Just after Christmas I was handed a fat red envelope.
The giver was a doctor friend of my daughter, who had come back to Calgary after embarking on a world tour by 4X4. He’d spent the first six months of an intended eighteen travelling from Australia to India, China, Tibet and, regrettably, Kazakhstan (“absolutely nothing to recommend about the place”) where an accident forced him to abandon his truck, most of his belongings and all of his plans.
But I didn’t know a thing about that last bit. I’d been following his trip on Instagram, and had wondered why he was suddenly in London, then off to Chios, Greece to volunteer at a refugee camp, then Amsterdam, then Ireland. Maybe he was just taking a little break from all that driving.
Then he turned up in Calgary, and my daughter said I was on his list of people to see. That’s nice, I thought. But weird.
I turned the mystery envelope over a few times. Why would a university chum of hers give me a Christmas card, and why bother doing it in person? Even more puzzling, it was weighty enough to suggest more than just a card. Was he an aspiring writer and wanted my nod? Was he going to declare something? He and my daughter were just good friends, so it couldn’t be that, surely. They sat on the couch in her tiny living room, snickering at my confusion.
I opened the flap. It was a letter all right, written on heavy vellum. Withdrawing the folded sheets, it hit me; only one person I knew had such elegant handwriting. “What the hell…?” I stared at the salutation, then at the doctor friend. “This is nuts! How—where—on earth did you get this?”
After his European fling he’d ended up in Dublin visiting a girl he’d met a few years earlier while trekking in Nepal. She took him out to her parents’ house for dinner and in the get-to-know-you chitchat, her mother asked where his home was. Calgary! She had an old friend who lived there, but had lost her address and hadn’t been in touch for years. Did he think he could track down the friend with just a name?
Our adventurer had some convincing to do before his Irish friend’s mom would believe that the name she had given him was none other than mine, the mother of his old university pal. Despite the unusual surname, she wanted proof. Had I once lived in France? Who were my other children?
Satisfied, she dashed off a letter and just after Christmas, I was handed a fat red envelope.
Always too cheap to jump on the latest tech trend, I finally decided to replace an iPhone so far behind the times that it was labelled ‘vintage’. Twenty pages of phones for sale on Kijiji yielded the one I was looking for, and at a very fair price. Almost too fair, which made me slightly suspicious.
After a few emails back and forth, the seller agreed to meet me at an Apple store, which meant dragging her husband and two little kids to the mall on a bitterly cold day from her sub-sub-sub-urban home.
She—bravely clad in a cold-shoulder top— was young and bubbly, the kind of person you’d love to have as a next-door neighbour. With a thumbs-up from Apple, we traded phone for cash and congratulated each other on a successful transaction.
Except that there’s never an upgrade without the ripple effect, and naturally, my old SIM card wouldn’t fit the new phone. Off to the phone store to get another one, where another bubbly young woman said I’d have to pay for the card, at a price vastly disproportionate to its nano size. Just as upsetting was the fact that she was required to see my picture ID.
My drivers licence photo is a likeness of me, yes, but I deeply regret that it was taken after I had spent most of that day in the bathroom with a paint roller. It was my birthday, the last day for renewal, and it was only at 3:30 in the afternoon that I remembered the registry office closed at 4.
While it would take a magnifying glass to spot the paint splatters on my face, everything else about my features is starkly exposed. My hair is scraped into a ponytail, and the angle of the shot is such that what remains visible of my hair (disingenuously indicated as ‘blond’) is blends seamlessly into the grey-scale background.
I passed the licence across the counter and pretended interest in a display of phone accessories.
And then, “Oh! What a GREAT picture!”
“I LOVE your no-hair look!” she exclaimed.
She couldn’t just stop there. She bubbled on to say how fabulous I looked and how she wished she could wear her hair like that and I realized finally that she thought I had no hair at all in the picture and was being sympathetic because obviously I went directly to the photo shoot from a chemotherapy session.
Her effusion, remarkably genuine, meant that I let myself be convinced to buy a case for the new phone, although I drew the line at a $50 screen protector.
Once, in Grade 7, I put my hand up in class.
This was sufficiently startling that Wayne P yelled at the teacher “Pick her! Pick Sebbydoodle!!! She knows the answer!”
Until that moment I’d mostly escaped notice from my classmates except for the occasional ‘Sudul-Sudul-rhymes-with-noodle’ chant. The new nickname was a step up, not unkind, almost affectionate given the right tone. It stayed in use until the end of Grade 9 but in high school it was forgotten as I was swallowed up by the crowd, on nobody’s radar. The name was resurrected by my youngest when he first heard the story and subsequently proved to be handy as a username. (What? Someone else is using DebS??)
On impulse a few months back I sent Wayne a Facebook message. It said: If you’re the same Wayne P who was the class clown at Parkdale School, I just want to say that the nickname you gave me way back when has endured, and how are you, anyway?
He replied right away (eek! What had I started?) and promised to get in touch when he came to the city. Months went by and I almost forgot about him; when he finally called to ask if we could meet up at a Tim Horton’s I wasn’t even sure I wanted to go.
How very wrong-headed.
As I came through the doors of the café he leapt to his feet and pulled me into a big hug, exclaiming, “You’re so pretty!” To be honest, I doubted him, but then again, my face was paint-free and the ponytail had been ditched in favour of flow.
Wayne was the nice guy I remembered him as, still funny, and way more interesting than his younger self. His life as a Mountie had been unconventional and adventurous, and he had some good stories to tell. It was great to catch up with him, and to discover that neither of us had liked high school and had kept in touch with almost no one.
Midway through a refill, he got serious.
“There’s something I need to apologize for,” he confessed. “I said something awful to you years ago.”
“You what? I have no clue what you’re talking about.”
“God. Maybe I shouldn’t have brought it up.” He rubbed his face and grimaced. “Well,…oh jeez…OK, well, sometime in junior high—I don’t remember exactly—you called the teacher over and told her that I had called you a bitch.”
I choked on my double-double. “Really? No kidding. And then what happened?”
“She told you that it just meant ‘a female dog’.” He shook his head.
“Good pick, ” I said. “Though I might have just been asking her for a definition.” (It was about the same time that I first heard the word ‘masturbate’ and had to look it up in the Oxford, which unhelpfully offered ‘self-abuse’.)
Wayne looked like my dog after stealing bread off the counter. “I was too ashamed and embarrassed to do the right thing back then, and it’s bothered me ever since.” He sighed. “I’m sorry, and I’m sorry that it took so long to say it.”
I squinted. I could almost see Wayne at his desk, watching the teacher and me, aghast at what he’d done. It felt like something long-lost was re-surfacing and I really wanted to remember it just so his angst hadn’t been for nothing. But the camera angle was all wrong; the memory was fake.
I forgave him. We laughed and hugged again and when it was time to go, he kissed me on the cheek. At home I told my husband everything, not leaving out the ‘pretty’ part. Wayne messaged later to say how much fun he’d had and how he couldn’t believe he’d kissed Debi Sudul, as if I’d once been the girl of his dreams.