“Watch my beer, if you drink it I’ll punch you in the face.”
I sat on the stoop of an August pool party, left arm sweating inside a black sling and magic mushrooms digesting in my stomach. My red hair was frizzy from humidity, legs scabbed from the mosquito bites I could never stop itching. Faces radiated above me but when I looked at the pool, the same faces were swimming. Doubles. I accepted neither, who cared? This hardened stranger who put her beer in my hands was also in the pool so I winked, “you’re not real,” and took a swig. She punched me in the face. The smack to my cheek sobered me, doubles became singles again. It felt good. I stood up and embraced her, "thank you. I really needed that." Then the childlike glow dissipated and the world crystallized. I was a University dropout, hadn’t talked to my dad since my mom’s funeral, and I had no source of income aside from busking in front of the liquor store.
It was the summer of 2013 in Sarnia Ontario, I was 21 and I had trouble sleeping at night without being black out drunk. Three years earlier my mom had died of a heart attack. It should have been a twisted relief after watching her body decay for 18 years of my life but since then I had lost all sense of direction. I couldn’t be alone with myself. “I don’t want to die, I don’t want to leave you alone without a mother.” She had cried to me once when I was a teenager while I slipped socks over her cracked feet. “It’s going to be okay, I promise.”
I had spent the last two years at Finn’s house, my on again off again, who lived down the road from the chemical plants. He was a sandblaster by day and drummer by night, 6’2 with naturally toned arms that were always flailing out of band shirts that he tore the sleeves off. Every Monday we woke to the smell of rotten egg and the citywide alarm: “this is a test of the emergency evacuation system.” The house had ashtray carpets that he would pick me up and dance me over, a bathroom door off its hinges that you had to lift and rest against the wall anytime you wanted a semblance of privacy. Klipsch Heritage speakers shook the foundation at 100dB to bands like Venom, Burzum and Death.
Sometimes the front door would be left open as friends, drug dealers, and neighbours came and went. Other times we’d be drinking at Tunnys and the music would still be going, door wide open. “I like to come home to my stereo warmed up.” Finn would kick the door, lift his leg up on the wall and start headbanging, cigarette dangling from his mouth.
In the mornings, someone would yell “DAD?” Whoever was awake would stumble into the kitchen, “bum a dart?” We’d fill broken glasses with foggy water and pack up empties to return into a grocery cart. I had a routine: buy two tall boys of Old Style Pilsner, play punk rock in front of the liquor store with my friend Bobby, buy more tall boys. Then we would sit by the waterfront cooling our beer in the St. Clair river. Sometimes I went to to the water fountain in the dilapidating mall across the street where children had once made wishes with loonies and toonies. Two scoops could get you a pack of Putters. I walked aimlessly downtown with their dreams clinking in my pocket until there was nothing left but pennies.
Everyone loved Bobby. He had the sunshine of someone who was always high. He would bop around town plucking his guitar, handing out his books or CDs if he thought they’d speak to you. When he played his sandy hair danced over his shoulders. He closed his eyes and went somewhere else. I could watch him for hours, his songs had no beginning and no end. His heart belonged to my friend Jules, so I loved him like a brother. “He’s great but you need a little work.” A North end hockey mom had said once after buying her cocktail mix and sale shelf recommendation wine. She didn’t like my singing. “Ignore her, keep singing. You know what? Sing louder.” He had left for Banff, Alberta, to work at a ski resort and get clean. I missed my friend, it wasn’t the same without him.
When I was 10, my mom and I were home alone watching Sleepy Hollow while my dad and brother were at choir practice. The fax machine rang and she went upstairs. As the Headless Horseman raced through the dark forest I squeezed the life out of my cat Missy. Flashes of lightning hurled shadows onto my Betty Boop pajamas. When he raised his sword I heard a deafening thud. My mom had fallen down 20 steps onto the marble floor.
Ever since, I heard her calling me for help while I was on the school bus or in the shower. I would turn the water off, shivering as I yelled back to the voice, “mom?” I came to accept the phantom call as a part of my life and let it fade into the background. Now she came to me in nightmares. She looked up at me with blonde highlights and yellow eyes, “Jenn? Jenn?” I dreamt of the dialysis room in our basement, watching the blood circling around, my mom holding gauze over the lumps in her arms as my dad prepared needles. I dreamt of her dead body in the hospital room, her mouth frozen open. “Jenn? Jenn?” I dreamt of the stained glass window in church hanging proudly beside our family’s pew titled, ‘Woman Healed By Jesus.’ The afternoon sun burned through t-shirts that hung as drapes, waking me out of the darkness and into another.
I didn’t want to sleep anymore so I started taking Adderall. We called them “scadderdaddies.” The best part about popping a few of those was you could drink until sunrise and never stop until you collapsed dreamless on the couch. The worst night was when my heart was racing, committed to hours more, and everyone would pass out or start heading for the door. As they gathered their denim jackets, I felt sick to my stomach. “Don’t go, we haven’t even played Benny Goodman yet. ‘Sing Sing With a Swing.' There’s more beer, stay.” I would end up on the porch alone, Katatonia in my headphones, chain smoking. “Somehow I never leave this deadhouse. Somehow I don’t mind being gone.” The song was a thunderstorm in my ears, it ended with the sound of dolphins.
One night I couldn’t stand it. I called my ex boyfriend, a half blind albino poet 8 years my senior with 'obsessed' tattooed on his knuckles. He was only halfway into a box of wine, Violent Femmes still blaring off the record player. I decided to bike there and before I made it one block I smashed into a tree, falling back into the middle of the road and breaking my left shoulder.
That’s how I found myself in a sling, unable to play guitar, peaking on mushrooms, face throbbing at a pool party. “Let’s leave.” I hovered over Finn and we slithered back to the house of heavy metal. We tried to finish the night off right but the mushrooms didn’t help. Evidently every hair had put on a porcupine vest, called the gang and thrown a rave. Grunts and inhales went tick tick tick and sputtered around the room like a lawn sprinkler tied to a knotted hose. When he finished my buddha brain chanted, “I am with child.” While he snored I couldn’t sleep. I was certain - I am pregnant right now, in this very moment.
Sitting on his porch the next morning I imagined a hungry baby inside me and my only option in Ontario, the vacuum abortion. The idea of lying in a hospital bed with my feet up in stirrups as a doctor sucked it out of me was terrifying. But the tumor of life inside represented certain defeat, the nails in my coffin. The punch to the face had clarified one thing - I could not have this child. While I had two best friends with three year olds who were doing pretty well for themselves, I knew I couldn’t be the caring mother that they were. I hated everything inside my body, any extra ounce of life required responsibility, attention, needs. I didn’t have any of that to give.
I hadn't seen Jules in a while so when she strolled by that morning I met her on the sidewalk. Years of basketball kept her body toned long after she quit playing. She let her hair grow wild and had a dozen different bandanas that she used as belts. She always had a knick knack to show you that she had found from somewhere along the way. We shared a cigarette, “dude, I’m freaking out, I’m pregnant.” She had the answer. “I’m going out West to see Bobby, come with me. They have better abortions. They’re like, a natural miscarriage man.” I wanted to leave immediately. But how would I get the money for an $800 flight to the other side of the country? I leaned the bathroom door against the wall, showered in sand, and thought about getting on welfare. I knew a lot of people on welfare but they didn't grow up in a two story red brick house like I did.
My mom was about to study nursing at McMaster University when she was diagnosed with kidney failure and given five years left to live. Unfazed, she continued past the doctor’s deadline and into a career as a prenatal nurse. My dad learned how to operate a dialysis machine by night and by day he worked as an engineer at the chemical plants. They took pride in never accepting government assistance. I signed the papers. A week later I collected a check and off we went.
The plane brought us over rivers and birch trees, our eyes searched for golden eagles. After four hours in the air we landed in Calgary, Alberta. I learned I hadn’t seen Jules lately because she had taken a liking to methamphetamines. After swallowing a few “hey man this will cure your anxiety” pills, my jaw swung to and fro in an attempt to chew my ear off. I was full of boundless energy, what a day, what a trip! 2300 miles from home with our thumbs out a school bus full of Brazilian musicians picked us up. While I leaned over the driver’s seat in endless commentary on the Rocky Mountains, they serenaded us all the way to Banff, Alberta.
We ran when we saw Bobby. His smile took over his face as he gave us bear hugs. His hair was shorter, his speech slower, he was healthy. “I was a quick, wet boy, diving too deep for coins.” He sang Iron & Wine for us while we walked the main strip, Cascade Mountain forever in our sight. At the library I added ‘Flightless Bird, American Mouth’ onto my iPod and listened on repeat. We hitched our flimsy two person camo tent in the National Park just outside of the city. We had painted plastic masks sinister yellow and blood red, we hung their raging eyebrows and screaming mouths outside the mesh walls to protect us against mountain lions. "That'll do." I went to the local health clinic.
“You’re still weeks away from getting the period that you haven’t even missed yet.” The nurse thought it was a youthful pregnancy scare. I didn’t tell her it was an explicit message from the mushroom god. She was mid forties, brunette bob, glasses, gentle. I wanted her to like me, I wanted her to ask where I was from, how I got here. Maybe she could ask, “how was the sex, worth it?” We would laugh and then she’d invite me to her home for dinner where we would bond over Trivial Pursuit and Margaret Atwood novels. “It's too early to test accurately, you'll need to come back in a few weeks."
A decade earlier, it would be my mom sitting on the other side of the chair advising a young woman on her options. If she was still alive, she would have told me that with $15 at any Shoppers Drug Mart I could have bought Plan B - the morning after pill. Within the first 48 hours I could have walked across the street and used emergency contraception that would have rendered this whole trip completely unnecessary.
We hiked to Bow Falls, saw our reflections in Emerald Lake and snuck into hot springs after hours. All the while, the song played in my head: “Have I found you flightless bird? Jealous, weeping, or lost you?” I was concerned about money, I didn’t have any, so I got a job at Rocks and Gems selling semi-precious stones to tourists on the main strip. “This is moldavite, it comes from an asteroid smashing into earth. Wish you were standing under it huh? Me too.”
I hated waiting. I could feel it growing inside me. Finally, a few weeks later, the nurse was surprised. "You’re pregnant.” I tried not to roll my eyes. “Let’s talk options.” She went through the various choices that I had. When she got to the medical abortion, I stopped her. “That’s what I came here for.” She gave me an injection and two pills that I was to place up my cooch. Maybe now she would invite me over. "See reception for the paperwork.”
“Here’s the total.” I stood at the front desk, a dozen other people anxiously waiting behind me. I hadn’t considered that this would cost me anything but my free healthcare in Ontario didn’t apply in Alberta. When I saw $500 all I read was ‘nobody loves you. You are alone.’ For the first time since I was a child, I cried in front of strangers. Jules took my hand, “Jenny it’s okay, come on, let’s call Finn.” To everyone's relief, she led me out of the clinic. Luckily he was all for the abortion, he wired me the money immediately.
I laid on my sleeping bag with the pills in my hand. “This is it.” I thought about praying to God or to my mom. Maybe by speaking out loud to them I could pretend that I wasn’t alone in a tent about to self induce a miscarriage. “No. They’re not here. You’re here.” After a quick apology to my lady below, I pushed them in and held my breath.
Waves of cramps twisted my abdomen into challah bread for two days. “Are you gonna make it?” Bobby and Jules flew ahead of me talking a mile a minute. I bled into diaper sized pads as I laid against the fence at a folk festival, dehydrated in the summer sun. While someone’s banjo dragged on, my body went into contractions. Finally, something gooey drained out of me and it was gone. I lifted my tattered denim to check and sure enough there it was: an undercooked egg white with a dash of Sriracha. “You’re free of me now. Hope you make the best of it.” I was emptied, purified, reborn. I could go home. Limping to a payphone Finn answered, “Jenny baby, OOOIE, what you doin? I am on ACID, just fuckin’ YEEEHAW.” He couldn’t hear me over the music, I hung up.
I called my dad. “I’m out West, got a job. Thinking of coming home soon.” I heard a woman in the background, “where is she working?” He had someone else on my mom’s couch, wrapped in her blanket, sleeping in her bed. There was no home for me to go back to.
Days later Jules and I found ourselves at the end of a fortuitously large bag of coke. The sun was halfway in the sky when I remembered I was supposed to be at Rocks and Gems. “Guess I don’t have a job anymore.” I had enough money to move a little bit longer. “Let’s go West to the ocean, to Vancouver Island.” We would have to cross through British Columbia, I didn’t know how far exactly but knew it would be a couple of hitchhikes and a few days of tenting. Vancouver Island was going to be like the caribbean. I would see dolphins, drink pina coladas, fall in love.
Drama had unfolded between Bobby and Jules. When we headed West, we had his guitar. Everytime my fingers stroked the strings I hoped they would cut through my skin. Travelling with Jules now made me nervous, she was somehow able to make friends with the most suspicious of characters at the drop of a hat. I could walk down the same street ten times and never notice them but when we walked together there they were.
A week later we made it to Vancouver where we could take a ferry to the island. Victoria was our first stop, it was the land of artists and the homeless. We went to the harbour where the Canadian flag blew proudly over houseboats and harmonica players. While I sat on the hill untying my Value Village boots and taking in the sun, Jules talked to shadow people. Pimps, drug dealers, dark eyes and prison tattoos. They frightened me. We heard the best spot for sandy beaches and the Pacific Ocean was at the top of the island, in Tofino. “Let’s go.”
Thumbs out, Pat picked us up in his silver Toyota. Crosses hung from the rear view mirror. He was mid 40s with short black hair and concern in his voice. “You can’t just pitch your tent on the beach in Tofino, it’s protected land. I have family there, you can stay with us.” We drove North. It was dark by the time we arrived, the rings of Saturn visible in the night sky. Dream catchers, antlers, and First Nations paintings adorned the walls of his parent’s home. His quiet elderly father made me nervous with his long black hair and celestial eyes, I felt he could see right through me.
Pat’s brother-in-law had attempted to balance out his shortness with steroids. Unnecessary muscle jetted out of his legs, his voice boomed with confidence. He fed us beer and banal stories while we sat around the campfire. He held his eyes on me long after the punchlines, flirting while his wife slept in their bed. An hour later everyone left and it was just the two of us sitting on a log. He wanted me - that was something. I let him climb on top, his house lights visible in the distance. I wanted it to feel good. It didn’t. After he left, I sat staring at the embers in the pit.
In the morning, Jules and I pulled down the zipper of our tent. We were going to see the ocean for the first time and we had the view all to ourselves. We walked out into a cold unending grey that clouded the water. Mist wet our faces and our hair, we couldn’t see each other through the fog. It wasn’t what I expected. It was beautiful, tragic, empty.
“So how long have you been with the church group?” The brother-in-law asked us while his wife poured him orange juice and I stared at my plate of eggs. “Oh they aren’t with my church, I picked them up hitchhiking.” The mood at the breakfast table changed and our dishes were hurried away. I was not the christian girl that he had deflowered.
We gathered our things and took the tent down. Jules helped me search for my underwear by the campfire. They were nowhere to be found. I imagined the father coming down to cook oysters and discovering the evidence of my filth. We were in Nanaimo, halfway back down the island, when I realized we were so busy looking for them that I had forgotten my mom’s sweater. I had worn the blue 'Kidney Foundation of Canada' sweater almost every night since arriving on the island. I didn’t take care of it, so I would never see it again.
No matter how fast we moved, I still felt like I was leaning against a log, having sex with a married man. Leaning against a fence, bleeding. Leaning on a stoop, getting punched. Leaning on her deathbed, saying goodbye.
Money was drying out and I was tired of myself. I returned to Victoria and did a double take when I saw Bobby by the harbour talking to the shadow people. He had left his job in Alberta and followed us all the way to Vancouver Island. He didn’t look good. I left him and Jules out West. I was done. I bought tickets for the ferry that would take me inland and on a flight back to Ontario. Drugs clouded my grief and desperation took me across the country, exhaustion was sending me home.
I heard Bobby went to rehab. When he got out he messaged me on Facebook, “I miss you, I’m clean.” I didn’t respond. A week later, he drowned. He drowned in that harbour, in Victoria. I knew it was murder even before I read "suspicious death" in the local paper. All I could think was - we had his guitar. We had his guitar.
If my mom was still alive, she would be ashamed of who I had become.
Jenny Robbins loves to drive aimlessly over country roads, bang on the drums, and practice comedy routines on unsuspecting strangers at dinner parties. She was accepted into the 2019 Yale Writing Workshop for her first manuscript, the fictional thriller ‘Her Madness’ about a serial killer therapist. From 2017-2019 she worked in New York City as a producer on HBO documentaries like Bleed Out and Say Her Name. In 2018, Her romantic comedy screenplay ‘Shiksa to Mikvah’ was selected as a top 10 finalist for both ‘Studio Fest’ and ‘Hollywood Casting & Film’ competition. Her dark comedy pilot ‘The Port’ was selected as a finalist in the 2017 Filmmatic Screenplay Awards. She has travelled to a fisherman village in Guatemala to direct the short documentary ‘Chajil Ch’upup,’ and self-published a children’s book ‘Josephina Just Won’t Jive.’ While studying Film and Television in Toronto she collaborated with Humber College and the Toronto Police Department to create ‘3rd Degree,’ an educational crime game that took 2nd place at the national Polytechnics Canada awards. Jenny currently resides in Weston Missouri and in the company of cats, is writing her memoir.
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.