Updated: Jun 2
Before I read “Harriet The Spy” I used to carry around a small notebook into which I wrote little tidbits about people I saw on street corners or at the mall. I was, and still am, obsessed with watching people. I’ve always been curious about their lives and how they tick. City buses were particularly good hunting grounds for quirky characters. Every day on my way to school I would wait to see what group of misfits the bus would collect and then in detail I’d write things like:
The lady with the strange hat gets on at Ferry Street with her large mesh bag and shuffles to her regular seat behind the driver. Even though she’s several feet away from me, I can smell garlic and rose petals. She wears stockings that sag at her ankles and reminds me of elephants. I wish I could follow her. I wonder where she goes and what she puts inside that large mesh bag.
This habit of documenting events and people soon found its way into my everyday life. It was, I see now, the equivalent of the cell phone. As long as I was engaged in my little book I was safe from being noticed. Inherently introverted, I was never comfortable in large groups of people. High school parties were just painful reminders that I wasn’t pretty enough, or funny enough, or tall enough, or skinny enough and so I learned to hide. My notebook and pen became my shield of armour protecting me from engaging with the world. But even Superman has his kryptonite and mine was a boy named Richard.
Richard figure skated every Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday at the same arena where I took lessons. Inspired by the artistry of Toller Cranston, and Oksana Baiul I was obsessed with the idea of speed and grace on ice. I wasn’t a great figure skater, but I was good enough to manage basic skills. No one paid much attention to me as I attempted camel spins and axels and spread eagles. The arena divas who shouted at you to “MOVE!” as they came flying into the corners got all the attention and I was just fine with that. I didn’t skate for anyone but myself.
My father, who paid for classes from his modest paycheck, told me that I could only take lessons if I agreed to pass the CFSA (Canadian Figure Skating Association) tests. He figured that the acquisition of badges justified the expenditure. Perhaps he also thought that failing to achieve the badges might convince me that I didn’t have a future in skating. Either way, that was the deal. So, along with three lessons a week on jumps, spins and flips, I spent an hour every Wednesday on what was known in the skating world as compulsory figures practiced on a piece of clean and shiny ice called a Patch. I hated patch. It was dull, boring, useless work trying to trace circles and curly cues going forward and backward using the different edges of your skate blade. I was horrible at it. Impatient and bored I counted the minutes until it was over; and so it was that on one particular Wednesday, while attempting to trace a circle…I fell. It’s one thing to fall attempting a lutz or an axel. That signals a certain amount of intestinal fortitude. Falling on patch is practically unheard of. Imagine a stack of books falling in a library? Or a tin pot crashing onto the floor in a monastery where the monks have taken a vow of silence? That is what my crash landing was like at patch. Everyone stopped, stared and laughed. This was the ultimate humiliation for someone who did not want to be noticed. What was I to do but pick myself up and continue.
The rest of my session was agony. I couldn’t go home. Wasting hard earned cash was unheard of in my family but I didn’t have the heart to skate. All my confidence had been sucked out of me. I imagined everyone wondering what I was doing at the rink. I didn’t belong. I set a bad example for the club. I didn’t even have a mother who could help me stake my claim on the ice, like all the other girls. Even in the change room, I only took up as much space as was absolutely necessary. Without my notebook to hide behind, I was vulnerable and afraid. As I shoved my skates into my bag and grabbed my coat for the long walk home, Richard stopped me.
“Nice fall on patch,” he said, not unkindly.
“Whatever,” I mumbled attempting to squeeze past him to the door.
“No,” he said, “I mean it. I hate patch. I always think I’m going to fall and now, I don’t have to worry. You’ve broken the stigma. Thanks.”
“Glad to be of service,” I smirked.
Richard was an excellent skater. He was strong and lean and his lines on the ice were lovely. Being only one of three male skaters at our club, it was hard not to notice him. He had ginger coloured hair, not unlike mine, and freckles. He had that boy next door look that reminded me of a less popular Ron Howard with a voice that sounded slightly like Mr. Bill.
“Listen,” he added, “I was wondering if you would be interested in going with me to my grade 12 formal?”
To this day I will never quite understand what Richard saw in me or why my disastrous fall inspired a guy I didn’t know to ask me out for the first time in my life. I was so in shock that before I knew it, I had said “yes.” Later I would come to realize that Richard had actually seen me before. The only female chess member in the Niagara region, I had beat my male opponent during a match at his school earlier that year.
With each passing day, I began to have second thoughts. I’d never been on a date in my life but I had some idea of what might be expected, especially at the prom. I didn’t go to his school. I barely knew him. What if he tried to hold my hand? What if he tried to kiss me? What about dancing? What about slow dancing? I was overwhelmed with fear. This would not be the first time in my life that I said “yes” when I wanted to say “no”. It would take me many years to gain that kind of courage.
As the formal grew closer and closer it began to consume me. I took up an entire English class with my dilemma, soliciting the advice of my teacher and fellow students. I summoned up the courage to call Richard on the phone with the plan to cancel, but he insisted he’d spent a lot of money and guilted me into going through with it. With each passing day, I found myself disliking him more and more. At one point he called to make sure I was still going.
“Do I have a choice?” I asked him.
“Not really,” he said. And that was that.
Back at my own high school, I was becoming the centre of unwanted attention as everyone started to weigh in on my dilemma. One classmate took it upon himself to warn me of all the things Richard might try to do.
“If he reaches over to do up your seat belt, look out,” he warned. “If he locks your door, be careful.”
My head was spinning.
On the day of the formal I got dressed and was ready by 6:30. Richard picked me up at 8:00. In my journal I wrote: He brought me a corsage of roses. I don’t really like roses, but of course if he’d taken the time to get to know me, he would have discovered that. The moment I got into his car he did up my seat belt and locked my door. I swallowed hard, held my housekeys in my fist and girded my loins.
There was a dance, and dinner and more dancing. Richard was not particularly popular but he was respected. I don’t remember a lot of kids talking to him. Mostly he was just congratulated for winning every award at his school and a scholarship to McMaster. We did have one thing hugely in common – we were both nerds.
The thing I dislike about parties is that I never get to do what I really want, which is to talk. School dances were always an excuse to test sexual waters under half lit gymnasiums with mirror balls. If Richard and I had gone off to a stairwell to discuss current events, I think the evening might have been a huge success. But the pressure to be romantic was palpable. At one point he tried to hold my hand and I said I needed it to hold up my dress. I wrote in my journal that he danced so close to me that I could feel his knee in my stomach. THAT is how naïve I was. He tried to kiss me but I wouldn’t let him and eventually, finally, the night came to an end and he drove me home. I was almost out of the car when to my utter amazement he asked me out again. In so many words, I said, “No.” Not an actual “no” but one in so many words.
Richard wasn’t a bad guy. He just hadn’t paid attention to the fact that we were better suited as friends than something more. I would have liked it if we could have occasionally competed at chess. Intellectually matched, we could have discussed Turgenev or world religion or shared our adolescent poems in the park or songs on the guitar sitting cross-legged in a family room. And if I’d been better adjusted, more confident, I might have been able to suggest this alternative. But I wasn’t. I spent a long time feeling very guilty about how I’d behaved. I felt mean and selfish for having ruined his prom. I wondered if at any point he understood how terrified I had been?
The following Monday as I boarded the city bus, relieved that the ordeal of dating was over, I pulled out my little notebook ready to remark on the misfits on the bus when I realized that I was one of them. I wasn’t like everyone else, but then again – who is? Sooner or later I would have to face the music and dance knowing that notebooks, skating lessons and chess clubs, no matter how solitary, were not going to protect me forever from being noticed. This was not a bad thing, just something new to consider.