They’d met in primary school. Lisa liked Jens’s smile and his blond and twisted hair looked to her like the fur between her yellow Labrador retriever Tina’s shoulders. Jens thought Lisa’s skin was like bread crust or one of those new things Mom was buying from Tim Horton’s—cross aunts he called them. Or cwah-sawnts. Under the slide once, Jens put Lisa’s forearm into his mouth to see if it tasted baked. He couldn’t remember the flavour, but years later he would recall the sound of her laugh when she pulled her arm away and the way that her brown eyes nearly disappeared when she smiled.
That year—kindergarten—Jens’s family went to visit relatives in Sweden and he was gone for the week before and after March Break. One night while Jens was away, Lisa broke into tears on the bathmat and her father, Mahir, held her while she said Jens’s name over and over. Tina came to lick away her tears and Mahir kept asking, What’s that? and, What are you saying? It wasn’t until Lisa said, “He’s so cute, He’s just so cute,” that Mahir realized that Jens was a name and that Lisa had a crush. Mahir figured out that Jens was on holiday and that his absence was the reason for Lisa’s distress—she worried Jens was gone forever. Mahir asked if Jens was in her class picture and Lisa wailed, “Noooooo.” Mahir said, “I bet he is, Lisa,” and they went to check. He was standing in the back row wearing big, crooked glasses and a Minnesota North Stars jersey.
There were a few years of girls and boys being icky to each other and love being embarrassing, completely out of the question, a curse like cooties or unutterable like the word shit, though with a totally different magic.
In grade four, Lisa started “going out” with Jack Edwards, a grade six who, the grade four girls agreed, looked like Jonathan Knight from New Kids on The Block. At recesses, Jens played a game they called kickball—a sort of hockey played with a tennis ball and without sticks. Jack played kickball, too and Jens, who was the biggest kid in their grade four class, thought that Jack, who was the third tallest of the grade sixes, was too rough when they played. Jack played with his head down and his arms out to protect himself, so it was not uncommon for the other players to take one of Jack’s elbows or fingers to the face. In fact, more than once while Jens fought for the ball against the school wall, Jack hit him. It was disorienting to Jens at first, but playing against Jack taught Jens to be more aware of who was around him. When Lisa started going out with Jack, it turned Jack into an object of intense hate for Jens. When he looked at Jack, Jens saw a drumstick or a steak like in the cartoons, or he imagined he did anyway. Not that Jens hated drumsticks or steaks, but he understood that some form of madness or hunger had blinded him and transformed Jack into something that he, Jens, wanted to devour. When Jack accidentally knocked off Jens’s glasses, Jens stepped on the tennis ball, grabbed Jack’s forearm and took Jack’s thumb in his mouth. He bit down on it and held it there. It tasted like fruit rollup and roast beef sandwiches. Jack hit the back of Jens’s head with his open hand and shouted, “Ow, shit, ouch, oh my God,” and cried, his face disfigured by fear, pain and shock.
Lisa stopped skipping rope with her friends to watch. It took Mr. Warden, Jens’s favourite teacher, to talk Jens into opening his mouth. Mr. Warden had been eating lunch in the staffroom, when Doris Anderson, the parent volunteer helping supervise lunch, knocked and said, “Mr. Warden, we have a problem with Jens.” Mr. Warden liked Jens too and he sat with the boy in the main office until the principal could see Jens. Jens was suspended for a day and instructed not to play kick ball.
The other kids who played, though, they knew what a menace Jack was and when their attempts to discourage Jack—picking him last, never passing him the ball, even elbowing him in the ribs—all failed, the kickball games stopped. Jack and Lisa started spending lunches under a white pine tree near the back corner of the playground and Jens spent recesses walking around forlornly until someone told him that Erica Dubois, who was maybe the second prettiest girl in their class, thought he was cute. When Jens and Erica started dating, they made the maple tree near the kindergarten class their territory. Then, maybe a week after Jens and Erica became boyfriend and girlfriend, someone brought a bat and a ball and someone else brought a glove and they were pitching and hitting on the little baseball diamond and the next day a bunch of the guys who played kickball also brought their gloves and bats and balls. In a few days Jack, then Jens joined in too.
Through the summer, Jack called Lisa, but when grade seven started and Jack was at a new school, he told Lisa that he still really liked her like a friend and even more than that, but that he had to move on. It didn’t occur to Lisa to wonder where Jack had heard a phrase like “have to move on.” She cried a little bit, but she’d also started to find Jack’s phone calls annoying. Especially trying to say goodbye to him—he’d always say, “But I don’t want to get off the phone,” or “I don’t want you to get off the phone,” and sigh and keep Lisa on the phone for a while longer.
By the time school started again, Jens had forgotten that he and Erica had been going out. One of Erica’s friends—Heather Stevens—came up to Jens and said, “Erica wants to know if she’s still your girlfriend.”
Jens tried to think of the right thing to say, but couldn’t. “I don’t think so.”
Jens was walking with his friend, Norman, when Heather and Erica and a few of the other girls in grade five surrounded Jens. Erica stood in front of him. The other girls held Jens in place. He waited for Erica to say something. Heather said, “Do it. We can’t hold him here forever.” Jens wasn’t fighting them at all, it was just Heather getting bored. Then Erica stepped up to Jens, put her arm around the back of his neck and pulled his head down towards her or tried to lift herself up to him, maybe. She closed her eyes and Jens knew she was going to kiss him. He wasn’t expecting her tongue, wet and hard, to press past his lips and part his teeth. It broke into his mouth with such force and determination that while it didn’t reach his uvula the anticipation that it would forced him to gag. His head jerked forward and his chin collided with Erica’s. His eyes watered in panic. Erica said, “Mmm,” like she was tasting something delicious.
Jens went and sat with Norman under the white pine. Norman was excited about what had happened and even a little jealous. Heather came back and asked Jens if he wanted to go out with Erica. “No!” Jens shouted and started crying. Heather stood there with her mouth open for a while before turning and leaving. Norman asked if Jens was okay, then left, too.
Lisa walked over to the tree. Jens stood up, walked over to the fence that separated the schoolyard from the fallow, rolling field behind it and took off his glasses. He rubbed his eyes. Lisa lifted herself up onto one of the pine’s branches. It was sticky with clear, hard sap that stuck to the star-print fabric of her sundress. Jens noticed that the fence post he was leaning on was loose. He started to wiggle it back and forth like a giant wooden tooth. It fell over and Jens fell forward with it. The panic he felt was surprise, but also fear that he had violated something—the fence, the field, the rules. He crawled backwards onto the school property, his knees and hands finding the ground through the rectangular holes of the broad metal mesh. Lisa was there, suddenly off her tree branch. She didn’t ask Jens if he was all right, she just helped him lift the heavy wooden post and balance it where it had always stood for all they knew. The bell rang and they walked back to class together.
Starting in grade seven, Jens and Lisa attended different schools. Jens lived farther south and was bussed to a middle school in an affluent town by the lake. Lisa lived farther north so she was bussed, like the majority of the former students of their primary school, to a middle school in the farming town that occupied a large square at the center of a quilt of pastures and cornfields. Jens pined over Paola, a grade eight with tight blonde curls, three different Pink Floyd shirts and sunglasses in the shape of hearts. Lisa started dating Alex, a grade eight who wore hockey jerseys and joked too often and not well, so had developed the tic of sticking out his tongue so people knew when to laugh.
Jens was eating his lunch one day when three girls from his class—Jodie, Claire and Alice—sat down with him. Claire sat beside him, Jodie and Alice across from him. Alice said, “Will you flex for us?”
“What?” Jens said.
“Your arm,” Jodie said. “Will you flex your arm?”
He was confused, but he held up his right arm and flexed his bicep.
Claire reached across and touched it.
“Yep,” Alice said.
“I told you,” Jodie said.
“What?” Jens asked again.
“Do you work out?” Alice asked.
“Work out?” Jens asked.
“Like, with weights,” Jodie said.
Jens shook his head. Were they making fun of him.
“Claire thinks you’re cute,” Alice said.
“Alice!” Claire said.
“Will you go out with her,” Jodie asked.
Jens had forgotten being swarmed by Erica and Heather and her friends. He felt deja vu claustrophobia.
“Look how cute she is,” Jodie said.
Jens turned to Claire. She looked down at her hands, which she had folded awkwardly in her lap. Then she looked up at Jens and something there, the vulnerability maybe, set some warm feeling spilling through his guts. He was about to speak when something blunt collided with his eye and his glasses were suddenly gone. A white light burst in the corner of his right eye where he’d been struck. He closed his eyes.
“Oh my God, I’m so sorry,” Alice said.
“Alice!” Claire said.
Jens opened his eyes and Alice was holding his glasses in front of her. “I just wanted him to get a good look at you,” Alice said. “I’m so sorry,” she told Jens again.
Three weeks later, when Jens and Claire French kissed in the small nook outside the staffroom entrance, she rhythmically scraped his lips with her braces like she was chewing and he drooled down her chin. They waited three days before trying again, in a walkway between nearby houses, and it wasn’t anywhere near as painful or as embarrassing. Still, just a day after that second French kiss, Alice and Jodie came up to Jens while on the other side of the school yard, Jens could see Claire was talking to Derek, a grade eight guy with stubble and a dresser full of Los Angeles Raiders clothes. The phrase “more as just a friend,” was used. Jens understood and was actually kind of relieved.
Lisa and Alex had been dating for a nine months by the time Lisa’s mother, Deborah, asked Lisa to invite Alex over to their home. Alex’s mother and father drove him from their modest farmhouse, down their gravel driveway, left down a straight road, then right onto 7th Line towards the ravine cut by the creek. Lisa, Deborah and Mahir lived in a house with big windows and graying cedar siding designed twenty years ago by the head architect at Mahir’s firm. Dappled by sunlight, the house nearly disappeared into the woods that surrounded it, a whole different type of modest than Alex’s family’s farmhouse. Martin, Alex’s father, said, “That’s a house, eh?” then coughed as if he could move the lump of phlegm that lived in his lungs.
“That roof’s upside down,” Alex said.
Martin laughed then coughed again.
Alex’s mother, Penny, nervous to meet Deborah and her husband told Martin and Alex to cut it out.
But Alex was right, actually. The architect chose to have the roof in the shape of a V to invert the traditional form and to create two separate upstairs spaces. The problem was that in such a well-wooded area, Mahir and Deborah were forced, annually, to clear nearly fifty garbage bags of debris from the gutter in the center of the roof.
Alex rang the doorbell. When Lisa opened the door, her parents were right behind her. Mahir had seen looks like the ones Penny, Martin and even Alex gave him, but they seemed to reach deeper into him than normal because he knew immediately what it meant for Lisa. Maybe Deborah saw the looks, too, but she still invited Penny and Martin in for tea. She’d made granola squares and when Martin refused, then coughed, Deborah offered to get a package of cookies. They even refused those. Lisa asked Alex if he wanted to walk down by the creek, but he shook his head. For an hour the families sat facing each other. Martin, Penny and Alex couldn’t get comfortable and in the car on the way home they would blame the furniture for it, though they did talk about Lisa being brown and why didn’t Alex tell them and Alex would swear he hadn’t known while in his mind he was wrestling with the fact that meeting Mahir had knocked Lisa out of the position he’d held her in. He knew it was wrong, but he knew it was true.
In grade eight, Lisa didn’t date anyone. It was a choice, but she wasn’t sure that the choice was entirely hers. For a week Jens dated a cheerleader in grade seven, but mostly he longed for an opportunity to date Christine or Nadege or Laura, three girls in the French emersion program, all lovely, all aloof.
Mahir and Deborah, with Lisa’s consent, enrolled Lisa at the high school in the affluent town south of them. They hoped that the larger, more diverse community it served would be less of a struggle for their daughter to fit in to.
Grade nine was a tough adjustment, but people started dating very quickly, as if needing to share the burden of going to a new school. Jens was already dating JoAnne when, on his way to Science, he saw Lisa getting a binder out of her locker. Something shifted in Jens’s body. It was a startling sensation, but it wasn’t unpleasant. “Hi, Lisa,” he said.
She smiled when she saw him. It was the first real smile—the first smile that she couldn’t deny—that she’d shared at her new school. Lisa had been struggling to make friends. She was honest about it with Jens, when he asked how she was doing.
The bell rang.
“Are you around at all before school?” Jens asked, as he started walking to class.
“My dad drops me off a little before first. So, yeah.”
“Come to the cafeteria. I’m always in the cafeteria with my girlfriend.”
“You have a girlfriend?”
Jens nodded. “JoAnne.” Jens smiled a little sadly, Lisa thought. “See you later.”
Lisa and JoAnne became friends and stayed friends even after JoAnne and Jens broke up.
The school hosted a coffee house in December. JoAnne and her older brother played a set of five songs. They covered Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Led Zepplin, and Heart. Their fifth song was an original written by JoAnne and Lisa. Jens started to play guitar. Lisa bought a bass.
Jens’s first band did covers, too. His favourite was Pearl Jam’s “State of Love and Trust.” Jens’s band played the spring coffee house, but broke up shortly after because the singer wanted them to do too many U2 covers.
JoAnne and Lisa started playing with Nancy, a girl in grade eleven who was in JoAnne’s brother’s music class. They recorded a demo of six original songs. They were denied a spot in the coffee house line-up. The official reason was that they did no covers. But in the summer, they played a festival at a park by the waterfront. Jens was there and he thought they were amazing. He bought a copy of the demo and listened to it over and over again. He only stopped when, while trying to sleep off a raging fever, he dreamed of Nancy, JoAnne and Lisa dousing him with buckets of water.
In grade ten Jens started playing rhythm guitar in a punk band with three guys in grade eleven, twelve and thirteen. They played all original songs. They played coffee houses at their school, but were also invited to play at other schools. Their most popular song was about kidnapping a porno star. They broke up shortly after they recorded and dubbed 100 copies of their demo.
JoAnne, Lisa and Nancy kept playing together, though they rarely played shows. Being denied inclusion so frequently was exhausting, so, more often than not, they didn’t even bother asking.
The last show Jens’s band played was in the basement of the Masonic Lodge in town. Two hardcore bands played, one from the city, one from a community like Jens’s on the other side of the city. Jens bought everything of theirs he could—a demo cassette from the city band, a seven-inch record and a patch from the band from the other side of the city. He had to go to a friend’s house to listen to the seven-inch. He copied it onto cassette.
Jens started going to hardcore shows and buying records from Adam, a French Canadian guy who would display the albums in shoeboxes. Jens would read the little reviews Adam wrote on recipe cards and scotch-taped to the front copy of each record. For his birthday, Jens’s mom took him to a stereo shop and bought him a record player so he could finally listen to all his seven-inches and LPs.
Lisa was getting frustrated with her band. They had twelve new songs, seven of them written by her, and she thought they were ready to demo them. But Nancy didn’t trust Jacob, the guy that they recorded their first demo with, that everybody they knew recorded with. Nancy and her mom were looking for an affordable studio that also had experience working with women. They weren’t writing anything new, because they felt like twelve was maybe even too many songs for a record. And they still weren’t playing many shows.
One morning neither JoAnne nor Nancy was at their table in the cafeteria and Jens was super-excited to tell Lisa about a split seven-inch he’d bought from Adam at a show on the weekend, so Lisa asked, “You’re still not playing with anybody, right?”
Jens said, “Yeah, that’s true.”
“Why don’t we play together?”
“But you’re in a band.”
“I can be in two.”
“I don’t know. I.” He put his Walkman on the table. “I’m just really into hardcore right now.” He handed her his headphones.
Lisa put the headphones on.
Jens turned the volume down, then pressed play.
Lisa relaxed her expression, then blinked slowly, opened her eyes wide and stared blankly at the photo of Queen Elizabeth above the entrance to the cafeteria.
Jens pressed pause. “Wait,” he said. “What song is it?”
He moved to the other side of the table and spent the twenty minutes before class shuttling the tape around to play this amazing bassline, that amazing scream, this other song he loved.
Lisa liked the music, had to insist to Jens that she liked the music, then wanted to know when they could get together to start working. “We don’t have a drummer or anything,” Jens said.
“We can start writing,” Lisa suggested.
“Uh, okay. I’ll play guitar, I guess. You’ll play bass?”
“Right. I can bring my bass to school. Maybe we can practice at your place? Thursday or something?”
“I don’t have a bass amp.”
“Does your amp have two inputs?”
“I think so. Yeah.”
“For now, I’ll just plug into that.”
Lisa asked Jens for a copy of the tape he’d shown her. He brought it the next day. Lisa listened in her room and tried her best to play along.
Jens kept trying to think of a hardcore band he’d seen with a girl. He couldn’t think of any. It made him nervous, like maybe he was making a mistake. He put on his copy of Sonic Youth’s Dirty. He didn’t like the songs Kim Gordon sang as much as he liked the songs Thurston Moore or Lee Ranaldo sang, but they were still pretty good, still pretty punk.
On Thursday, on the walk to Jens’s, Lisa talked about which songs from the cassette she liked and said that she had been playing with a few ideas. Jens said, “I haven’t thought of anything.”
Lisa was excited to play with someone new.
Jens was watching his feet and trying not to stare at Lisa.
“What will we call ourselves?” Lisa asked.
“We gotta find a band first.”
“JoAnne plays drums now, too. She’s pretty good.”
“I like JoAnne.” She is a much better guitar player than me, Jens thought.
“We can ask someone else. I mean, maybe it would be good for me to play with all new people.”
“I don’t really know. We could ask Tim.” Tim was the drummer from Jens’s last band.
“We don’t need to decide now.” Lisa smiled at Jens.
Jens attempted to smile back.
“What’s wrong?” Lisa asked.
“Nothing,” Jens said.
“You seem weird. Is something bugging you?”
“No,” he said.
Lisa asked Jens what were the names of some of the bands that he really liked. Like not necessarily bands he really liked, but names he thought were good. He told her. “Okay,” Lisa said, “so what if we were called, like Frozen Ground? Or Scorched Earth?”
“Those are pretty good,” Jens admitted.
“Or Stasis? Or Aperture?”
“I like those, too.”
“Okay,” Lisa said. “I guess we can think about it.”
They played for two hours before dinner. Lisa had not had any trouble, through her investigation of Jens’s cassette, picking up any of the genre’s tropes and she had a lot technically to show Jens, whose approach to his hardcore records had been much more emotional. They both felt like they were just scratching the surface when Jens’s mother called down and asked if his friend was staying for dinner. Lisa called Mahir and explained that they had played already, but that they weren’t finished and that she’d been invited to dinner. Mahir said it was no problem, she could stay and that he’d be happy to pick her up any time before ten.
Jens’s mom, Erica, didn’t remember Lisa from primary school, but was very excited that she and Jens had known each other for so long. Jens’s little sister, Astrid, couldn’t stop looking at Lisa. It embarrassed Jens, who also felt like he couldn’t keep his eyes off his old friend, but after dinner Lisa said she thought Astrid was cute.
They started working on a song. Jens was nervous to shout at first, but when Lisa started singing with him, he lifted his voice louder. They wrote lyrics together in a notebook Jens had intended to use as a journal. Jens was hoarse when he said goodbye to Lisa. He couldn’t sleep. Lisa went home and wrote more.
In a few weeks, they had six songs and had decided to call themselves Focus. They asked JoAnne to play drums. She told Lisa that she was worried how Nancy would feel about it, but said sure anyway. Over their time playing together, Jens and Lisa had developed a language around song structure and Jens was aware of it and felt proud. Listening to Lisa and JoAnne humbled him. They almost didn’t need to speak. To JoAnne, Jens could barely convey even the simplest information about the songs he and Lisa had been working on. For a while, Lisa functioned like a translator between Jens and JoAnne.
Focus played their first show a week before JoAnne got her license. Mahir drove them to the local YMCA. Jens had gotten to know Mahir and he really liked him. JoAnne and Lisa joked that maybe the two of them—Mahir and Jens—should start their own band. Jens said he thought that would be cool, then asked if Mahir played sitar or something. Lisa asked if Jens was serious. Jens said, “What?”
“He grew up here,” Lisa said.
“So,” Jens said.
She shook her head. “He plays piano.”
“What did I say?” Jens asked.
“It’s racist,” JoAnne explained, “assuming he plays sitar.”
“I’m not racist,” Jens said.
The promoter came over to them. “Hey, sorry. Hi. You guys need help with your gear?”
Jens said, No, but JoAnne said, Sure. The promoter carried the drum hardware upstairs.
Focus played well. Jens didn’t remember ever seeing so many girls at a show. They mostly came up to JoAnne and Lisa and told them how amazing Focus was and asked if they had any records for sale or anything. Some people even asked where they were from, which hurt Jens’s feelings because he’d been coming to these hardcore shows for a while and even some of the girls who were familiar to him, who he thought should probably recognize him, they still asked where Focus was from.
Jens bought some records from Adam, who said he tought dat de band sounded great—tight!—and dat e was glad dere were finally some women playing in de local scene. Jens said he’d fucked up a few parts, but thanks anyway. He was glad Adam thought they sounded good.
JoAnne, Lisa and Jens waited outside the YMCA with their gear. “Adam said we sounded tight,” Jens told his band-mates.
Lisa said how people were really excited and JoAnne said how she got the impression that this was a really male dominated scene, “like, maybe even more male than most.”
“What about all the girls who come out to shows?” Jens asked.
“Oh my God, they were so happy that women were playing,” Lisa said.
“One girl even said how she was going to ask that promoter, Trevor or whatever, if her band could play,” JoAnne said. “It was like maybe they’d never even thought they could ask.”
Jens said, “But is it really the scene’s fault if that girl has never thought to ask?”
Lisa looked at her feet.
JoAnne said, “Yeah. It is.”
They didn’t talk much more. Mahir picked them up and asked how the show had gone. He was very tired, though, so when Jens, who was even more enthusiastic to speak to Mahir than he’d been on the way to the show, tried to engage in conversation, Mahir just said, “Unh, hunh,” and, “Oh,” and, “Okay.” It was pretty discouraging for Jens who was feeling like maybe he was racist and maybe Mahir knew.
They dropped JoAnne off first. Once they’d dropped Jens off, Mahir asked Lisa if everything was okay.
“The show went great,” Lisa said. “People really liked us.”
“But?” Mahir asked.
“I don’t know.” Lisa said. “I guess that’s it.”
“Do you want to talk about it?”
“Not really,” Lisa said. “Not tonight.”
As they got closer to home, Mahir had a thought. “Do you remember,” he asked, “a long time ago— You had just started school I think, and there was a boy in your class who went away for a while and you cried and cried.”
“I don’t remember that.”
“You kept saying something over and over again. At first I couldn’t tell what it was, but eventually I could make out, ‘He’s so cute, he’s so cute,’ over and over.”
Lisa laughed a little bit.
“I think that was Jens.”
She looked out the window at the dark trees whipping past. “We went to primary school together, so.”
“I thought so.”
Over the next year Focus wrote four more songs, recorded a cassette, wrote another five songs and played school coffee houses and church basements and Masonic Lodges all over the place. They got to play, at different events, with both of the bands that Jens had seen at the Masonic Lodge that turned him on to hardcore.
When Nancy eventually came to see Focus, Lisa and JoAnne were both really nervous about it. Nancy loved the band. She said that she wanted to practice with JoAnne and Lisa again and that she’d found someone to record their album. Between songs at a Focus practice one afternoon, JoAnne and Lisa started talking about playing with Nancy and how frustrating she could be to work with and how much each of them—Lisa and JoAnne—felt like their old songs were still pretty good, but that they had moved on from where they’d been as musicians since they played with Nancy. So, it was a bit of a surprise to Jens when, a few practices later, Lisa and JoAnne told him that they thought that Focus should take a of a break so they could focus on their recording with Nancy.
It was a lonely experience for Jens. He’d been spending so much time with Lisa and JoAnne and now he only really saw them a their table in the cafeteria before school. It was during this hiatus from Focus that Jens decided that he was in love with Lisa. A few times he asked her if she wanted to come over, but she was always busy—studying, working on a project, practicing. Once he asked JoAnne if she wanted to come over—a sort of retaliation for Lisa being unavailable—and JoAnne was way more enthusiastic about the prospect, but she was “jamming” with her brother that night.
Lisa missed playing with Focus and even missed Jens, too, but things had started to go badly at home. One morning, on their drive to school, Mahir told Lisa that he and Deborah were separating and that he had rented an apartment near the school where Lisa would be welcome to stay, but that Deborah had agreed to drive Lisa once Mahir moved out. Lisa asked why they were separating. At first, Mahir didn’t want to say. Lisa didn’t push, but something about her silence, maybe, spurred Mahir to explain that Deborah and David, the contractor who had been slowly updating various rooms in their house, had been having an affair.
One morning Jens asked Lisa what was wrong, but she didn’t know what to say. A few days later, Lisa was desperate to tell him, but there was need written on Jens’s face that discouraged her, a need that was much different than her own, at least for the moment.
That Friday, Jens went alone to see one of their favourite bands at the YMCA. At the show, a girl named Melanie asked when Focus would be playing again. Jens told her that he didn’t know. Melanie said that they were her favourite band. Jens thanked her. She stood near him for each band and watched where he went in between performances. He wasn’t surprised when she asked him for a ride home. Nor was he surprised when, before she got out of the car, she leaned across the parking break and kissed him.
They exchanged phone numbers.
Jens thought about the kiss and about how nice kissing felt. He thought about Melanie. Then he thought about Lisa.
Melanie played bass, too, and she was eager to play music with Jens. Jens felt like if he wanted to keep making out with Melanie, to keep seeing Melanie, he had to start bringing a guitar to her house. He plugged into her bass amp, which she had to keep prohibitively quiet. They wouldn’t ever play for long enough to get anything done before they would push Melanie's stuffed animals aside and make out on her brass bed.
Mahir moved into a condo that you could see from the high school. Lisa helped him buy and arrange new furniture and he thanked her and kept saying how this wasn’t something someone’s child should have to help them do. She reassured him that lots of families had problems and that she thought she probably had more friends with parents who were divorced than she had friends with parents who were together still.
JoAnne, Lisa and Nancy had finished recording for their album. They had done a mix of it, too, and had all taken home copies to scrutinize. JoAnne had a page in her notebook dedicated to each song, even though on some pages she’d written only, “Sounds great.” Nancy had filled nine pages of lined notepaper front and back with notes about the mix and the performances. Lisa had nothing. When her friends asked her how she was, Lisa said she was fine, that she was sorry, that she would make some notes.
Lisa told Jens that she needed to listen to the mix and that she had a CD. Then she asked if, maybe they could drive around in his car and make notes. They drove down to the lake and along the lakeshore, pausing the CD and pulling over after each track so that Lisa could write their thoughts. It was after the fifth track that Lisa told Jens that her parents had separated. She did what she could not to cry. Jens turned off the car so that Lisa wouldn’t feel rushed. She said she was sorry. Jens said, “For what?” then tried to soften his response by adding, “you haven’t done anything wrong.” Lisa leaned over and put her arm around Jens’s neck and pulled him towards her. He hesitated because it reminded him so much of his first kiss with Melanie. But Lisa just wanted a hug. Jens’s hand accidentally brushed her breast as he tried to fit it between Lisa and the seat and he hated himself for even noticing.
When they started listening again, Jens pointed the car north. He didn’t know where he was going at first. After listening to the ninth track they pulled over on the side of Highway 24. Jens could see the Tim Horton’s where his Mom would buy him croissants whenever she picked him up from school. By the time they were done track ten, they could see their primary school. They paused the CD. Jens pulled in to the school’s small parking lot.
“You want to get out?” Jens asked.
“Yes,” Lisa said. “But we’ve got work to do.”
“Okay, what are we saying about that mix?” Lisa asked.
“Uh,” Jens held his hands up.
Lisa started writing her thoughts.
“It seems so small,” Jens said.
Lisa looked at him, her expression heading towards hurt, but currently stuck on confused.
Jens smiled. “The school.”
“I thought you meant the mix.”
“No. I thought the mix sounded good. Honestly, my ears are tired. Is that a thing? That’s a thing, I think.”
“I think that’s a thing.”
“Doesn’t the school seem small, though?”
Lisa looked at the red brick box of the gym, the rows of classroom windows, the two leaning cedars near the front door. “I guess. You know, I live nearby, though. So I see the school regularly. I mean, when’s the last time you saw the school?”
“I guess it’s been years.”
The air was just a bit cooler than either of them was dressed for. They stepped over a sagging length of chain between the parking lot and the asphalt where the girls used to skip and the boys used to play kickball. “I’m really sorry about your mom and dad,” Jens said.
“Thanks,” Lisa said.
They rounded the back of the school and the playground came into view.
“Your parents were never married or something, right?” Lisa asked.
“Yeah,” Jens said.
“How’d that work?”
“You’d have to ask them, I guess. I don’t know if I believe in marriage, though.”
“Have you ever seen it work?”
“My grandparents, maybe. My mom’s mom and dad. I mean, they’re still together.”
“Does that mean it’s working?”
They stopped on the hard packed sand around the jungle gym. Jens put his hands in his pockets.
“How’s Melanie?” Lisa asked.
Jens had forgotten all about Melanie. “Fine,” he said. “I don’t know,” he added.
“What don’t you know?”
“Ah,” Jens said. “I just don’t know.”
Lisa sat down on the foot of the slide.
“Do you remember,” Jens said, “I think I licked your arm under here.” He pointed to the small space under the platform at the top of the slide. “I don’t even know if I could still fit in there.” He squeezed sideways past the ladder and sat in the dark with his knees by his chin.
Lisa stood at the entrance. Jens couldn’t see the expression on her face when she said, “My dad remembers me crying about you one night. You’d gone away or something.”
“I kept saying, ‘He’s so cute, he’s so cute.’”
Lisa said, “Shove over.”
They sat there in the dark with their knees at their chins, their sides pressed together. Lisa put her head on Jens’s shoulder. “It’s warmer under here,” she said.
Jens put his arm around her.
“I love you,” Lisa said.
Without thinking, Jens said, “I love you, too,” then his body started burning from his guts and his heart.
Eventually Lisa lifted her head. She removed Jens’s glasses and they kissed and for Lisa it was like all of her body became her lips and her mouth. For Jens it was like his body and the whole world around them and time had disappeared in this one shining moment.
Toronto, May 2016
Emoji sequence: Anne Peace, who is many amazing things, but also Lee's mum
Story: Lee Sheppard