Julie Mannell’s forthcoming novel is tentatively titled little girls
Julie Mannell is The Town Crier’s guest editor this month. Her poem,“That Space Between Blankets That Holds Your Scent,” was featured in issue 26 of The Puritan. Here she reflects on her relationship with her hometown.
My relationship with my hometown, Fonthill, Ontario, (also Fenwick, Welland, etc.) is not unlike my relationships with ex-boyfriends. I feel I was treated badly in a relationship that lasted eighteen years and it undoubtedly has forever affected the lens through which I view myself and gauge every single other place I inhabit. It’s a part of me that I’m constantly bouncing life decisions off of like a game of wall-ball. When we (Fonthill and I) run into each other I want to seem better than I did then, and, more smugly, I want to rub their noses in my happiness, successes, while slowly reading their lives with an intense air of judgment—a skewed but critical eye that makes them seem worse and me better. I do this with the poignancy of an adolescent—which I was when I ran away to Montreal nearly a decade ago. I save choice memories of my Fonthill visits so that I can laugh at it with my other friends in my apartment in the city. I am an asshole to Fonthill. I am maybe just an asshole.
This anger comes from a place of intense pain and insecurity. Fonthill was an abusive parent to me when I was growing up. At this exact moment I am twenty-six and home for Christmas and I still feel a nervousness that I have only ever experienced in classrooms. My most immediate memory is learning to sit on my hands and bite my lip when I had a question or point. In kindergarten questions were encouraged, but as I grew older it became quite the daunting task to will myself to volunteer my point of view. Students made fun of me. Teachers made fun of me. Okay, okay … let’s back up. It was more than making fun.
There was very little to do in Fonthill, as with many small hometowns, so I quickly became a voracious reader. By the fifth grade I’d nearly memorized the entire Pelham library—a feat that was paralleled only by the fact that I’d also alienated myself from nearly everyone in my elementary school.
I hate the term “bully” because I feel like it diminishes what actually happened there and makes allegations of “harassment”—which is my preferred terminology—dumbed down scapegoats for “kids will be kids” façade arguments. I was (am) just a girl who wanted to raise her hand in class and contribute to discussions. This made me hyper-visible to my classmates and an easy target for the kinds of malicious acts that make predatory social climbers more secure at the expense of another. When I lived in Fonthill I was beaten up repeatedly, mainly by boys, and thrown in trashcans like a piece of garbage. Firecrackers were thrown at my home and at my dog—the sort of stuff that mimicked movies like American Pie, but I wasn’t a fictional character, I was (am) obviously a real person. I remember one kid tried to set my house on fire but failed upon realizing that simply putting a lighter to a house would not cause it to be set ablaze. On MSN (instant messaging an entirely new medium for preteens in the early ’00s), I was called every awful swear in the book. Some teachers even got in on the game, wanting to make nice with the more popular students, and I was frequently subjected to intense humiliation in front of a crowd of my peers.
I have a very lucid memory of being in the eighth grade and at a religious retreat at an old nunnery in Niagara Falls. One teacher went around the room full of girls and told each girl which boy in our grade they would be best suited to date. When the teacher got to me she said, “Julie, I don’t think anyone here understands you and maybe they never will. I’m sure there is maybe some boy who will like you out there. I just don’t think you are loveable here.” I remember the girls giggling about me being unloveable behind the knuckles of their delicate little hands. I was twelve and I was neither nasty nor unattractive. When I look back at photos of myself I still can’t fully understand why there was such anger toward me specifically. I think I just carried the burden of being the kind of girl who had too many questions and a debilitating lack of self-regulation—I’d sit on my hands and bite my lip but inevitably someone would say something overtly provoking in its stupidity and I’d have to correct them. I cried myself to sleep at the retreat thinking “unloveable” over and over again like a curse. The next day was the school dance and none of the boys wanted to dance with me.
The bullying had a strange trickle-down effect. While at first my family believed that I was being treated unfairly, they then came to believe that maybe something was mentally off about me. I remember in unfortunately vivid detail staying up late one night and listening to my parents talk candidly in the living room. “Well, maybe she’s some kind of retarded,” said my father in his unfailingly rural dialect. “No, no,” reassured my mother, “She’s just trying to find herself. I don’t quite understand why she can’t seem to make friends with the other kids. I know she wants friends.” The conversation dragged on and I sat behind the door to my bedroom feeling about the size of a Polly Pocket. I made a vow to myself not to speak in class, to be well-behaved and quiet. I don’t know why I thought it would work this time when I’d made the vow repeatedly and it had failed. It was just a vow I’d have to make over and over and over. The next day someone said something ill-informed and I couldn’t stop myself—I raised my hand and, while rolling their eyes, a teacher accepted my historical correction. I wasn’t technically wrong but I was treated as if I had done something wrong. It was very confusing. I thought it was a good thing to be smart in school.
I found my father dead in my living room when I was twelve. I have always felt bad about not being able to fit in with other kids before he died. My father was born of the earth like a tree in the orchards that autograph the farms of Fenwick—there are legends of him here. He was a class clown who rode a motorcycle and worked in a factory and played instruments and read novels and sat me down in front of a television with George Carlin performing standup, said, “Comedians are the true philosophers of the world.” I’ve always felt bad that he died maybe thinking I am a loser. For me, he was the epitome of cool. After he died I stole away records and books he liked, and consumed the art he loved with desperate yearning after his image. The art he left behind was instrumental in cultivating the foundation for my own individual taste. I can’t help thinking about how who I am today as an artist and a consumer of art is a direct result of the admiration I had for my father and the sickening shame I felt over him maybe thinking I was pathetic because I was being tormented by my classmates.
There was a split amongst kids at school, having to deal with the tragedy of my family that didn’t quite make sense. This was maybe compressed by the fact that my dad had gone to school with many of their parents. I imagine, in wake of the troubling truth that parents, spouses, siblings die—people we depend on sometimes die for no reason—it is not far off to imagine that my family had a meddlesome presence in other Fonthill families’ dining room conversations. Some students thought it was very fascinating. Some wanted to know what it was like to see a parent die, and asked me a lot of questions. The other students used it as fodder for their own social ambitions; they called me “half orphan” and insisted that my father had died because I was such an ugly loser.
“He had cancer,” I would correct them.
“Don’t look at me because I don’t want to catch cancer,” they’d respond.
“You can’t catch cancer,” I’d point out. Then several people would whip snowballs at my face and throw me in a trashcan while I was walking home.
“Go kill yourself before someone else dies,” said one of my witty classmates.
Like most children who are harassed by their peers, I was faced with an important choice: either I accept the conditions bestowed upon me (I am unloveable trash), or pick another idea that leaves room for important life constituents: namely, hope. The other idea I had: that I know something they don’t know; that I’m simply a unique and special kind of human; that these people are too stupid and blind to understand; that somewhere out there is a world full of people who are like me and who will like me. After I tried (in a darkly hilariously unsuccessful way) to kill myself in the eighth grade, I chose the latter. I had turned to books for so many years and found in them characters who spoke to my weird social conundrum. Anne of Green Gables didn’t fit in because she was a smart loud mouth who was unattractive (carrot-headed) and she came back as a hero-writer to her hometown. Josephine March also left and came back a writer and started a school of her own. Harry Potter was locked in a cupboard beneath the stairs and the whole time he was destined to be a wizard. My entire life unfolded in the narratives I internalized and cruel words took on another form: they reinforced that something was different about me; that them hating me made me more confident in my specialness. Every hurt became strength.
As I turn the pages of my eighth grade yearbook I stop at a familiar round-faced girl with squinty eyes and long blonde hair. I know her; she used to look at me through a mirror. Her future ambition is listed: Be a writer/leave Fonthill. The simple dream for her is more like a prophecy she feels fate has cast her in as the star. She’s maybe thirteen years old and hovers between portraits of more conventionally beautiful girls who long to live on an island together—the utopian dream for which she was neglected an invitation.
Now I am 26 and rediscovering these closed yearbooks as I enter into the adult world of a fully grown-up Fonthill. The truth is that being a victim—and I was a victim—doesn’t make one a moral authority. Being moral is entirely different, it involves active participation in justice, while being a victim simply entails that one is the passive receiver of terrible treatment. Being treated terribly, as self-righteously indignant as I was, didn’t mean that the world would unfold like a storybook with me as the hero. This is the unfortunate conclusion I’ve had to reach this Christmas: I am an asshole too. I am also a writer, but that didn’t come simply by virtue of me being treated badly. I love my work and I work very hard. I don’t think I am alone in coming to these realizations, which is why “hometowns” seemed a fitting thematic concept for The Town Crier’s month of January. The holidays force writers to confront their hometowns and childhoods, whether they return or not, and fit that into the structure that frames the stories of their lived bodies.
In the wake of all of the horribleness of my awkward puberty, I’ve (despite being a local loser) had a long relationship since the age of nine with a neighbourhood boy who, for the sake of this essay, I will call Dawson. I used to knock on Dawson’s window late at night and he would knock on mine late at night and we would innocently fall asleep together until the birds sang. In Fonthill when birds sing it means it is 6 a.m. For us, in the early ’00s, it meant that he or I could make it home on time, through our bedroom windows, before our parents noticed, and go to school the next day where we would act like nothing had happened.
Edwin Booth as Hamlet
On Valentine’s Day he was my first kiss. He brought me a kit of bath supplies and explained the awkward adventure he’d found himself in: the “womens’ section” of Walmart in Welland was an anxiety-inducing foreign space for him to interpret. “There were, like, all of these colours and smells and they were all so bright and I’d smoked so much weed,” he confessed. He recounted how he’d awkwardly asked a nice employee-lady for help, and she asked him—a weird skinny 14-year-old skater punk—about my interests. Together, he and the lady wandered through Walmart’s ladies’ collection until he eventually settled on a melon-cucumber collection of soaps and creams. I still think of him whenever I see anything melon or cucumber.
My mom was out of the house for the night with her boyfriend, who happened to be my dad’s best friend Phil (I only mention this because it explains my intense identification with the Shakespearean play Hamlet, an ongoing ode to distancing myself from reality and seeing myself as a character in some sort of fictional construction). We put on The Wedding Singer and watched it from a pull-out couch in my basement. “I love you Julie Mannell and I am going to kiss you,” he said while looking in my eyes, something I’d dreamed he’d say for five years (in context, that’s one third of my 14-year-old life). It was my first kiss and it lasted a long time. Long enough that infomercials were playing when he left to buy more weed from my neighbour who was also the boy who tried to set my house on fire (small towns are called “small” for a reason).
Six months later, after we were caught holding hands by a friend walking down highway 20, and I was asked if he was my boyfriend (thought process: he says he loves me, we see each other every day, he says he’s going to marry me), I made a terribly incorrect assumption: yes, he is my boyfriend. That night was the town’s fair where kids go to drink cold medicine and ride the tilt-a-whirl. The whole town mocked and berated him for dating a loser like me. He told them he barely even knew me. I felt devastatingly embarrassed.
On my 18th birthday we ran into each other again. He apologized. We went to prom. Then I moved to Montreal to go to McGill where my small town upbringing became quite the subject of private school mythologies. I made new friends and they exaggerated the details of my Fonthill stories so that some thought I grew up in a shack without running water. I found the working class difficult to explain to other students. Still, I made friends. I wanted to be like my new friends. Dawson and I broke up when I went home for Thanksgiving.
At 26-years-old Dawson and I still seem to pick up where we left off. For some reason I’ve never gotten his cell number and still elect to randomly knock on his window every few years when I’m in town. After living all of my young adult life as a writer in Montreal, accidentally falling into coolness that comes with superficial signifiers as random as somehow getting to know the right people at the right time: musicians, artists, authors, quintessential partiers; I still find myself knocking on Dawson’s window two days before Christmas. He still works at Mossimo’s. Mossimo’s objectively has 100% the best pizza in the world; I would know because now I’m 26 and super well travelled. Dawson has tried school several times and decided it’s not for him. Dawson likes to cut down trees. He tells me about cutting down different trees and the methodology. I try to read him a quote from a Lynn Crosbie book I’ve been really into. His eyes glaze over before I get to the first word and I am reminded of a conversation in my MFA class about the work of Dionne Brand in which I held up my copy of Inventory and stated, in earnest, “This is a great book but if I give this to one of my buddies in Welland they’ll probably see it as kindling.”
I haven’t been home since my grandfather died two years ago. That was the time I took my wealthy NYC boyfriend to Fonthill and (of course) Mossimo’s, and Dawson gave me the reaction I’d been yearning after but few could offer: “I really liked him. He was a good man.” Now I’m back and I’ve moved to Toronto, and I’m a grad student, and my whole young adult life is a city away—as if places are just chapters in a novel I’m unconsciously moving through until I die.
My grandfather knew the entire history of Fonthill. He could sit in the front yard and tell you every person who passed by, their entire love life, name all of their children (and pass judgments as to whether they were a good child or a bad child) and name every dog they ever owned (and pass judgments as to whether each dog was a good dog or a bad dog). My grandparents sewed their own socks. They pickled their crops. They had troubles but loved each other. One time, a few years before he died, I asked my grandfather, “Why do you always sit outside and watch the cars drive by?” At 87-years-old, he answered in a tone not so alien to me in my early 20s, “Well, if I sit outside then sometimes your grandmother will sit with me. Once in a while she lets me hold her hand.” Dialectics and accents are dying with globalization and the internet. This isn’t necessarily bad but I still take great comfort when my grandmother asks, “Wouldja like a bowl’a putatah chips n a glass’uh malk? How’s Tahrahnah treatin’ yah?” My dead dad talked like that before he was dead. Dawson still has a bit of a cadence in his twang.
Dawson barely drinks anymore. The town came down hard on him for partying too much too young. His life, not unlike my life, has become an artifice through which one sheds the weight of long living reputations that punctuate your identity within a small community. He seems to have dedicated his life to living an archaic ideal of goodness and following this methodology. He barely drinks—it makes me wonder about the ways in which my own identity has evolved against the framework of who I was at one time to the people I grew up with in Fonthill. I’m a city girl now. I drink heavily, like the bohemians in movies about cool bohemians who live strange nomadic lifestyles. I have all kinds of weird stories but leave out the parts where my drinking became scary and awkward in writing communities in Montreal, and then in Toronto. I leave out the part where I feel hollow and fragmented. I leave out that my behaviour even sometimes frightened the bohemians who were too cool to call themselves “bohemian.” I give up on introducing him to poetry. Instead, I listen to the names of trees and how to cut them down.
The Canadian “Comfort Maple”
Fonthill is home to Canada’s oldest “living” maple tree. It is called the “Comfort Maple.” The Comfort Maple is a dead tree held up by metal rods. It is a metaphor for everything in Fonthill, from our failure to change to our refusal to let go of the past. Looking at its leafless limbs, one can’t help but think that the Comfort Maple is perhaps a lie we’ve all silently agreed to pretend is a truth. Maybe acting like a lie is a truth has benefits for all of us. Maybe it’s nice to say we come from the home of Canada’s oldest maple tree.
Dawson kisses me outside of Iggy’s and we head to 20/20, a local bar inside of a strip mall beside a Shopper’s Drug Mart and a Giant Tiger. I see some guys who used to bully me and feel happy that they are old and fat. I feel happy that Dawson still works at Mossimo’s and finds happiness in the basic routines of his life. I feel happy that people say things in dollars; how much money everyone is making as if making money and the money being above minimum wage is the serene Eden at the end of a rainbow that is merely different shades of shit-brown. I am an asshole—I told you. I feel good about being an asshole in this moment when I am judging these people.
In his same childhood bedroom, Dawson tells me he loves me. He tells me he loves me and that he’s been with many other women but I am his favourite. I can’t help thinking that men here count women like they count hourly wages. Dawson maybe peaked in the eighth grade when he played guitar in a band that covered Pennywise. Being with him now and having been gone so long in Montreal—he has remained frozen in time to me, the cool skinny kid with the long dark hair—the memory is enough to get off in less than ten minutes because I can so brilliantly relive everything that happened and how I felt about it when I was the person that I was when I lived here. It is as if no time has passed and this is a kind of goofy redemption. Fonthill is home to Julie Mannell’s longest crush. I am 26-years-old and I finally (still) got the cool guy from my elementary school. I am a real winner. Hey dead dad, I’m not a retarded loser. P.S. Fuck you in your dead face.
I didn’t come home in 2014 because my rich NYC boyfriend dumped me and I was evicted from my nice apartment and I lost my job and, while I was still writing, I was working as a maid and a nanny. I lived as a prosthetic mom to more successful moms who didn’t want to pay me enough money to have and raise my own children. Even when I was living off my writing I didn’t have enough to have my own children unless I had a successful boyfriend. These little milestones of success beyond the town were affirmations that I was different in a good way and a bad way. What an exhausting venture it would have been to describe to my hometown the walk-in closet I was living in, the single mattress I was sleeping on, and the lack of romantic and employment prospects. I stayed in Montreal and took mushrooms and had several seizures. At least I got to eat dinner at a place where a notable celebrity once spent the night, and got to drink with obscure authors. I didn’t feel super cool. I didn’t want to go vacation with Fonthill and admit that perhaps they were right about me.
Christmas time in 2015 and I go on Facebook and my friend from kindergarten has had a baby. I make arrangements for us to meet. I’m not sure why—maybe because of curiosity. Ever since people from my childhood started having babies I’ve obsessively and creepily watched their photos on Facebook, like a reality TV show about a life I never lived but maybe could have.
For the sake of this essay I will call her “Topanga.” So Topanga has a beautiful baby with her boyfriend and is raising it in her childhood home and texts me that she’s so excited to see me and I text back that the feeling is mutual. As a nanny I worked with babies. I know new moms want food, so I make a little gift pack of cabbage rolls and a childrens’ book. In my childhood bedroom, which hasn’t changed much since I decorated it in my more angsty and gothic years, I feel like I am playing house. I’m going to my friend Topanga’s home to play make-believe where she is a grownup with a baby and I am the nice friend who brings her baby a gift. This isn’t far off from the games we used to play. Topanga’s mom was always this sexy young mom who was also an actress. Topanga had a passion for make-believe and I had a passion for storytelling. This was our thing.
So I walk down highway 20 with my tidy loot: a hardcover with big pictures and a Tupperware of succulents. I look at the branches in “the pit.” The pit is a gathering of trees beside the Pelham Pool—the stories about that pool are for a later essay. Memories flood back about how wild and fresh Topanga and I were together, not even very long ago. I guess it had been five years since we took off in my then-boyfriend’s car and smoked weed in the parking lot at the bottom of the forest. She’d spoken to me about her adventures in Nova Scotia and how acting was really working out for her. I’d been working for a student journal at McGill which felt very important at the time.
I walked by Dawson’s house and remembered that Topanga used to hook up with him for jokes and giggles. The details are frantically scribbled in my childhood journals. I perceived myself as a good Catholic girl (I actually was!) and the only girl who really, really, truly loved him (I did!) and therefore the most deserving of his affections. Yet, with all of the stigma surrounding anyone treating me with positivity and with the unappealing Catholic footnotes to my sexuality, it would be years after Topanga that Dawson and I could truly actualize our romantic ambitions for each other.
So now I’m living in the city with my MFA—big fucking deal—and Topanga is back in Fonthill with her baby and unwed but has a boyfriend. I tell myself to stop being so weird and prejudicial as I hit South Pelham … at least to not vocalize it when I see her. In an awkward way I feel like a voyeur and the voyeurism has very little to do with Topanga and a lot more to do with me wanting to nervously snoop around a corner and lurk into the possible life I’d turned down so many times. The timing was never right. The situation never worked out the way I’d dreamed it would. I clung onto my childhood fantasies of marriage. Anne turned down Gilbert. Jo turned down Lawrence. Harry …well it didn’t work out with Cho Chang and things did turn out for him and Ginny but I always figured Luna was a better match, but I’ve also always liked Harry and I’ve also always identified with Luna—maybe Hermione but I could never marry Ron. Storybooks, fiction—they read as manifestos for life decisions and now I was looking at where they had led me. I was more nervous about how close our stories would parallel than how disparate. Topanga had, at least for now, given up a promising career in the arts to move home and be a mother. She was living a deep and treacherous possibility I’d anxiously rolled over in my own mind time and again.
When I arrive at Topanga’s childhood home she greets me with a warm and earnest hug. It is mildly infuriating to see that she is in better shape than me and she just had a baby. She is grateful for the gifts but remarks: “I haven’t seen you in years. You didn’t have to do this.” Is it so awkward, I wonder, that we shared crushes on the same boys (small towns are called “small” for a reason) and I remember how everyone laughed because you wrote about one in your journal, “I do not love him, I am in love with him,” and I knew that I’d written the same phrase about the same boy in my own hidden diary? Is it so awkward?
I am relieved that her kitchen still has the same floors. I’m not sure why. I know I nearly had a heart attack when I found out Mossimo’s was moving to a new location, even if it is closer to my house. Things staying the same here make me feel better about my life being so different over there. The familiarity, even if it is haunted by the terrible circumstances of my young life, is a mental refuge when I feel out of body in the art world.
Her boyfriend is handsome and offers me pop or wine and I take the pop because I’ve been bad with alcohol lately. I sit on the floor and drink soda from a wine glass and we catch up. Her boyfriend is also a writer and has achieved many successes out east. I’m not even special in this living room, let alone, Fonthill. I am just a bitter asshole as I kind of brush away lists of his accomplishments. She is proud of him and her eyes glow towards him as if they were two bright fireflies.
Her baby is very cute (even for a baby), which says a lot since babies are predestined for insane cuteness. Their little house is setup and we watch the infant try to fully turn over onto her belly like she is a hockey player just missing the net. Each time she gives up and concedes to lying on her back we shout, “Oh! Almost! So Close!” The infant doesn’t cry. The house is warm. The boyfriend is supportive. They seem happy. Not happy in a gimmicky family Christmas card way but happy in a way that one might imagine they probably have their own heated conversations and dilemmas but work through them as diligent partners. The peacefulness is a pale yellow glow that echoes off a lamp as they laughingly tell me the story of childbirth in a hilarious and fiercely anti-precious/unromantic fashion that suggests, despite now being a mother, that Topanga is still fiercely Topanga. I ask her if childbirth hurt. I ask her in the same way, not two decades earlier, I’d asked her, in this exact same room, what sex was. My mother said it was something two people who are married do to show they are married after they are married; a definition that made the schoolyard laugh hysterically.
“The man puts the penis in the woman’s vagina,” said Topanga. I refused to believe her so she called her sister into the room.
“The man puts the penis in the woman’s vagina,” said Topanga’s sister, and I didn’t believe either of them so they called in their mother who repeated the same thing. On the ride home with my very Catholic mother I reasoned that Topanga’s mother was an actress and thought maybe she was misinformed about sex from one of the horror films she’d probably starred in.
Topanga has to put the baby to bed but she has one cigarette a day because she says it makes her feel like a grownup. We talk about how both of our childhood dogs are dead. She has new dreams beyond acting. She is ecstatic I am writing a novel about slut-shaming in our community. She is vocally supportive but not envious. She is happy for me. I think of her as a small girl and I look through her window at her boyfriend with their baby on his arm and inside I concede to feeling happy for her life now also. She isn’t terrible to me when I detail my failed relationships, my poverty, my underpaid jobs, my weird self-imposed struggle. She is kind and believing and wishes me the best in the way that people that really care about you only wish you the best. I tell her about Dawson and she jokes that maybe we’ll end up together. Dawson thinks of a ten-minute drive as a long distance relationship and I tell her I ought to knock her out. She chuckles the same chuckle while butting out her smoke. We hug and I walk home.
On Christmas Eve I went for a walk. When I came back everybody I ever grew up with was engaged. This feels like the premise of a terrible, borderline-surrealist romantic comedy (think 13 Going on 30 but with more benzodiazepines). Their happiness makes me angry. I look through the photos and find holes in everyone’s relationship. The holes aren’t real holes, they are almost like old wives’ tales about health that never manifest as biological fact. For me, every single mark on each sentimental photograph is a mark of probable failure: an unfortunate tattoo, a first marriage, no prior relationships, etc. Everybody doesn’t know something that I know when I am single and bitter and drunk and an asshole in Fonthill.
I put on my jacket and walk through slush to Dawson’s house. I knock on his window. I see a beautiful girl wrap herself in a blanket on his bed.
His brother walks out the front door, for the sake of this essay I will call his brother Pacey. So Pacey walks out and tells me Dawson is with a girl and Pacey offers to go for a walk with me if I would like. I say, “Yes but one second.” Then I lean in real close to Dawson’s window and make my voice unbearably shrill, say, “Baby, it’s your wife. I’m here with the kids for Christmas. I’ll suck your dick if you’ll only let me in this one time.”
Pacey can’t believe I said that at Dawson and his mysterious other girl but he looks at me like I’m a hero. We walk around Fonthill. We pass many houses and talk about who has lived in each of them. We discuss how strange it is that Topanga and others have babies now. We go through the graveyard and I tell him about how I used to take boys there because they would get scared and hold my hand. I point out the building beside the Avondale where I took ballet lessons. We go by the church where I used to make out with boys in the side entrance because the light was always on. My folklore is different from Pacey’s because he’s four years younger than me and only now coming to appreciate my strangeness. As we approach my childhood home Dawson is already standing in front of it. He doesn’t want to say it. “I am an asshole,” I admit to him. Pacey begins to walk home, not wanting to interrupt the intense confrontation.
Alone and beneath the heavy blanket of country stars that lights Fonthill like a planetarium, Dawson grabs my face and looks it really close, right in my eye-spots. “You were never nice to me when we dated and you aren’t nice to me now. You behaving this way is crazy because I and everyone else here only want the world for you.”
“You thought I was miss goody-two-shoes,” I remind him and watch the familiar Fonthill eye-roll.
“You are a miss goody two-shoes, it’s just, this is what you are and it got you places and you got to go every place you wanted to go. What are you whining about? What? Do you want me to sit here for years and wait around to be your boyfriend? Is that what you want?”
I respond, “You work at Mossimo’s and you think St. Catharines is too far away to have a relationship.”
He scoops me up in his sweater that smells like soap and pizza. “Yeah, but Jules, I’m happy. I’m happy with my job and my life. I like going to work every day and knowing everybody who will come in and come out. I like being in the same house. I like this. It doesn’t mean you are bad. I feel free and you feel free. This is our freedom.”
“Freedom isn’t always so glamorous. I thought … I thought I would be the one with all of the dreams come true and I’m totally fucking miserable. You never asked. You don’t know. I’ve been fucked up for a full year and a half. My boyfriend dumped me and he had private islands. I lost my apartment that was my house for a long time. I had to say goodbye to all of my friends in Montreal. Now I’m a grad student in Toronto. My life is hopeless.”
“You are giving yourself a 4-star rating on Yelp when you need to give yourself a 5-star rating because you’re still young and you have a good body and a nice face.”
I know this is his way of saying I am smart and worthy. Once in the fifth grade he told me I had a hot body but an ugly face and I cried for weeks. “That’s a compliment,” he’d explained.
One time he asked me out on a date and in the middle of writing about it in my diary he cancelled and it is noted in real-time.
The first time I ever came he accused me of peeing myself and the next time we slept together he asked for a moment and then put down a towel on the bed and I walked home. I made certain I didn’t cum for years.
The impact of grave misunderstandings meant that I sometimes had to be a bit forgiving of his discourse.
Before I go inside, he adds, “Look, this is my dream. It’s a simple dream but I’m living it and it’s really really awesome. Your dream is just different from my dream.” I wonder if my depression is maybe a consequence of dreaming too big too young. I feel cheated by the banner that hung in our classroom, “Shoot for the moon, even if you miss you’ll land among the stars.” Stars are further away from the moon and the moon freezes you and stars burn you. Stupid quote, stupid elementary school, stupid Fonthill.
Pelham City Hall
Alone in bed and hammered, I feel anxious about my ring-less finger, my baby-less belly, my empty bank account, my career prospects, my long and unfinished novel, my hammeredness. I can’t sleep. I put on my boots and I know it is too late to catch the too-early last call in Ontario. I walk by Dawson’s home and all of their lights are off. I walk by my childhood bus stop. I walk through the little entrance by Centre Variety and I stop at Pelham City Hall.
There is a nativity scene and the scene is Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus. I used to think about how I didn’t fit into the image. My brother, a level-headed 23-year-old accountant now, always would’ve been Jesus. There are no young girls in the nativity scene. As I wander around Peace Park I see that they have built miniature versions of buildings in Fonthill around the nativity scene, as if Jesus was born in Fonthill, Ontario sometime in the late ’50s. Each building has a plaque with its boring history. It is warm for December in 2015 so there isn’t any snow.
I climb up to look at the little scene in the makeshift stable. I think about how I turned down one childhood bully’s sexual advances my first summer after starting at McGill. When we pulled up in front of my house and he asked me to get out, I said, “One more thing … ”
He responded, “What?”
I said, “You said I was ugly every day for years and I may be ugly but I’m still too sexy for you, motherfucker!” Then I ran into my kitchen and cackled as he drove away and I wished I could send a video to myself in the seventh grade when I was a half-orphan.
Then I thought about how I’d discovered another bully had a daughter and wrote him a letter about how he’d treated me, earnestly professing that I hadn’t wanted to hold him accountable for the crimes of ignorant children but that I had carried the grief and the pain of how he’d treated me for years. He wrote me a beautifully eloquent letter back from an oil rig in Alberta, saying I didn’t deserve it and that when he first learned he was having a daughter he thought of me. He’d written me when my wealthy city boyfriend broke up with me and tried to make nice with both himself and me by being kind to me through what was one of the most difficult obstacles in my venture to overcome childhood trauma and being a loser in this town.
I thought about Dawson saying I was his favourite and still being with this other girl—small town Tinder superstar. I thought about Topanga’s happiness and her new baby and her life in that house.
Darkly, I thought about my own suicide attempt when I was younger. Darkly, I thought about being raped in Montreal. I thought about my own abortion when a cool guy from Fonthill—an older guy from the music scene—lied about having a vasectomy. I thought about how I’d thought about having a baby at 19 and living in a small house in this small town. I thought about how he’d beaten me and then I’d said, “No.” I barely came home for years. My mother told me to forgive myself the abortion as if I’d done something wrong. I’d wanted for so long to fit in that when I found myself, even in Montreal, moving a horrible but cool boyfriend from Fonthill to be with me, it made perfect sense. I’d desperately clung on to the fantasy of fitting in and the sting of my childhood allowed me to justify potentially dangerous life decisions long into my adulthood and far beyond the little village on a hill.
I felt real contempt towards that nativity scene. I got mad at the “virgin” Mary for her ridiculously impossible explanation for her own pregnancy. I got mad that she got to have a baby and a family and even a statue with a light that lit up her holy face in the centre of Fonthill, amongst these tiny replicas of old buildings and I was not given any of these. A serious jealousy moved through my throat, digging claws into my vocal chords and I began to choke.
The sound of rain was not really rain, it was old water falling off trees. “Silent Night” was playing from a retirement home down the street. I crept into the stable and I lifted the baby Jesus out. The baby Jesus is a piece of clipart depicting a red-headed baby with an obnoxious smiley face glued to a slab of wood with a plastic bag over it to protect the paper from the rain. “He isn’t even brown,” I think. “Everyone in Fonthill is so fucking stupid and hopeless,” I think. I put the baby Jesus in my purse. I walk home quietly with the wooden baby saviour. “Fuck everyone,” I think. “Fuck everyone forever,” I think because I am an asshole and this is not how I feel life was promised to me in books.
Julie Mannell is an award winning author of poetry, fiction, and essays. Originally from Fonthill, Ontario, she now splits her time between Montreal and Toronto. Mannell is currently an MFA candidate in creative writing at the University of Guelph. Roseanne Barr once gave her the “Vagenius Award.” Explore Mannell’s work on her website or follow her on Twitter.