James DeMille Prose Prize (2013)
The summer that I think I almost had my first kiss, I was living in a hotel. We had a house fire in the spring. No one died; some ideas were borne out. My mom’s idea that homes were violable; my idea (my sister’s too) that May could be much crueler than April; my dad’s idea of himself as someone way past hope when it came to home improvement projects.
I was down the street at the schoolyard playing basketball alone, developing my pre-shot free throw ritual. A van pulled up 20 feet from the baseline, rolled down the window and broke my rhythm. It was my parents’ friend shouting something about a fire. It took me another brick and a honk of her horn to realize that it wasn’t basketball slang. We drove down Highland Avenue, past the hideous palette of front doors.
Ours had been forest green. We joined the crowd across the street. My dad and a polo’d man with a notepad gesticulating. I worried about the stack of library books under my bed, while firefighters arranged a makeshift yardsale. Our living room on the lawn, evicted by smoke. We stared so long that the black cloud became suspicious, peeking through the blinds. It saw my sister pointing back at it and laughing. It was hard to blame her: there’s something funny about futility. About watching people water brokenness.
It took two men named Billy and Frankie four months to rebuild our house. At first we lived at my Aunt Barbara’s. She smoked in the house, so her furniture smelled like why we were there. We were welcome to stay as long as we wanted.
We moved into the hotel less than a week later. It was on top of the escarpment—a ten-minute drive from our neighborhood. At first my sister and I couldn’t believe our luck. Hotels had reserved a place in our collective imagination alongside amusement parks, action movies, and our cool cousin Jennifer’s rotating cast of boyfriends. An enclosed mischief: extensive hallways to hide down, Nicky Nicky Nine Doors, Jacuzzi beards and groaning ice machines.
We devoted the first month to obliging our fantasies. The glass elevator was particularly conducive to games of tag. We would lie prone, ascending as our pursuer stalked the mezzanine below. Our bellies full of breakfast. To us “continental” came to mean wonderful; we never bothered to ask for definitions, preoccupied with the next croissant or the latest Did-It-Ourselves combo, like cantaloupe sandwiches, with maple syrup.
There were less delightful excesses. The concierge would broadcast our entrance with mortifying familiarity. Our suite had three televisions; the suitable selections in the pay-per-view catalogue could not keep pace with our spectacular orgies, reducing us to rounds of re-runs. Boredom we would wander into wedding receptions, testing how long we could last before being asked to leave by an exasperated banquet manager or the not-drunk uncle. We felt entitled to interlope, our sleep so often interrupted by their noisy afterwards.
One night I sleepwalked, though not for the first time. Rising from my double cot, kitty corner from the kitchenette, I ambled out, down three flights of stairs, into the vacant lobby. My striped boxer shorts a pale cloak for pubescence. I was on a night errand, allegedly asking the nonplussed woman at the front desk if she remembered to leave the window open so the cat could get in, before taking the elevator back upstairs. Back to sleep.
The dream of my residence being a bigger draw than Ryan Gillen’s new Sega Genesis did not survive into summer. My friends were like me. The indoor pool’s novelty evaporated. Everything about the hotel was too deliberate. July was for aimless Sega marathons. Or for weaving through the 40-block grid that circumscribed our lives. For biking around with no purpose beyond biking around. I was out of the loop, in the dormant period between the age when sleepovers were a weekend highlight and an alibi.
Anyways, I didn’t need to vacation in my neighborhood because most weekends the hotel transformed into a veritable airport lounge of traveling youth organizations: soccer teams, dance troupes, even the occasional orchestra. I hardly hesitated to capitalize on my minor celebrity as one of the two kids who lived in the hotel, not to mention the oldest. These friendships could only last an afternoon or evening—two, at most. Such was the bond I formed with the left side of a Windsor hardball team’s infield that I ventured to watch their game. We went out for pizza in the extra inning, then a stretch of table tennis in the games room. We exchanged addresses and became typical pen pals, writing once, or not at all.
I was just settling in to a certain lonesomeness, when the phone rang one afternoon. It wasn’t an insurance adjuster asking after my parents. And it wasn’t my sister’s synchronized swimming coach. It was my friend Tim, who I hadn’t seen in forever. I overcompensated for this absence; my hotel stories took on an edge. The concierge started receiving prank calls, I instigated a public feud between two rival gymnastics parents; pay-per-view erotica, and so on. Tim probably saw through this veneer of rebellion. He mentioned that Friday was Andrea’s birthday and she was having a party. Of course I knew it was her birthday; new to me was the tacit assumption that I was invited. Sure, probably.
Yes, definitely. Andrea Waler grew up on my street and we had known each other since kindergarten. I had invented all sorts of other common ground for our romance to spring from, but reality was a lot barer. Our mutual interest in a Thomas the Tank Engine puzzle never found an adolescent corollary. To be sure, I imagined us hanging out in my room and listening to the Counting Crows, but she liked Nirvana, and had freckles on her nose, and was sarcastic. I was in love—a love undeterred (perhaps further fortified) by an embargo ushered in at the Grade Five Fun Fair when her best friend Leah Zablocki caught me picking my nose behind the Dunk Tank. Andrea unscrupulously avoided me at recess for two years.
My sister had a synchro meet the same weekend as the party, and we were leaving for wherever at 6am on Saturday. My parents, slightly moved by my sudden urgency about a Friday night yet in no mood to negotiate, agreed to chauffeur me to and from the party, provided I accept an earlier curfew.
Friday belated, but it came. I had taken no chances and bought Andrea a gift certificate to SAM THE RECORD MAN. I got dropped off at Tim’s house. We watched “the Countdown” and then walked to Andrea’s together, amidst the old tree stumps and new porch furniture. Everyone was in the basement, the lights lower than the ceiling. I put my card on a pile next to the chip table. The couches and chairs were out-of-place, imports from the den and patio. Why we weren’t outside became apparent an hour later when people began playing spin-the-bottle. I retreated to the bathroom upstairs, blaming obscene amounts of pop. Dissatisfied with my exile and unsatisfied with the results of my tried-tested-and failed technique of ignoring whomever I like-liked, I talked myself into a dialogue with Andrea that went beyond “hey, happy birthday.” The clock on the kitchen microwave said I had 14 minutes until my ride showed up.
Returning, I was pleased to see that the game had dissolved and been replaced by slow dancing. I mumbled something to Andrea as “Glycerine” at last came on. We locked arms and I loosened up. As we spun around, Andrea made me laugh with her running commentary on how the people around us were or weren’t dancing. “What would she say about us?” I wondered, ready with the line I had rehearsed upstairs, the one about not letting a spun bottle decide…then the voice of Andrea’s mom at the top of the stairs; she shouted my name and I knew I had to go.
On our way home, I asked my dad to drive by the house. A tarp was exhaled in the dark; the roof looked nearly finished.
“How was your night?”
“Pretty good,” I replied.
My sister’s synchro routine received the lowest score in the province, but I was proud of her. My lungs were full of chlorine, and my heart was full of matinees and mall walks. All weekend I was distracted by my next encounter with Andrea. I gathered anecdotes for her about would-be hecklers and a dull team dinner. On the drive back, I listened to August and Everything After the whole way through. I mouthed the words out the side and rear windows, to rest stops, headlights, my reflection, somewhere else.
I meant to phone Tim on Monday; he had Leah’s number, and I could get Andrea’s from her, but I stayed up late watching sports highlights, not calling. A while later someone saw Andrea at a movie with a guy from West Park.
We moved back into our house just before the first day of school. In the final weeks at the hotel, my sister and I had grown desperate to get away from it. We would consent to long hikes, a previously untenable proposition. I began to enjoy any detour, especially ones that took us past the house.
It was a number of years later when we were told how the fire had started. My sister and I had always assumed that the furnace overheated. “The dryer exploded,” my dad explained to us at dinner one night. “After I filled up the lawnmower, I poured the extra gas down the sink. I don’t know what I was thinking.” He shook his head, and we knew to be quiet. As if we had always known.