I am moth pale: subterranean. Insect folded, I spend hours on a grasshopper leg, classical guitar balanced across the other. I reach for the turntable. I work the tone arm. Electric socket thrill. I drop the speed from 33 &1/3 to 16. Now Mick sounds like Darth Vader. The song becomes fractal, a frozen waterfall, each note peals slowly. I am cracking the code; the song, one riff at a time. Sped up again. Keith’s hard strumming – I feel at the top of my throat. Taut, like wheat stalks, wax paper combs, in a spray like warm sunshine. The kick drum drops and the lazy snare follows. It hits my rib cage and cracks me apart like hard-shelled fruit. I am unblemished joy.
I’m trying to catch that rocket-ship. I want to play rock. I’m done with classical. I want an electric guitar. More than anything. It’s “outer” outer-space for a girl in the 70’s. There is no path. It’s like an underground railroad: I sit outside basement windows to hear older boys play. Scott teaches at the Conservatory. Hand copied hieroglyphics – mapping the “real” chords. Star Records. Guitar Player magazine. Most pushpins are outside the electric fence of parental permission. Tonight’s an exception. I am going to my first real concert. With an actual rock band. In our gym! I don’t care that they are low-rent Rush, their guitar player is wicked.
Mom is judge and dad is executioner. My curfew is 10:30 and he’s picking me up. “Whether it’s finished or not, that’s late enough!” Likely said in unison. I’m for sure the only kid in town with a curfew.
Sydenham hill is a hard black gash that runs from town to sky. Like the middle stroke of the letter “Z”. A Flintstone-simple road, it swings past a quarry before it narrows – and was built clinging to a sheer rock face. A full football field drop from the look-out to our high school below. From up top you’d have seen us scattered across the snowy parking lot like mottled bird seed. We emerge in dark thickets under oval pools of mercury light, shivering. Complexions of vampires. Crooked like ravens in black bomber jackets, banging bright feet into the root-beer slush, clawing for position. Frozen tufts of conversation hang above us. My molten ears are pared and fall in curly ribbons to the ground. I haven’t worn a winter hat since Grade 6. Hats are for babies. My brain floats into the cold ether. We’re fanned out, arcing around the locked metal side door. By day, it’s the smoker’s pit, where puny lumberjacks spend their days in a forest of smoke.
“I’m fucking freezing!” Edith yowls.
I love it when my friends swear. It’s a new skill.
Except my parents stay perched over me and I can’t make the words come out.
“Oh my God! When are they opening the doors?”
“Are you serious? That’s retarded!”
“Yeah, Stevenson won’t let the band set-up”.
Information flying by teenage telegraph.
“He won’t let them in ‘till the senior boys finish practice”.
Basketball is holy at Parkside. Boy dynasties. Manes of hair.
“He’s such a douche”. That sounded okay.
“So are they done?”
“Done what? – Setting up?”
“No! Are seniors done practice?”
“Yeah – I think I saw Cruikshanks leave.”
Triumph’s silver equipment trailer is motionless. Nothing’s happening. My curfew countdown timer is accelerating while parking lot time is glacial. Wind tangles feathered hair, parting it backward. It flays our faces leaving gaping white scalps. It reaches up wide cuffs, lashes broken zippers and pokes holes in crusted mittens. It cleaves us from our thin uniforms: flared levi jeans, turtlenecks, silver crosses, lip gloss. I’m naked now. The wind gnaws my soft bones.
“OH. MY. GOD. This sucks!”
“Let’s go somewhere, hey?”
Edith is flapping her arms in her puffy blue coat, I’ve nicknamed her “Balloon Woman” in a nod to the Michelin tire guy.
“Hey! Losers! Get in.” It’s a Grade 11 guy, Jon. Driving some big dad-mobile. I don’t know him, but someone does – he’s a friend of Jay or Pie’s. Who knows. We pile in. I’m crushed in the backseat. Hips wedged against hips. Seat-belts aren’t a thing. Check my friends, they’re loud and laughing. Sour burst of adrenaline. Chest full of lemon. Is this okay? Cloudy thoughts. What are we doing? What about the concert? Glance at relaxed and unruly friends. They’re okay. It’s okay.
We peel out of the parking lot with a night sky that’s breaking lavender – snow’s started falling. Tires spin. “Jon! Jeez!” We giggle. The car smells warm – sweet and oaky. A smell I’m slow to recognize. We head up Sydenham. Fish-tailing. One by one, we stop laughing. The frozen penny drops. It bounces down the escarpment. He’s drunk. Back-seat silence. Holy shit – he’s drunk. Fuuu-ck. I’m better at swearing in my head. Everything has mutated. Like we’re stuck on a broken roller coaster that was okay at the bottom. We ratchet up the escarpment. Inexorable.
Why am I even-?
Jeez! Watch the road.
Dundas is twinkly through the snow.
Could I jump out?
Heart beating in my head.
We crest. The road swings away from the escarpment toward flat farm land. Fields spill snow onto the road. “Dudes!” Jon is relaxed. The car surfs amiably through white powder waves. Drifts stand in stiff tableau. Windows drawn dark with a curtain of snow pasted to the car. It’s cosy. No sky. No horizon. No road. Snow-blind, we glide toward a T-crossing. We slide sharply left. A ditch. A wrecked rear door. There is reassembly in the snow bank. Everyone’s okay. They pile back in. I refuse. I start marching in the lunar cold along the desolate shoulder; eyes fixed like a pony. Blinking hard – bewildered. I’m a straight arrow shot far beyond the electric fence. No map home. Self-reproach is boiling up into a familiar sting at the back of my nose.
The car crawls beside me with the doors propped open. “Sarge, get in.” “You’ll freeze!” “You can’t walk back alone – it’s snowing!” “Just chill – l’ll drive slow.” I weigh risk with uncalibrated scales and get back in.
The car slips: an errant brown button unspooling down a freshly laundered shirt. I’m in the same rear seat – now wedged beside a wrecked door that won’t close. Jon inches downhill, chastened by disapproval: the back-seat hissing of girls now dressed in their mothers’ angry postures. I’m trying to hold the heavy door in toward the car. Hard as I try, there’s a nightmare-sized crack where monsters leer. The road’s snowy teeth snap at my ankles. Whenever my tender grip sags, the purple jaws widen. Tumbling road right below my shoe. Searching wind wants to rip me into space. If I can keep pulling, everything bad will stay out. Back in the parking lot we spill out of the car, like dark confetti. Relieved. The barren school doors are still locked when my countdown timer expires. No concert.
The faithful orange station-wagon sits at the edge of the parking lot. Defeated, I say “bye” to my friends. My poor dad never knows which version of me he’s getting. I smash into my seat. I try to slam the door but it’s enormous. It closes weakly. It ruins the drama. “Hey! So? How was it?” He’s keenly interested; enthusiastic. Unsuspecting. “Ididn’tevengettoseethemplay!” It comes out in one blast of self-pity. Silence. Teenage faucet off. Stupid curfew. Stupid school. Now I’ll never see a band. I can’t imagine anything worse.
My dad gently steers us home.
As a paediatric social worker, Laura is well-acquainted with the wonder and misery of adolescence. Laura previously focused on poetry and songwriting: she was lead guitarist for several indie bands during her twenties. Frigid January walks with Led Zeppelin leaking from her earbuds helped to dislodge this story. She has been published in the Globe and Mail and View Magazine. Most days she unwinds in her garden, on the Bruce Trail or by exploring Hamilton’s burgeoning coffee scene. Mortality and CBC podcasts will prevent her from getting through her “must read” book list. She is currently working on a collection of life stories.