Body. As in wine. As of work. As of water in a swimming pool at the Y. Body as something stolen, used, abused. As mind unleashing decades old memories that explode like torpedoes.
Theo’s terror. The perpetrator’s thick arm around his neck. The smell of his breath. His whiskers rasping his cheek. Was he going to die? The man was a trained fighter; Theo a frail pre-adolescent. Body to body it was no contest. Life would murder life. Death would win.
He has erased the date, even the year, that it happened, and how old he was, exactly. His memory is vast but certain entries from that time, the late nineteen forties or early fifties, are like tulips in a garden mashed by marauding boots.
After that day he leapfrogged across months, years, of normal development to an early on-set adolescence obsessed with sex, its flavours, its colours, its texture, its pain. His body was still his but it wasn’t the same. It had been attacked, fondled, kissed. It had lain quiet, submissive, almost catatonic.
Everywhere the man touched him was altered. Even Theo’s own fingertips did not feel like his after being forced to touch the perp.
He wanted to die. In his teens, he almost made it happen.
Perhaps, before this gets too heavy, we should introduce the hero, the counterpart to the villainous molester. Though he occupies only a few lines, and just an hour in Theo’s life, he is pivotal. A life influencer. A confidence builder.
He is the desk sergeant at police headquarters, downtown Edmonton. His thick brogue is like water in a stony highland rill. Looking across his desk, what did he see? A boy stooped with fright, perhaps shame. Beside him a father who was beside himself with rage. A father who minutes before wanted to slug the kid. What for? For embarrassing him in front of the neighbors when the police came.
The sergeant sees a child facing hell in all directions. He’s seen it many times. What does he do? First, he calms, as far as possible, Theo’s panic at having to pick the perpetrator out of a lineup.
At the same time, the sergeant’s calmness, coupled with the trustworthy brogue, calms Theo’s father. He makes him see that his boy is the victim, which, inexplicably, he had not grasped before. He had regarded the culprit, a drifter from Texas on his way to Alaska, as someone to be aided. He would have let him stay the night if things hadn’t gone the way they did.
After the swim class the perp was waiting at the Y front door. He came on strong, wanting to buy Theo and his friend Kenny, fellow swim novice, ice creams. He spooked them. They darted into Woodward’s Department Store. He followed. They didn’t run but marched quickly out another exit. They thought they had ditched him.
Then he got on their bus. Theo wanted to get off but Kenney didn’t because he had no other ticket and would have had to walk across the wide river valley then nineteen blocks south.
Standing at the front of the bus, the man looked at the boys and smiled then engaged the driver in a spiel, creating a buddy relationship that Theo knew he, as a kid, had not the tools, the wit, to break into. Anyway, what could he say? What had the perp done but watch them in the Y pool and get on their bus?
The bus was empty except for the three actors in this drama. Theo, with Kenney at the back, heard the man tell his story. From Texas. On his way to Alaska. The boy, he said, looking at Theo, had invited him home for lunch.
The boys got off the bus through the rear exit. At the front, the man hesitated a few moments, saying some final words to the diver, then got off as well. He followed the boys for two blocks along suburban sidewalks.
Kenney split for his white, two-story clapboard house across from Theo’s. The perp tailed Theo up the walk at the side of his house and into the back yard where his father was gardening.
The spiel again, His father did invite the man to have lunch with them. Theo shook his head. He frowned. His eyes, he hoped, expressed his anxiety. He might have tried to explain but, again, what crime could he lay on the man?
Suddenly the perp, this man who strayed into his safe, comfortable life, was sending off waves that hit Theo like electricity. It felt evil. It terrified him.
When his father failed to get his signals, the child refused to sit at the table. Instead, he went to the living room to sit on the couch, look out the front window and deal with his frustration.
Across the street Kenney began mowing his lawn.
Theo’s mother asked what was wrong. He couldn’t tell her the truth, that he was planning to punish his father by perversely accepting whatever happened to him.
It was a surreal memory. Theo and Kenny at the Y downtown for a swim lesson. The Y’s policy having the boys go naked. The perp watching from the pool bleachers. Deciding he would have Theo.
Then waiting for them outside the building. Following them through the store, the perfume counter, purses and ladies’ shoes. Getting on the same bus when they thought they’d lost him. Getting off at the same stop by Kwong Lee’s grocery store. Following Theo to his house and introducing himself to his father. Explaining that he was a World War 11 Navy veteran who’d fallen on hard times and was heading for Alaska to look for work.
What Canadian WW11 veteran would not feel his heart go out to him? It was a love fest between warriors. Theo had no way of breaking it up.
He stopped trying. His mind surrendered his body to the enemy. His parents left to play golf. Theo was alone with the perp. The perp came into the living room and sat on the couch beside him. He lay his hand on his thigh. Theo didn’t care anymore, though he was very nervous.
Was he already bitter? Was he guilty of vindictiveness in thinking to punish his father? Perhaps naturally so. Decades later, was he still? Had he come to terms with what was merely stubborn foolishness on his part. Was he willing to take his share of the blame?
What expression was he wearing, there in the icy pool? What did the perp see? The perpetrator molded the boy’s destiny. He was but the first male to come onto him. What was there about him that drew men?
The first years of his life his father was away in the Air Force. He was formed by females, five aunts, two grandmothers. Did he imitate their walk, the way they sat, their gesticulations?
No one ever called him girlish or feminine. So what was it? Was it the way he stood in the pool with the left foot angled out at 45 degrees and his hip cocked? The way his arms were crossed over his chest with hands on his shoulders as a woman might cover her naked breasts? Were his eyes the inescapable abyss someone later said they were?
His parents would be away for hours. The perp had been invited to stay. He and the boy could keep each other company.
The perp came and sat next to him. Theo’s body was slack, his will numbed. Across the street, Kenny pushed the lawn mower toward the back of his house.
Afterwards. to fill his father’s emotional place in his life, Theo recruited adrenalin. His body understood adrenalin. He mined it, for example, by delaying important actions such as studying for an exam until an eleventh-hour dash afforded him a dose of it.
Or by riding his bike in traffic like the death defying couriers he later saw in downtown Calgary delivering secret information from oil exploration companies at the height of a frantic boom.
Or street racing cars at sixteen.
He hated his body and couldn’t figure out his feelings. The perp had distorted him.
Depression. Already, at sixteen, an impulsive binge drinker. Was he, he wondered now, occasionally crazy or occasionally sane? Like Kenny who became a hippy, travelled to India and returned so god-smacked he could barely speak and with a new name he couldn’t spell.
But before there were hippies there was Valerie. Grade Ten, Strathcona High, Eighty-Fifth Avenue, South Side Edmonton. Contemplate Theo’s teenaged self. White Levi’s shirt and jeans on a lank six-foot frame. He is certain Valerie was forbidden to see him. His calls were rebuffed. He didn’t need an explanation but he was hurt by her silence.
So: Valerie. Cutest girl in school. White-blonde hair in a tight ponytail. Bowling with Valerie. Billiards with Valerie. Chips and gravy or toasted Denver’s after school with Valerie.
He remembers, painfully, how he lost her. “Foolishness in a too fast car,” should be engraved on his tombstone. It could have been worse. A tragic teen cliché.
Maybe she recognized that she was ill-equipped for the storm that was Theo. On the other hand, maybe her silence was due to her father. He was military, vain and humorless. He was no rational man’s idea of an amiable father-in-law so maybe it was just as well they broke up. But that was a realization that came only now, these decades later.
Walks to school accompanied only by winter’s loneliness. At home, his parents bickering, securely wrapped in their own issues. If it wasn’t so cold Theo would have taken his sleeping bag and slept in back allies.
He could always find someone to buy him liquor, even if there was a disgusting price to pay for a free bottle of sweet rotgut. Unhappiness feasted on his hangovers.
Thing is, he’s having trouble remembering much about you, Valerie. Except feeling you snuggling close on the Buick’s wide bench seat or holding hands after school in the booth in the coffee shop by the bowling alley on Whyte Ave. Both shy. Non-talkers, which must have been awkward. Neither wanting to start a conversation.
Did she too fear an outpouring of emotion if she began with a certain word or phrase that would drill into the reservoir of her fear and dread? He wonders. They seemed so alike.
You were truly lovely, your pert nose, model’s mouth and eyes. What a hell of a thing to do to you, to catch you up in his dire adolescent sweet/bad Southern Comfort snare, his malheur, his Sartrean existence.
Sorry, my love, he whispers.
And sorry again for trying to try to reach you through these unpoetic lines, these keyboard strokes from a body grown weak with illness and age. He would love to see you now, Valerie. Better, he would love to see you then. Pale by nature. Slow smile. Pert and quiet.
He knows you will not read this or even think about him but he is excessively wrapped up in himself today and would love the diversion you would bring. But no. We will never meet again. Why would you want to?
Seems Theo was dangerous back then, back there. And not only to others. Suicide was never far from his thoughts. The perp reigned from a throne hidden in the back streets of Theo’s subconscious.
Still uneasy in his skin, he wonders if his body would have been happier had he let himself live as a two-spirit individual.
The aboriginal concept of both sexes in one body, free and unchained, appeals to him but back then proclaiming himself such would have taken more courage than he had.
Finished with Theo, the perp crossed the street to Kenney’s. Kenny was alone. When his parent got home, they found them in bed and called the police.
Kenny told them that Theo sent the perp to him. Theo’s father believed him. Thus his rage. What kind of son did he have that would do such a thing?
In the perp’s grasp, Theo had swirled like trash in a hurricane then been paralyzed in its calm center while the perp did what the perp did.
He felt entirely alone in the little viewing room. The desk sergeant must have been with him, or someone else, to hear him utter the number five but he remembers only solitude as he faced the one-way glass.
And the weakness in the knees when the man’s eyes seemed to lock onto his and he heard the accent, from Texas, sing in his ears.
* Coda: In revenge, Theo beat the shit out of Kenney. He even pushed his foot through a basement window as they roiled on the ground like an earth-bound storm. Kenney was stronger but the fury belonged to Theo. And so an already doomed friendship was guillotined.
That fight restored a little of Theo’s self-confidence but it didn’t last. He was no brawler. He could not have sustained that sort of energy even had he wanted to.
This piece originally appeared in The Typescript.