Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Not Forgotten

People drift in and out of all our lives from the moment we take breath to the last exhalation into the void.
Some, like insubstantial wraiths, drift in and out, a glancing touch which shivers the fabric of our lives but leaves us unchanged. Others, and this is dependent neither on duration nor apparent impact at the moment in time that you meet – somehow leave footprints on your soul that decades later can be felt like a small ache deep within the hidden recesses of your id.

Once upon a time, when I was 13 and had been enrolled in yet another school as my nomadic life had accustomed me, I met a girl. Her name was Caroline Cheney.

Like me, she was an immigrant, brought to Canada at age 6 by her Piccadilly swinging 60s parents together with her brother.

Caroline was beautiful. She had a wealth of soft, mink-dark hair framing sunny blue eyes in a complexion that epitomized the peaches and cream of British fame. Every morning and every night, Caroline drank a mug of hot water with lemon, a concoction she attributed her flawless skin to and passed on by her mother as the answer to Canada’s drier climes. She was funny, in a quirky, amusing and wholly mature way that enraptured me in its insight and ability to see to the heart of the most tragic matter and find in it the crux of our human condition.

At 13, I was awkward, sexually naive and shy; Caroline, on the other hand, had a knowing look under thick dark lashes, a saucy grin and a wit that sparkled and shone among the crassness of pubescent humour.

Wilder Penfield Elementary School in Dollard was our meeting place. While I had learned to cope well with new schools, new faces, new situations and new cultures, this was a particularly difficult transition. On the cusp of puberty, changing bodies and minds, awkwardness, emotions and teenage angst made entering a school in Grade 7 a daunting task. Particularly trying to find a niche when it seems only you are the outsider – as everyone else had childhood memories to cement the bond and provide a bridge into adulthood.

Caroline and I bonded not because of our outsider status but because something sparked between us, something real and solid, almost palpable in its reality. We would sit, feet to feet and discuss the ramifications of pollution on our planet; argue passionately about the pros and cons of Buddhism versus Christianity; laugh until we almost peed at the song and dance of adolescence. We would do each other’s hair, experiment with makeup and spend hours nestled together on the bed reading Salinger and Uris, crying over Steinbeck novels and read out loud the outrageous prose of Henry Miller.

We had fun, Caroline and I, and embraced life with a zest that I still equate with that wonderful spirit of hers – the one that could find joy in a rainstorm, humour in being stranded at the wrong end of an out-of-commission subway car and delight in the simplicity of lying in lush grass and listening to the lake lapping against the rocky shore.

In a time and era when an overweight person was almost freakish, Caroline was hugely, roundly obese, with a ripeness of curves, a sheer plenitude of clear, soft flesh that seemed to physically embrace the huge spirit which resided within. She was comfortable in herself in a way I have never seen to this day; relishing her curves and roundness, loving her big firm round breasts and swelling hips and long shapely strong legs.

And men responded.

No matter where we went, those flirtatious blue eyes, the saucy grin, the sheer feminine lushness of her attracted them like flies … and I would stand back, amazed and delighted – not envious – my own gawky, lanky body was still unformed but more importantly, my mind wasn’t ready to grapple with the complexities of the sexual dance. But I delighted in my friend’s frank and honest delight in her femininity and watched, amused, as this beautiful girl played a masterful hand with the besotted males who fell into her warm hands.

Caroline’s parents incorporated every cliché from the troubled and exciting decade of the 60s. Nudists – they had family vacations in warm coves and remote resorts – and their easy acceptance of their bodies probably accounts for Caroline’s complete delight in her own figure. “Freedom” could have been Caroline’s parents, catchphrases. Immersed in the doublespeak of that troubled time, they believe that children “instinctively” made the right choices … and believed in the sanctity of allowing children’s’ minds to soar, to explore and make choices, thus neither Caroline or her brother had any real guidelines, any limits or strictures.

And it was disastrous, this honest, well-meant and yes, loving way of bringing up children.

When I met her, Caroline’s brother was already heavily involved in the drug culture prevalent in the late 60s. Caroline was already experimenting.

We were together for less than a year in Grade 7, then on graduating, she went to one high school, me to another – and the phone calls and visits began to fade and as life happened, we kept in touch less and less. There was one phone call around a year after we graduated, an initiation to a party. And off I went in my pleather sky blue mini and pale white stockings and bow-tied white blouse … to Caroline’s … where the rooms were lit by candles pushed into Mateus bottles, bulbs rendered mysterious and soft by wraps of pale translucent fabric, where the scent of pot hung heavy and turning a corner you were liable to step over couples in a frantic coupling among the detritus of broken glass, smouldering pipes and glass orbs half filled with water trailing long sinuous tubes…

I was completely out of my element. A surreptitious call to my mother and half an hour later I was scuttling home, tail between my legs.

It must have been a year after that incident that one afternoon, I answered the door. Outside, a pale, pallid creature stood, long and lanky, complexion almost frightingly pale and blotched, eyes dull. Long, dark hair hung arrow straight down the thin, almost sexless body.

“sheenagh” don’t you know me?

It was my Caroline.

Heavily involved in the drug scene which exploded in the late 60s and early 70s, unrestricted movements, tacit and obvious admissions that she was free to pursue and experiment, Caroline was sinking fast.

We spoke for hours that afternoon, and in the haunted, pale face I found my friend. But our paths were not to cross again for a very long time, for the path she chose diverted widely from mine.

Several years later, coming home for a visit from University, my mother took me gently aside and asked me to call Caroline’s mother. Caroline had fallen deeper and deeper into the morass of drug addiction until even her parents recognized the cry for help. Desperate – for they were loving parents, if misguided – they sent her to Florida to an aunt.

But Caroline had chosen her path. Eventually she found fellow lost souls. Two boys and herself stole a small sports car and in the ensuing police pursuit, the car crashed and went under a transport truck. The two boys, sitting in the front, were decapitated. Caroline, squished into the little luggage section behind the front seat, was badly mangled and remained in a coma for more than a year, losing her leg and suffering massive internal injuries.

Home now and awake, she was definitely brain-damaged, lost and unsure, subject to memory loss and anxiety. Her mother wanted me to visit – for our parents even back then had recognized the special bond Caroline and I shared.

Bracing myself, I went to see my friend. Thin, pallid, anxious and driven, Caroline was initially pathetically happy to see me. Embracing her emaciated little body, I struggled to hold back my tears as I remembered our early days– the sheer wonderful life inside that great beautiful soul, the over-flowing beautiful flesh reduced now to this sad, damaged creature.

But within a short period of time, Caroline became agitated and upset, began crying and gently, her mother asked me to leave- thanked me for trying. Later, she called, said how much she appreciated me coming but seeing me had left Caroline agitated and very very unhappy. Her mum said sadly she felt it was because deep inside of her, Caroline remembered what she once was – remembered the sheer love of life and appetitive for living that Caroline and I had shared …and that in the end, that part of her life was gone so please don’t call.

Years after that terrible day, my mother called me.

A volunteer in a local hospital, my mum was helping some patients when she saw Caroline in one of the rooms, wasted away and dying. She said she is sure Caroline knew her, but turned her head away with tears in her eyes. Two days later Caroline died. In hindsight, I would not be surprised if it was AIDS that killed her. From what my mother said, it had all the earmarks of that terrible scourge.

A brief time in my life, that Grade 7 year. Yet one that to this day leaves an ache in my soul for someone who had touched me and left her mark indelibly on my soul.

Caroline, you are dead, my friend, but not forgotten.


Buffalo said...

A beautifully sad, gripping tale told magnificently.

NoirKat said...

An amazing tribute, poignant and moving.

finbar said...

sad. i know the story, so poignant, so utterly soul achingly tragic.

i think we have all at one time been touched by a fae spirit, that somehow leaves a bit of their soul within ours, and we take that bit with us to our grave.

we each harbor a memory of that one kindred spirit, that some how goes astray, and then is lost to us for ever, yet haunts our hearts and minds as we travel through our time.

my heart aches with the cruel tragedies of existence.

loved the writing, i felt like i was there with you.
your writing never ceases to amaze me.