of it happens in springtime, but I think it’s at the end of summer. For something to be born, it seems like something’s eventually got to die and what could be more beautiful and selfless than that? As I jumped off my bike in the cottonwood thicket and pulled my bra, already hooked, up my legs, under my t-shirt and slipped the straps over my shoulders, I wondered too if autumn was nature’s way of testing your faith. As the world browned all around, I reasoned, one had no choice but to believe in spring. Things are always simpler when you have no choice but not necessarily easier.
I walked my bike slowly out of the thicket and onto our driveway, wanting to hold the last few memories of summer close to me. School started tomorrow. It was Katie and my first day of high school. There would be new girls, girls with curls and lipstick who dotted their “I’s” with hearts and gobbled up gossip and sugarless gum in the halls. There would be boys who would stand around them, shifting foot to foot, trying desperately to be cool. I didn’t much care how or if I fit in, I never had. But Katie was different. It mattered to her so much that just my not caring seemed to threaten her these days. Of course, that idea could have been more rooted in my own insecure teenage imagination than in fact, but one thing I did know as I leaned my bike against the back porch and clomped up the stairs to open the creaky kitchen door, was that times, they were-a-changin’.