– Cree Toner
She was twenty-three years old and home for the first time in almost ten months. Home was home because she was born here, because over there was where she had her first kiss and because she could still remember all the names of her elementary school teachers; it could not be home anymore because she had to make herself small again to fit back here, because three hours away in an apartment that her mother would have called “deplorably small” was her girlfriend and their cat, a string of Christmas lights and a wall papered with lists of things that the two of them were going to do together one day: Find a recipe for really good Béarnaise sauce. Visit that ice hotel in Amsterdam. Make something that has never existed before.
She had made it as far as driving to her house and she could see the tree in the living room. For a moment, she remembered Christmas mornings past that all sort of blended together into a warm blur- wrapping paper strewn across the carpet, mugs of powdery hot chocolate and the flimsy paper crowns they wore at the dinner table.
She could still feel her mittened hand clasped in her father’s gloved one as he led her up the icy steps of the church. She and her family were at service every Sunday and she was always surprised by how many more people came for Christmas Eve mass. “These people are not true followers of God, Katherine,” her dad would whisper in her ear as she sat perched on his knee, in the pew right at the front that was theirs every week. “Yes, Daddy,” she would try and steady her heart against these bad people. When she was very young, she loved to watch her father’s sermons. She loved the way everybody listened to him. She loved that sometimes, if he was in the right mood, she could catch his eye and he would wink at her. Once after service she had asked her father if he was God. For a moment, anger flashed across his face, and then he laughed and laughed.
Katherine had turned the radio off in the car and she watched as her mother plugged in the lights of the tree and fiddled with the cards strung up on the wall. She couldn’t go in, not yet anyway, and so instead she was in line at a coffee shop. It was the same one she went to every day in high school; by the time she was a sophomore, the baristas all knew her by name. “It’s Katherine,” they would say with a smile, and often they’d have her drink ready before she’d even ordered it. Now she didn’t recognize anybody there and nobody recognized her. She couldn’t decide if the anonymity was delicious or depressing.
The girl behind the counter called out, “Next,” and it took Katherine a moment to realize she was speaking to her. The girl was probably sixteen, wearing purple eyeshadow and a thick gold necklace. “Do you know what you want?” she asked pointedly. “Um.” The girl looked at Katherine expectantly. “I’ll just get a medium latte.” She called out “Next” before Katherine had finished paying.
Katherine moved to the end of the bar and watched as a middle-aged woman steamed a little pitcher of milk. The woman wiped the steam wand off with a green cloth, poured the milk into a mug and then began steaming another pitcher. Katherine felt something move beside her and looked down to see a boy, no older than three. His hair was blonde and he was resting his chin on top of the counter. “Woah,” he said every time the woman restarted the process of steaming the milk.
The woman handed Katherine her latte. Though she ordered it to go, she went to a chair by the front window and sat down. The paper cup was warm against her hands and she held it until just before the moment when it would begin to hurt. She sat it down, cooled her hands on the leather of the chair, then picked it up again.
She remembered being seventeen, sitting on the back deck with her mother, Abigail. It was early June, a few days after her high school graduation. Katherine was digging her fingernails into the jean material of her shorts and promising herself that by the time she counted to ten she would release her fingernails and be honest with her mother.
“Patricia called this morning, sweetheart. She wants to know if you’re planning on going back to camp.”
Ten. “Um. I don’t know, Mom. I thought you said I could be done after last summer?”
“You know how much it means to your dad.” Her church, her father’s church, had been running its summer camp since Katherine was three. She’d been going every season since, as a camper for ten years and a counsellor for four more. At some point between those fourteen summers, church camp became another bullet point on the list of things Katherine was bad at. They played capture the flag and decorated flowerpots with paper crosses and doves. At the end of each session, they had a service with all the campers. For these services, her father wore jeans and a shirt with the camp logo on it and a baseball cap. He said things like, “Jesus is actually not that different from you guys!” and, “The coolest thing about God is how much He loves us.” Katherine was thirteen and painting a mural on the side of the church garage the first time she heard the word “dyke”, muttered under the breath of some boy who was cleaning his paintbrush beside her. At home that night, Katherine and her father ate ham sandwiches on the picnic table where she and Abigail now sat. She remembered the sun was warm on her bare legs and her father let her have two bowls of mint chocolate chip ice cream after supper. “Today was so great, Katie Cat.”
Nine. Eight. She closed her eyes; she was eleven years old, sitting cross-legged on her bedroom floor with her best friend Valerie, their lips pressed together; she was fifteen and in the cafeteria with her friends, scrambling to make up the names of boys she knew she was meant to like; she opened her eyes.
Seven. Her mother nudged Katherine in a way that was meant to be playful. “Patricia said they’ve had a lot of boys sign up. Maybe a little summer romance before you go to school?” Abigail’s eyes were equal parts bright with the joyous prospect of her only daughter finding a nice boy to fool around with for the next two months and with the deep-seated anxiety that this would never be the life her daughter would choose.
Six. Five. It always confused her how people could have so many contradictions within themselves, like a riddle her grandfather once wrote on the inside of a birthday card for her; “I went to the pictures tomorrow/I took a front seat at the back/I fell from the pit to the gallery/And broke a front bone in my back/A lady she gave me some chocolate/I ate it and gave it her back/I phoned for a taxi and walked it/And that’s why I never came back.” Her parents were the kindest people she had ever known. Four days of the week, her mother made dinner for the widowed man who lived in the apartment building at the end of their street. Her father mentored a group of foster kids after school on Tuesdays and sometimes on the weekend they’d come over and have pizza and play Katherine’s old Mario Kart games. In the front hall of the house they had a wooden plaque that read Love Lives Here. And yet they could be so hard and relentlessly unforgiving in a way that frightened her. They said cruel things but disguised them in kind words and they loved everybody, except for the people they absolutely hated.
Four. “Mom, I-”
“You could go on a few dates, at least. It doesn’t have to be anything serious and that way you’ll know what to expect at college… you won’t end up making any mistakes. You’re a good girl.” Abigail smiled.
Three. Two. “I know you and Dad… I know that-”
Abigail reached out and pried Katherine’s hand away from her thigh. She ran her fingers over the tips of her daughter’s, the way she used to when Katherine was little. She was silently pleading with Katherine to keep everything the same. So Katherine smiled and she swallowed everything she wanted to say, and said instead, “One more summer might be okay.” It was a balancing act, one she had been trying to maintain for as long as she could remember. It was the art of existing without ever existing fully.
Eight weeks later, Katherine would call her mother from her shoebox of a dorm room. She told Abigail, in the gentlest way she knew how, that she was not, and could never be, the kind of daughter her mother wanted. “I’ve known since I was eight,” she said into the phone, eyes closed tightly even though she was two hundred kilometres away from home. “But you always wear dresses,” was the first thing Abigail said. “Your father can never know,” was the last.
Katherine’s cell phone, tucked in the pocket of her coat, vibrated against her leg. The blonde boy was still standing at the counter. She could not remember what it felt like to be enchanted by the most ordinary things, though she could remember spending an entire afternoon in the backyard with her parents searching for four leaf clovers and so she knew at one time she might have been able to listen, over and over again, to the paper-tearing sound of foaming milk with the same intensity that he was.
Katherine thought about that girl sometimes, the girl who sat on her father’s lap and hated an entire church full of people she knew nothing about, the girl who agreed to hide herself so things could stay simple for her mother. She wondered if that girl would recognize the Katherine who held her girlfriend’s hand in the mall, the Katherine who hadn’t had a Thanksgiving at home in three years.
Her phone vibrated again and Katherine promised herself that by the time she counted to ten she would stand up, get in her car and go home.