I entered this story to CBC’s “Canada Writes” contest on the theme of belonging or the lack thereof. The shortlist was announced the other day and I didn’t make it, but felt that I should share this story anyway.
Ingrid Michaelson’s latest album plays on the stereo; September breeze sweeps through the open windows; the white Chevy Cruze coasts at 50 km/h; and my hands tighten their grip on the wheel, as I drive towards what I considered to be “home” for almost two decades.
Questions flood my mind: what would I say to him? How would I ask if she ever existed? Could I confront him—a crossing guard— with the fact that he sexually assaulted me? Dare I mention that he stripped me of the purity of a child’s trust?
As my car nears the intersection at which I waited for the city bus every morning, the past becomes more vivid.
It was the week before my 18th birthday; the wind chill had made Toronto. He waved over to me as I was making my way to the bus stop; he told me that his shift ended in five minutes and asked if I would like a ride to school. I had accepted a ride before from this neighbourhood fixture; I figured there was no harm in accepting what I presumed to be a kind gesture on this freezing day.
In the box-shaped car, he told me of his daughter, who was a professor of sorts at New York University—to which I ironically matriculated months later—along with other tidbits about his life. It seemed innocent—until we turned onto Ellesmere.
He had his right hand on my left knee, slowly creeping higher. I used my backpack and clarinet case to push his advance off. I then felt a tingle on my nape; his painfully icy hand was caressing the back of my neck—I could only cringe and shrug my shoulders in an attempt to ward his hand away. When we pulled into the school parking lot, he tried to kiss me; I turned my head quickly enough for his lips to touch only my hair.
After the incident, it felt as though a part of me was taken away. I made an effort to learn his schedule in order to avoid him—I was displaced from my own sense of belonging.
The brakes bring the car to a halt at the lights, and my heart sinks. There is no crossing guard anymore; there is only a police vehicle parked curbside. I pull over to the gas station where he used to park, and fill up the tank in an attempt to compose myself. The act of pursuing the mundane gives me pause—a reprieve from reality.
I drive around the neighbourhood, attempting to reclaim the naivety that I once had. But nothing is the same. New families now occupy the townhouses; the elementary school is far smaller than I remember; and the residential streets are quieter.
As I make a right onto the main road, the song “Home” comes on. Michaelson sings, “This is my home,” followed by the rhetorical question, “Do you feel safe?” At which point, I answer back, “not since that January day.”
Photo credit: Benson Kua