The summer before we started Grade 9, my parents let me go to Josie’s house for a birthday sleepover even without her parents home. I’d launched the campaign about a month earlier, and days of arguing and nagging and negotiating either wore them down or annoyed them to the point where they would do anything to shove me out the door for a night.
“I don’t understand why you can’t go to the party and come home and sleep in your own bed. What’s the difference?” At the last minute, my dad was still determined to make it difficult, but I wasn’t going to back down.
“You used to let Josie’s sister babysit me here. It’s the same thing. Liz can babysit me over at her house!” I was ready with all the counterarguments.
Mom said, “Okay, sera, sera.” She’d been watching reruns of The Doris Day Show again and I didn’t try to make sense of it.
Poh Poh shrugged and told him to let me go, and so, with her word like a foot down, they did. But only because Josie was Chinese and understood which things were right and wrong.
Josie’s parents were away the last week of July, and she and her siblings were taking advantage of their freedom and throwing a party. Josie’s birthday was a convenient coincidence. Sleeping over meant no curfew, which further meant that I could spend all night at a party and work to achieve the goals I had been holding on to for a very long time: (1) attend my first dance party and (2) (maybe?) win Bruce back.
On the night before the party, Josie and I painted our nails in her bedroom.
“Josie, what do you think we’ll be like in ten years?”
Josie’s face was scrunched in concentration as she applied shell-pink polish to her index finger. She was a terrible manicurist and always messed up her right hand when she used it to paint her left. I took the brush from her and held her spread fingers in mine.
“I don’t know, June. I don’t have a crystal ball. Anything can happen.”
“We’ll always be friends, right?” I didn’t like the whininess that was sneaking into my voice, but I persisted. I had been feeling her drift away recently.
“Sure, June . . .”
I nodded, turning back to her fingers. I wasn’t convinced that she felt sure. “You’re stuck with me. We’ll even live on the same street after we’re married. Our kids will be best friends too. We’re going to be really happy.”
“June, you think too much . . . Stop your Jesus talk. Can you put a second coat on for me?”
People were always saying that I thought too much and talked even more. My mom, dad, Josie, Poh Poh, Nav. They all told me so. Was it a crime to think too much? Wasn’t thinking supposed to be a good thing? Sometimes Josie accused me of doing “Jesus talk.” That was her way of saying I was too deep, too intense. I always had too many questions or too many answers. It didn’t matter that we weren’t religious, that I’d never said a word about God or Jesus or any of that stuff and Josie was the one who went to church. She said that when I got all serious, I reminded her of the priests and their boring speeches about life.
Josie and my parents were lucky that I didn’t share half the stuff that I thought about. For instance, I had been thinking about the suicides again. No one wanted to talk about it anymore, like it never happened, but I thought about it more and more. I wondered about what happened to them to make them want to die. I couldn’t imagine it. I had bad days, and I knew my parents and Poh Poh did too, but how bad could things get for people to not even want to find out what would happen next? Like, maybe the problems they felt were so hopeless would actually be solved. Or that something so completely good would happen and push away all the bad. It could happen. I thought so. You had to stick around. Were the parents who killed themselves not the stick-around types?
“Tell me who’s coming to the party again,” I said, steering us to safer ground.
I was excited because a bunch of older kids from downtown were planning to come. It was happening more often that after school, instead of playing on the street with us, the older kids from our group were going downtown to hang out with some Chinatown kids they’d met at the community centre when the Shadow Dragons’ volleyball team played. The Dragons, apparently, were the finest of the Chinatown boys. According to Josie, who tagged along with her brother, they were tall, athletic and very cute. She had a crush on one of them, a boy they called Little John. The “Little,” she explained, came from the fact that he was a few inches shorter than Big John. She even went out for noodles after the game with them a few times.
My dad thought Chinatown was a rat’s nest, and we never went. They didn’t even speak our kind of Chinese, so he doubted their noodles were anything to write home about. My mom made the trip to Chinatown every other week to buy gossip magazines and dried shiitake mushrooms for Poh Poh. Even she said she hurried home because downtown was filthy.
My dad said he didn’t immigrate to this country only to have me hang out with a bunch of poor Toishan kids from the old country, whose parents worked in garment factories. We were from Hong Kong and not the mainland. We were a British colony like how Canada first got started. This supposedly made us better people. Needless to say, I was never allowed to go. For me, Chinatown remained a dream, the wonderland that was a long bus, subway and streetcar trip away. It was the land of good-looking boys and steaming plates of chow mein with shrimp.
When my friends went to Chinatown on the weekends, I hung out with Nav and Darren. Even though Darren’s mother had transferred him to the Catholic school after what happened with Mr. Wilson, Nav and I still saw Darren every day after school. Mr. Wilson got fired after hitting him. Darren never spoke about what happened that day, but he said he liked his new school. He said he was getting good grades now because the rest of the Catholic kids weren’t that smart.
I would always remember the day Mr. Wilson punched Darren after accusing him of cheating—that punch and how Darren fell down and got up again, staring at Mr. Wilson as if daring him to do it again. It was hard to think of Mr. Wilson as a bad person because on most days, he seemed like a good guy. He told us stories and was strict, but my dad believed Mr. Wilson wanted his students to be the best they could be.
Darren had been telling us for weeks that Mr. Wilson was out to get him, and the only reason he could come up with was that Darren was Black. “Do you believe me, June?” Darren had asked me. “Yes, I do,” I had said, but honestly, I still wasn’t sure. It wasn’t until the moment when Mr. Wilson punched him that I knew. I promised myself that I would never doubt again that people could be that ugly and mean. It wasn’t something you could explain away.
I should have done something that day to help Darren. I had been frozen in my seat from shock, and it never occurred to me that I could do anything to make it stop. It was Nav, the one you’d least expect, who got up and stood between Darren and Mr. Wilson and said, “Enough.” That did something to Mr. Wilson, and he left the room. Nav was the brave one even though I had always assumed he needed us to take care of him. It ended up that I was the chickenshit.
We never saw Mr. Wilson again. Still, Darren’s mother took him out of our school and transferred him. I wished Darren had stayed, because next time, I would be ready. I felt the same way about Nav getting beat up for being too much like a girl. That Darren stood up to Larry Lems as Nav did to Mr. Wilson made me vow to myself that I would try to have as much guts.
Sometimes, Nav, Darren and I went with Poh Poh to the Red Grill at the mall and ate hot chicken sandwiches with gravy. Darren and Nav looked forward to these Saturdays, and I know Poh Poh got a kick out of them too. She had discovered french fries and insisted I tell the server to only give her the “crispy ones,” which were the burnt, brown ones. It was embarrassing to ask the acne-faced kid with the metal tongs to select fries for us like picking prize peaches, but Poh Poh got so much glee from those potatoes.
Still, even though our outings were fun, I couldn’t help but sulk. I missed my other friends and wanted to meet the famous Shadow Dragons. My parents were awful people. I was ready to go downtown. I was old enough. Why couldn’t they see that?
Josie’s party was turning out to be an exciting prospect because not only did it mean everybody would be together again, but the Chinatown kids were also coming. Josie was hoping Little John would make an appearance.
Josie and I worked on goal number one by asking her sister, Liz, to teach us how to dance. She said we should start out with the basic steps. It was easy, Liz assured us as we put on our leotards and went into the basement with its freezing concrete floor. “Listen to the beat and step in time to it. Step to the right, step to the left. Add a bit of a bounce. Ta da.” She left to talk on the phone, and Josie and I practised it a thousand times to Gary Numan’s “Cars.” After Liz was satisfied with our efforts, she taught us some of Michael Jackson’s moves to “Rock with You.” I could certainly feel the heat, but as much as we practised, I never could ride the boogie. Josie did much better and was even coordinated enough to snap her fingers and swing her arms.
Goal two was harder. It had been two years since Bruce and I went around, but I was still hung up on him. I was also in love with John Travolta, but other than that, no one compared to Bruce in my eyes. I felt like a loser for still liking him for what felt like forever. I wondered if I still had a chance. I had started using eyeliner, and although I probably wasn’t beautiful, I could pass for pretty. I was still short and skinny and as flat as an ironing board, but Bruce had once told me that I had a nice smile, so I practised new ones in the mirror. So far, my favourites were a lopsided one, one that made my dimples go deep, and a barely-there one too.
I was going to wear the Hawaiian shirt that I had begged my mom to buy for me at Woolco, a white short-sleeved number splashed with large blooms of red hyacinth and purple orchids, along with my yellow Roadrunner jeans. Everybody was wearing Roadrunner jeans, with their signature six chevrons on the back pockets.
Every day, it seemed, Josie droned on and on about Little John and how high he could jump to spike the ball onto the opposing court. I’d let her babble and my mind would drift toward my favourite daydream of my reunion with Bruce. I cringed when I thought about how shy I had been with him and swore that he would see a new June at the party: a teenage babe who would know how to act and what to say. I would be so cool that he would regret ever having given me up. I fantasized about how he’d ask me to slow dance in Josie’s basement. As the first chords of Peaches & Herb’s “Reunited” played, he would approach me as I stood talking to the cutest Shadow Dragon boy at the party. Bruce, with his hand extended, would ask in his man/boy voice if I wanted to dance. I would slowly turn to gaze at him as if boys asked me to dance all the time. I would hesitate, look back at the Shadow Dragon and regretfully excuse myself before taking Bruce’s hand and walking with him to the middle of the room. He would pull me to him, and it would be like we had never parted.
I never shared this with Josie. Even I knew it was way too corny.
On the night of the party, my mom took a Q-tip and covered my eyelids with a baby-blue glittery powder. She took a big brush and drew two big pink lines on my cheeks. When she was finished, she stood back to assess her handiwork. “A face only a mother can love!”
“What do you mean, Mom? I’m ugly?” I asked.
“Huh? Oh no. You look okay,” she said as she closed all the lids on her makeup. “So, Josie’s sister and brother are going to be there the whole time, right?” she asked.
“Yes. I told you already. They will be there the whole time.”
“No alcohol, right?”
“Of course not!” I rolled my eyes.
Poh Poh passed by and when she saw me sitting on the bathroom counter, her eyes widened before she walked away muttering something I couldn’t hear. I turned to look in the mirror. I looked different, older. Maybe even almost fifteen? The two additional years satisfied me.
I went over to Josie’s house before anybody else arrived. When I got there, I was surprised by Josie’s outfit. She was all in black. Black Roadrunners and a black tube top with silver sequins. I had never seen these clothes before. She did a twirl for me in the hallway when I entered.
“Nice, eh? Liz took me shopping today and bought this for me with her babysitting money.”
“Yeah. Really nice!” She did look nice, but suddenly I felt like a kid in my Hawaiian shirt.
I helped her and Liz set out all the chips and peanuts. They had made punch and used their mother’s crystal bowl. It weighed a ton and was cut with a pattern of winding vines and grapes. Liz had used a special recipe of cocktail fruit concentrate and ginger ale. At the last minute, she put away the ten little matching cups and set a stack of Styrofoam ones out instead.
Nav and Darren came first, at 8:00 p.m. sharp. Darren wore a tie with a denim collared shirt. Nav had wet-combed his hair so hard, the rake marks were still visible on his head, while the rest hung in damp ringlets. He was letting his hair grow now despite his parents’ complaints. It was at his shoulders. It suited him, and Poh Poh gave him a new nickname, Lang Lui — “Pretty Girl.”
The whole gang from the street followed in quick succession and filed into the basement, following the beat of the music, but no Bruce. I started to worry that he might not show. Tim took over the DJ duties and blasted the cassette player to full volume. I decided not to give my whole night over to worry and joined the group. Everybody was dancing to the music. The room was dark except for the small direct light from the desk lamp they’d put over the player and stacks of cassette tapes: Kool & the Gang, Donna Summer, the Bee Gees—all our favourites. Even Nav was dancing, making some kind of jerky move that involved kicking his legs from side to side. I felt like I’d gotten the hang of Liz’s tutorial and was starting to enjoy myself with my side-to-side funk move. With all of us there dancing, it didn’t seem like Josie’s basement anymore—the place with a clunky dryer and where we’d practised skateboarding on the uneven concrete floors as the sun peeped in through the slot of window near the ceiling. Tonight, our music and dancing had transformed the room into the dance studio in Saturday Night Fever.
A loud cheer came from upstairs, and Josie bolted from the dance floor and tore upstairs. I heard her squeal. I darted up after her. A small group of Chinese guys I’d never seen before were standing in the hallway. From Josie’s and the other girls’ reactions, I guessed they were the Chinatown boys. Some of them wore red T-shirts with black dragons printed on the front, marking which ones were the famous Shadow Dragons. They looked like normal boys, nothing like the brown muscled men from my dad’s kung fu movies I’d been picturing, but they were cute. One of them looked over at me and didn’t stop. I pretended to pick lint off my right thigh, a little disappointed that he wasn’t wearing a red shirt. Josie grabbed my arm and pulled me into their circle. She introduced me as her best friend to each of them in quick succession: Frank, Chung, Gord, Jimmy, Harry, Victor, Big and Little John. I gave a little wave. The one, Jimmy, still hadn’t broken his stare, and I worried that the blue glitter on my lids must have sweated a line straight down to my chin. Jimmy wasn’t a boy, not in the way that Nav and Darren were. And not like Bruce, who seemed trapped between boy and man and still had so much of his childish prettiness with his full lips and high cheekbones. Jimmy looked like a man. He was tall and solid. There wasn’t any softness about him. I felt like a bug trapped under a glass, the way he looked at me.
“Is this a party or what?” said the one named Frank as he pulled out a bottle of clear liquid from his knapsack. I was shocked, but Josie smiled this weird plastic smile like Barbie and didn’t try to stop him. The rest of the boys cheered. Frank proceeded to pour the bottle into the punch.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Bruce in the living room, talking to Tim. He was dressed completely in white: a white short-sleeved T-shirt and white painter pants. My heart did that strange thing it did whenever I saw him, like it turned upside down, like it didn’t quite fit. He and Tim turned at the noise and greeted the Dragons. They all slapped each other on the back and shook hands like real men. Bruce glanced over at me and smiled. I smiled back but still wondered if I had a blue stripe down my face. I hoped to God not. Just as quickly, Bruce turned away and continued his conversation with Tim.
Liz passed around Styrofoam cups of the alcohol-spiked punch. I said I didn’t want any when Tim handed one to me. I glanced at Josie. She had taken a cup too, so I grabbed a cup before Tim could walk away.
“Happy birthday, Josie! Cheers!” Frank raised his cup, and we all followed. The living room had gotten crowded since everyone from the basement had come up. We all raised our cups and drank. I was so thirsty, I finished mine in one gulp. It tasted like cough syrup. I felt it travel down a path to my stomach like a line of fire. Jimmy moved over to me and handed me another drink. I tossed it into my mouth again like it was Kool-Aid, trying not to grimace.
“Are you okay? You didn’t have to drink it all at once, you know.” He seemed nice, but I didn’t want to be treated like a child. I nodded like I knew what I was doing, and he scooped up some punch and gave me another. Then we went downstairs to the basement.
Everything began to appear in snatches of colour and motion. I had never drunk alcohol before and was surprised at how great I felt. The basement was crowded with people moving as if in one big mass to the beat. My body felt loose and limpid like dancing and I were meant to be.
A slow song by A Taste of Honey started to play. It was about geisha girls in Japan or something. Jimmy was beside me in a second. He took my hand gently, pulled me to the centre of the floor and lifted my arms to his shoulders before wrapping his around my waist. I wondered if Bruce saw, but all around me, everyone looked like dark shadows. I hoped Bruce’s white clothes would shine, providing a light for me, but Jimmy hugged me close to him, and I couldn’t see anymore. A tiny throb began in my head, so I rested it on his shoulder, hoping he didn’t mind. I felt dizzy and wanted to go home to my bed.
It went like that for what could have been two hours or two minutes. There were fast songs, then slow songs. Jimmy was there for all of it. At one point, he asked if I was hot. I touched my forehead and it was wet with sweat. He took my hand and led me upstairs. A few bodies were draped over the couch and floor; a few people were eating cake in the living room. Bruce was sitting in the middle of the loveseat. When he saw me, he scowled and turned back to whomever he was talking to. I wondered what his problem was; he’d ignored me. Maybe now that I was holding hands with another boy, he was jealous. Everything felt heavy, even my thoughts, like we were underwater.
He led me to the backyard. It didn’t feel any better outside. The night was thick with humidity.
“Your face is all blue,” Jimmy said, half laughing, half curious. I reached my hand up to wipe it. Maybe that’s why Bruce looked at me like that. “Here, let me. It’s okay. It’s cute. You’re cute.” Jimmy took a corner of his T-shirt and brushed it against my face.
Then he kissed me. It was very gentle, a slight touching of his lips to mine. It felt very different from Bruce’s kiss. No teeth were involved, just softness like I had always imagined. I closed my eyes. When he moved his face away, I opened my eyes and looked up at him. Jimmy’s eyes were glowing from the half-light coming from the living room window. My father once said that it was never completely dark in the suburbs. Light was always escaping and spilling everywhere.
“You’re so pretty, June.”
He pulled me closer to him, but I moved my head to the left so that his lips landed on my cheek. He was a stranger.
“Let’s go back inside.”
“I like you, June.” He gripped my arm.
I nodded. He tried to kiss me again, his hold on my arm tighter this time, too tight to be comfortable. Again I turned my head. I was about to explain, when suddenly he smirked. “You’re a tease, aren’t you? Fuck this.” He pushed me away and stormed off back to the side door and inside. It wasn’t even that hard of a push, but I lost my balance and fell on the grass anyway. The screen door slammed against the frame.
I stayed outside on the grass by myself for a while longer, listening to the crickets. Jimmy’s anger rolled off of me. I was too numb to feel anything but tired. My brain felt like it was moving through mud. Small lights from other windows interrupted the darkness. They drifted from houses, reaching across the yards, searching for dark corners. The yellow splashes and lines of light looked like they were dancing to the funk music thumping out of the basement. I rubbed my eyes to make sure I knew what I was seeing. The earth was tilting. I stood and, steadying myself against the jagged bricks of the wall, went back inside through the side door. I wanted to see a familiar face. I needed my friends. I wanted to shed my body, the stupid makeup, this party, and have all of us together being normal. I looked for Nav, Darren and Josie, but they weren’t upstairs.
People were still lounging around in the living room, and the punch bowl was empty. I made my way slowly down the stairs to the basement, careful to keep the ground from slipping under me. By the time I reached the bottom, I felt the need to barf. The laundry room was straight in front of me, and I pushed the door open and darted in. I didn’t know where the light bulb was and started to feel around for the sink. Then movements coming from directly in front of me startled me. I felt the pull chain for the bulb brush against my cheek, and I reached for it. As the light clicked on, it caught the sequins on Josie’s top, making her look like a disco ball. Behind her, leaning on the washer, I could make out someone in white. Painter pants. Bruce. They were hugging or something. Kissing. His hand was under her tube top. They both turned and saw me, and my eyes felt like they were blinking so slowly.
“June. It’s you.” Josie didn’t sound surprised to see me. She fixed me with a stare that said this was somehow my fault. Bruce didn’t look at me at all, his face turned toward the wall while he retrieved his hand from her top. The bulb swung back and forth on its cord. The light cast them in and out of shadow, still like statues, pressed together, her eyes glued to mine.
Suddenly, I was not drunk anymore. I felt like I had been dunked into an ice water bath and someone was holding my head down. I turned and bolted up the stairs, pushing people out of my way to the door. I kept running outside as I raced up my driveway and to my front door. I paused at the door, breathing hard, and opened and shut it softly, not wanting to be heard. I leaned against it on the inside and waited to feel better.
I didn’t know how long I stood there, but when I finally climbed the stairs, I could still feel the imprint of the doorknob on my back. As I walked down the hallway, the slant of light from under Poh Poh’s door widened and she peered out. “June, is that you? Are you okay?”
“Yes, Poh Poh. I didn’t feel like sleeping over. Go back to bed.”
The light disappeared as her door closed, but I could still see a thin, straight line as it crept out from the threshold. I used that light to guide me to my room next door to hers. I didn’t bother to change. In the dark, I climbed onto my bed and curled into a ball. My body felt like lead, and my head pounded. I wished I could wake up my mom, but I knew she would freak out when she sniffed the alcohol on me.
I couldn’t think about Josie or Bruce right then. I tucked them away for tomorrow, for when I would be able to tell if this night was a dream. Right now, my head was still foggy. I got up and went to my window and felt the night air on my face. It felt stuffy inside me, like I didn’t have enough air, so I tried to breathe deeply. From there, I could see the spread of Winifred Street. Everything was quiet except for the low buzz of electricity and the faint music drifting from Josie’s house. Even from my window, I could tell it was a slow song. “Endless Love.”
The light from the street lamps fell like pools on the black road. Even though I couldn’t see the details in the dark, I knew the street like my own face. I knew the curve of the road from my house before it straightened toward Nav’s. I knew my favourite part of the curb to sit on to watch Bruce pop wheelies on his bike. I knew the patterns in the wood grain of my front door. I knew the numbers of each of the suicide houses.
When the suicides first happened, my mom had said, “There’s more than meets the eye.” She had said it as an explanation, but I hadn’t given it much thought at the time. I looked down at the dark street and knew now that there were things that lurked on the other side of doors, behind the friendly faces, underneath the polite chatter across the fences. Although I had tried to pay attention to everything, what I thought I knew so well was probably not what it seemed. I thought of Josie’s eyes in the basement and knew that she must have secrets too.
The questions that I had had two years ago about the suicides were different from the ones I had now. Two years ago, I had only thought about how they did it and didn’t think much about why. Now it was all I could think about. Maybe one day I would understand. But today, I didn’t understand anything—why Josie would hurt me, why Bruce would never be mine, why the parents killed themselves.
I stared out into the night and thought about the one thing that my mom had always said that made more sense to me than anything else: home was where the heart was. Everything that mattered to me—my parents, Poh Poh, Josie, Nav, Darren, school—was here. But what happened when you expected home to be your heart and it wasn’t? What then?
I had assumed I would always want to live here, but now I knew that was childish. This neighbourhood wasn’t everything. It wasn’t anything at all, a grid of streets that crossed each other, a bunch of people thrown together. There were other places in the world, and I knew I would go. This place here, it was already leaving me, and maybe this was what it felt like to have your heart break.
Once, I asked Poh Poh if she wanted to return to Hong Kong, and she said that once you left a place, you could never go back and expect it to feel like home. “Places change,” she said, “and so do people. Memories sometimes lie.”
I listened to the buzz of the street lamps. I thought about those lights and how they had always been my signal. They always told me when to go home. I used to hate the street lights, wishing that the purple and orange glow at sunset would stretch endlessly, so I could remain outside with my friends forever. I wanted to hold on to this picture. This memory would not lie, as my grandmother had warned. A long, long time from now, I would remember the row of lights flickering on as night slowly fell to the street, and all of them waving back at me like shadows as I turned away.
Carrianne Leung immigrated from Hong Kong to Canada at age 5. Her first novel,The Wondrous Woo (Inanna Publications), was a finalist for the 2014 City of Toronto Book Award. She holds a PhD in Sociology and Equity Studies from the University of Toronto. In her collection of linked stories THAT TIME I LOVED YOU (HarperCollins Canada, March 2018), in which this story is the final one, an adolescent Chinese-Canadian girl named June tells us about her family, friends, and neighbours in a brand-new suburb, Scarborough, where strangers from all over the world are suddenly thrown together, with sometimes tragic and sometimes hilarious results.