I met Arlene in 1963 on the first day of school. She was in my ninth-grade class. At first, I hated her.
On the third day of the first week, we were herded into the dressing room adjacent to the pool and told to change into our bathing suits. As I undressed, I struggled to conceal my flat chest with a towel. Unlike the other girls, I didn’t wear a bra. Arlene snickered at my contortions. At home, my older brother loved taunting me in front of his friends. “Flat as a board and never been nailed!”
A bossy school nurse ordered us to line up and bend at the waist. She went from girl to girl, running her fingers down our backbones. The reason was a mystery. As she prodded along my spine, she said, “I can’t feel the next vertebra. Strange.”
“That’s because she’s so fat!” shouted Arlene. There was an uproar of laughter quickly quelled by the irate nurse.
Fifteen years later, I would be diagnosed with scoliosis.
When two lemon-sized sprouts finally appeared, I was spared Arlene’s attacks. She was preoccupied concealing her larger than average-sized bosom.
She had beautiful blonde hair, dancing blue eyes, and an infectious laugh. Excluded by many of my classmates as a “brainer,” I was overjoyed when she initiated a friendship. She was chatty, funny, and passed me silly notes in class, depicting rude pictures of teachers we both disliked.
By tenth grade, we were bosom buddies (pun intended). Daughters of alcoholic fathers, we used humor to conceal our pain and shame.
“My drunk old man drove our motorboat into a dock!” I giggled.
“Mine opened the fridge door and peed inside!” We laughed like hyenas.
My mother, a psychiatrist, avoided talking about my father’s behavior. She allowed me to spend every weekend at Arlene’s, perhaps her attempt to shield me. She had no idea what I was up to at my getaway.
Arlene, her two older siblings, and a handful of other teenagers hung out in a recreation room in the basement. We smoked stolen cigarettes, drank stolen whiskey mixed with pop, and lounged on a sagging couch, battered armchair, or shaggy carpet.
We danced to Motown hits, paired off to neck, and trashed our parents.
Arlene was always convincing me to do crazy things. Her house was on a side street off Roncesvalles Avenue in Toronto.
“Let’s sleep on the roof!” Her bedroom was on the top floor at the front of the house. We crawled out her window, smothered our wails of laughter, and clung onto the tiles for dear life. Not a restful night.
I remember an all-night marathon of Vincent Price horror movies at the Revue Theatre, just around the corner from where she lived. At dawn, we stumbled back to her house and crept up the creaky stairs to catch up on sleep. I loved the fact that there was no curfew.
Many Saturday nights, we piled into Arlene’s brother’s car to drive downtown and watch the crowds ambling up and down Yonge Street. Then we’d circle around “The Village” at Yorkville and Yonge to gawk at the Beatniks. Eventually, we’d speed over to a Harvey’s joint on the Queensway, or the drive-in theatre situated off Highway 400.
When I turned sixteen, I took driving lessons and obtained a license. My mom allowed me to borrow her car. Unfortunately, I was in the grip of “hormone horrors.”
Driving my friends to Harvey’s or the drive-in elevated my peer status. I was intent on gaining the favor of a boy I had a crush on. Rad had black hair, olive skin, and dark, sultry eyes. His cynicism and sarcastic humor attracted me like a moth to a flame.
“Your old lady’s station wagon is a beat-up heap,” he sneered. “Bet I could win a race with my dad’s new car.”
His attention riveted me. Aiming to impress him, I accepted the challenge. Arlene, animated at my risk-taking, pressured her brother and sister into piling into the back of my mother’s vehicle. As the four of us made our way south on Parkside Drive, my passengers cheered and hooted. Rad gave us the finger as he pulled up in the lane beside us.
We raced neck-to-neck along Lakeshore Blvd. I was determined to win at all costs. Rad spurted ahead and squeezed through a yellow light just before it turned red. I was forced to stomp on the brakes. Tires squealed. Rubber burned. Cindy and Alan howled in terror when we slid sideways into the middle of the intersection. Arlene, in contrast, bellowed with laughter when horns bleated and drivers leaned out windows to shake fists and scream obscenities.
As soon as the light turned green, I wrenched the wheel, straightened the car, and accelerated. Rad squealed through a left turn at the next yellow light. Desperate to beat him, I bypassed the inconvenient traffic light by cutting diagonally through a corner gas station. A man at the pump clutched the dripping nozzle like a shield as he staggered aside to avoid being hit. I swerved back onto the road ahead of Rad. Arlene whooped with joyous victory. Cindy and Alan peered at me in the rearview mirror, mute, eyes bulging.
I won the race, but not the boy. I pined for a brief time before seeking out new adventures.
Arlene’s sister Cindy turned nineteen. She moved out and “shacked up” with Jerry, a tall, burly man in his early twenties. They lived in a dumpy apartment at Queen and Dowling, mere blocks from me.
Jerry, twenty-two, was old enough to shop for booze and therefore a valuable resource. Arlene and I planned to “crash” at Cindy’s and get drunk. I lied to Mom and told her I’d be sleeping at Arlene’s, as usual.
Jerry had planned a hunting trip up north with his buddies but, before he left, was more than willing to acquire a stash of alcohol. As he plunked three, twenty-six ounce bottles on Cindy’s kitchen counter – one for each of us – we held hands and squealed with victory and anticipation. Jerry smirked and headed out the door.
The first few servings of vodka and orange juice transported us into a paradise of good will, glowing self-esteem, and intense camaraderie.
“Arlene, you’re the best! You too, Cindy,” I gushed. We embraced and jumped up and down with excitement.
“Let’s get into our PJ’s! Who wants a smoke?” I asked.
“Have one of mine!” offered Cindy, throwing her pack in the air.
Arlene lunged, caught it, put a smoke between her lips, and lit a match with flourish. She ignited her cigarette like a movie star. I watched with admiration as she inhaled deeply, threw her head back, and allowed tendrils of smoke to escape out her nostrils. She looked very sophisticated. I did my best to imitate her.
“Let’s have another drink!” Cindy announced and splashed triple-sized shots into our glasses.
After guzzling the second of our three bottles, we threw on our pajamas.
Cindy teetered precariously as she attempted to lower the needle of her record player onto a Motown album. After missing the mark with a grating scratch, she hit her target. “Dancing in the Street” blared at top volume. I swayed my hips, snapped my fingers above my head, and attempted a fancy spin. I fell forward over the coffee table, somersaulted,
landed back on my feet and continued my solo performance. Arlene and Cindy convulsed with laughter. I seized the third bottle, removed the cap, and took a deep swallow of undiluted firewater. I reveled in the attention of my audience and pretended not to notice the scorching sensation in my throat and gut. Cindy and Arlene collapsed and rolled on the floor howling. I loved being a comedian.
My mood abruptly plummeted. I whimpered about Rad and sniveled that nobody loved me. Arlene burst into tears and confided that her latest crush had dumped her for another. Cindy passed Kleenex around and moaned about how Jerry chose his hunting buddies over her. The three of us huddled in a circle to weep, blow our noses, and pass the bottle until it was empty.
Sometime after that, all conversation ceased. When my stomach did a nasty flip, I scrambled for the toilet. Projectile puke splattered the bowl. Limp, I lay on the floor, my cheek pressed against the cold tiles. Another spasm wrenched my abdomen. Arlene’s voice was a muddled echo in the background. I heard her retch into the sink.
I came to the next day, propped lopsided on the sagging couch. I don’t recall how I got there. Cindy was sprawled face down on her bed and Arlene was in a fetal position on the floor. My head throbbed. My neck was locked in a spasm. The stench of vomit assailed my senses and I gagged. I wanted to speak, but my gritty tongue allowed nothing but a rasping squawk. Cindy and Arlene awoke and groaned. The sound of a dripping tap jangled my nerves.
Suddenly the door burst open. Jerry and his two hunting buddies, full of bravado, spoke in excruciatingly loud voices as they thumped a canvas bag on the kitchen counter.
“We made a killing, eh?” bragged Jerry.
“Damn right. Great pellet gun!”
“Cindy! Get up! What the hell! This place stinks!”
Jerry reached into the canvas bag and withdrew something dark and furry. I watched with horror as he slapped six dead squirrels on the kitchen table. I rushed to the bathroom, puked again, yanked on my clothes, mumbled a weak goodbye, and headed home.
You would think, after that, I would never drink again. But I couldn’t wait to repeat the behavior, chasing the initial euphoria.
In 1967, at the age of seventeen, high school was interfering with my pursuit of intoxication. I quit, moved out, worked a series of dead-end jobs, and experimented with other drugs in addition to alcohol. Arlene and I saw little of each other during that time. She had veered off in a direction like mine, but with a different social circle.
Two years later, the two of us reconnected. We had both returned to school, were attending York University, and shared some of the same psychology classes. We bonded once again, tied by mutual memories and new adventures.
When we were in third year, Arlene bought a two-seater, second-hand clunker. When our classes coincided, she offered me rides home, saving me the monotonous, ninety-minute trip on public transit.
One afternoon, she entered the lecture hall late. Breathless, she collapsed into a seat beside me, blue eyes wide, blonde hair in disarray.
“My brakes failed! I had to gear down for stop lights. I got here, but I need to get the car back home.”
“Can’t you get a tow truck?”
“I can’t afford one. If I get the car home, my brother can fix it.”
“You can’t drive without brakes!”
“I got here alive, didn’t I? Listen, I could really use your company on the way back. Please don’t make me go alone!”
Arlene’s beseeching, ocean-blue eyes engulfed me with waves of guilt. I heaved a sigh and squeezed myself into the passenger side of her death-trap.
Her “gearing down” strategy was no guarantee that we’d stop before entering an intersection. Several times, we floated out into oncoming traffic and cringed as drivers swerved around us, horns blaring. I shrieked. She laughed. Miraculously, we made it home. Alan told her the car was a write-off.
Our next adventure came soon after. Arlene persuaded me to go on a double date. Her boyfriend’s buddy was training to be a pilot and was clocking hours to earn his license. Arlene was determined to take a ride in a four-seat Cessna.
I sat in front next to Gary, the pilot. Arlene and Jim crawled into the back. We lifted off from Bolton airport, north of Toronto, and leveled off over Lake Ontario. I gazed down at the skyscrapers, toy-sized ferry boats, and a quilt of small farms west of the city.
Gary abruptly yanked the throttle. I hurtled backward as the nose of the craft tilted sharply toward the clouds. The engine stalled. I screamed in terror. Demonically, Gary shoved the throttle the other way, and we plummeted. The flesh on my face rearranged, and I had an overwhelming urge to jump out the window. To my enormous relief, the engine sputtered back into life, and we pulled out of the death dive. Arlene cackled with glee, and I wanted to strangle her.
After we landed, she laughed at my terror. “Lighten up! Have a beer!” Finally, after three bottles, I laughed along with her. She had a way about her.
After exams in late April, Arlene moved to another city to live with her boyfriend. We relied on long-distance phone calls to keep in touch.
Out of the blue, life threw a sucker punch. Cindy, her older sister, phoned me, sobbing.
“Arlene died in a fire. She was smoking and fell asleep on the couch.”
‘NO!” The news was unacceptable. It couldn’t be true.
In a hollow voice, Cindy muttered directions to the funeral. I never did go. Instead, I drank myself into oblivion. Guilt-ridden and consumed by pain, I struggled to accept the loss.
A heavy blanket of depression suffocated me for weeks. I slept too much, ached all over, hid from the world.
In early August, I had a vivid, lucid dream. Most dreams are bizarre, nonsensical, and the events quickly fade. This one was different. To this day, I recall every detail with clarity, even though fifty-one years have passed.
I wander into a crowded playground, teeming with noisy, happy children. Arlene is riding on a swing. The dazzling sun reflects off her beautiful, blonde hair as she pumps strenuously, rocking higher and higher.
“Bet you can’t swing as high as me!” she challenges.
I climb on the swing beside her, and an ineffable force lifts me higher and higher. We howl with laughter, side by side, reaching for the clouds.
“Everything is great! Stop worrying! I’m fine!”
Her words, sweet chimes in the wind, release me, calm me, comfort me…
Thank you, dear Arlene. I remember you with love.