“Hey, King, how fast you think you can run?” That’s twelve-year-old Ronnie Burns calling me by my last name. Behind dark sunglasses, his eyes are hard to read. It’s a Saturday afternoon in 1973, late spring and, like pack animals, some of us neighbourhood kids have gathered at the park and plopped ourselves down around the picnic table. I brought my baseball glove in case of a pick-up game.
“I dunno. Pretty fast.” I shrug, surprised that a boy in grade seven would even talk to me, a girl in grade five. We don’t even go to the same school anymore.
“You wanna test that out?” He lifts his sunglasses to his forehead and winks at Jimmy who I don’t think even goes to school anymore, not since he and Ugly Rob set fire to the Church of the Redeemer last year, and they “went away” for a while.
“Um, sure, I guess.” I play along imagining he’ll time me as I run the bases at the diamond, a competition we’ve all played before.
Ronnie flicks his cigarette sideways and says, “Then you better fucking run.”
His voice turns cold, no longer playful. I look around the picnic table: Ronnie, his older brother Bob, Jimmy, Woody, Tommy and Kenny who’s carving his initials into the wooden tabletop with a pocketknife. Their eyes shift from one to another, animated, wondering what the game is, hoping they can play, too. Next to me, my best friend, Sarah, fiddles with her braids.
The tone of Ronnie’s voice is one I’ve heard before from boys in my own grade, but this feels different. There are more boys here than usual and except for Tommy who is in my class, they’re older. The most boys I’d ever had to fend off at one time was two.
There were only a few of us girls the boys picked on. The ones with boobs like Kerry and Caitlin and even Debbie, before she got pregnant at thirteen last year. I’d watched with everyone else the time Kerry cry-laughed when Woody untied the back of her halter top as she drank from the water fountain, her boobs exposed to all us kids. And when Jimmy stuck his hands up Caitlin’s mini skirt, daring someone, anyone, to make him stop while she tried to wriggle free. I hung my head and looked away, grateful that it wasn’t me that time. Kerry and Caitlin were easy pickings. Debbie had learned to fight, throw punches, and bite. I learned to fight back, too, kicking, and swinging my arms wildly, spitting sometimes, or, whenever I’d get a head start, I’d run and scream fuck you, a phrase my mother would be horrified to know I used in public.
Not that it saved me every time or even half the time. For two years, starting when I was new to the school in grade 3 till now, I’ve been chased, caught, kissed, punched, groped, and name-called. My mother wore herself out insisting I dress like a girl at school with skirts and leotards and buckled shoes. But I refused just as violently. No way was I going to make it easier for anyone to get at my body parts. I took to wearing my dad’s oversized shirts and sweaters, high-waisted jeans, and sneakers with which I could make a fast get-away.
For now, I’m thinking I’ll just get up and leave quietly and maybe they’ll let me go. There’s no one else around. Only the dark, quiet houses that line either side of the park are witness.
I say to Sarah, “I’m going home. You wanna come with me?” as I shift my legs out from under the table. I want her to say yes.
“Didn’t I tell you to run?” Ronnie says as he, too, starts to stand up. “Think I’m kidding around?”
So, I start to run, my heels dig into the grass, as I head in the direction of the sidewalk to home. I’m fast. I have long legs. I’m good at track and field, the 20-metre sprint, hurdles, high jump. I kick my legs into high gear. But the distance between the picnic table and the sidewalk feels a million miles away.
The ground behind me vibrates and I know I’m being chased. “Gotcha,” Ronnie hollers as his hands push me from behind. I lose my footing and stumble. His arms wrap around my waist in a football tackle, and the weight of him lands on top of me. The wind is knocked out of me as my face hits the hard, grassy playing field.
I’ve landed on my stomach. “Turn her over. Turn her over,” I hear. Hands are upon me. I know if they turn me over, all is lost. I thrash my body, side to side, my arms tucked tightly to my sides. I yell, “Stop it, fuck, stop it.” They’re too strong for me, there are too many of them.
I can’t breathe, I can’t move. My arms and legs are pinned to the ground, my shoulder digs into the earth. The weight of them crushes me. Hands are down my pants and up my shirt grasping, pinching, groping. Rank tobacco breath chokes the tiny air pocket I have. Half-chewed fingernails scrape deeply across my belly and tender breasts. I pull my legs closed as best I can but then a finger roughly shoves its way inside me. I gasp with the sharp pain and buck my hips hoping to dislodge it.
“I got it!” someone whoops in triumph.
I want to keep fighting. I should keep fighting but I have lost the will. The worst is done. I open my eyes and see that beyond the heads of dirty-haired boys, beyond the smell of the thrashed earth beneath me, there is a blue sky and cottony white clouds that I can nestle myself into and wait it out.
When I stop resisting, the onslaught stops, too. One by one, they get off me. A couple of them give my head an extra push into the ground. Hands slap together. Someone says, “What a slut.” I lay for a moment just trying to breathe. I’m crying; I can’t help it and I hate myself for it. I pull my knees to my chest and place my hands over my throbbing breasts, hating them, too, for just being there.
I push myself to sitting, pull down my t-shirt and adjust my pants. Stop crying, you stupid baby, I scold myself. I wipe the back of my hand across my nose. Mixed with snot is blood which I wipe on the grass. I search for the clouds from before, but they have re-formed and drifted away. I feel a determination, an angry and vengeful spirit rise up in me. The scorch of the afternoon sun burns my bare arms.
I stand up on shaky legs and move in the direction home. I can hear the low chatter of the boys back at the picnic table and smell the smoke of their cigarettes.
“There she goes,” says Ronnie. “Hey, King, not so fast after all, eh?”
“Fuck you,” I scream back. And they laugh like they’re already bored.
My beloved wide-bottomed GWG Scrubbies are streaked with grass stains. A bit of damp mud and small tufts of grass ripped from their roots are smashed into the knees. I wipe them off as best I can.
“Dana, wait up.” It’s Sarah. I can tell she’s running to catch up, but I keep walking. “Dana,” she tries again. Out of breath, she reaches my side and slows down to my pace.
After a few seconds, she asks, “You going home?” She hands me my baseball glove.
“Yeah,” I say. “Thanks.”
“Ronnie’s such a jerk. Don’t let him get to you,” she says, like she knows anything about it. She doesn’t have boobs yet; no one ever even notices her. “I tried to make them stop ...”
“Yeah, whatever. I don’t care.” I tell myself that every time this happens to me.
But I don’t believe it. Revenge fantasies run through my mind, like me knocking on Ronnie Burns’s house and telling his mother what he did. Or maybe I’d sneak up behind Tommy and kick the back of his knees, so he’d fall over in front of everybody.
Sarah takes my hand, and it calms me a little. “I hate that fucking Ronnie Burns,” I say, still shaking with rage.
We walk to the end of the street in silence. At Yonge Street, we pause. Sarah lives two blocks south and my house is two blocks north.
“You wanna get popsicles later?” she asks. “Maybe,” I say. “I’ll call you later.”
When I reach home, my mother is in the backyard deadheading her geraniums. An open pack of Belmonts and a pale-yellow lighter sit on the umbrella table. A half- smoked cigarette hangs from her lips as she bends over the potted flowers.
“Hey, Mom,” I say, casually, before she looks up. I’m hoping my voice carries no tone, nothing that suggests anything is out of the ordinary. I make to open the screen door but am stopped.
“What’s that on your jeans?” She peels the cigarette off her lips and stares at me through her Hollywood starlet sunglasses.
“Just some grass.” I make a show of brushing the debris away, allowing for a pause to see if this time she’ll notice my shaking hands, the tears riding close to the surface. I haven’t always come home looking like this after an assault. Most of the time there were no outward signs, but I’d thought that, because she’s my mother, she’d see my invisible wounds anyway. This time, the evidence was clear and yet, she looked right past me, into the distance, to a place I imagine she sees where her daughter doesn’t come home beaten up and sullen, where mothering was effortless and devoid of complications, where she can just smoke cigarettes and drink coffee.
“You’re too hard on your clothes,” she says. “Hang on, what about your t- shirt? Is it ripped?” She comes closer, the cigarette smoldering between her fingers, the sun glinting off her deep red nail polish. With her thumb and last two fingers, she takes hold of the orange Neil Diamond shirt my brother gave me for my birthday and pulls the material toward her. The smoke runs up my nose and I look away.
“Jesus, Dana,” she shakes her head, poking one long red nail through a hole. “Go on in and get cleaned up.
Don’t forget to set the table for dinner.”
I didn’t forget.