My friend and I spent last week teaching shadow puppetry to 11-year-olds in Bobcaygeon in the Kawarthas as part of a grant to bring more arts to education. We listened to that Hip song over and over driving up, because it’s the only song I know about Bobcaygeon and because I love the constellations, but not half as much as I love my freedom.
You were wary of me on our first day there. You sidestepped my compliments as if you weren’t sure I meant them, or you weren’t sure they would last through to the end of the project.
Your school had long since outlawed British Bulldog but you decided not to tell me because you wanted to play. I landed in the mud on the very first round and something in the way you looked at me made me feel as if it was the coolest thing I could have done.
You have long blonde hair and shy grey eyes and you looked like any other 11-year-old girl, only taller. You looked me in the eye more often than most adults. Had you been a photograph I would have said there was nothing queer about you, but standing before you it was seeping from your skin like water through the walls of a sandcastle. It was in the way you watched your classmates and spent too much time with eyeliner in the morning making dark, drawn-out shadows under eyes that were rested, sparkling and full of a light much too bright for Bobcaygeon.
You made me consider growing up in your town, watching temporary people drive through like the wind, not arriving or leaving but always just passing through. You made me consider having just one library, one community centre, one shopping mall, one Chinese restaurant (with one awful chop suey). You made me consider what it would feel like to walk down the street and not see one new person, not one new woman in whose hands to imagine my face, my breasts or my life.
I never considered myself lucky for having grown up in Scarborough. But if Scarborough is a closet then Bobcaygeon is a shoebox and I was closer to the door than you’ve ever been, little girl.
Do people fall in love by default? I think they do, not that I didn’t love my first girlfriend. But I don’t think we would have chosen each other had there been a hundred queer girls in our Catholic high school to choose from. How are you going to trust love in Bobcaygeon? When you kiss a girl for the first time will the whole town know about it? Or worse, will no one know?
When you leave Bobcaygeon for Toronto, Montreal or Vancouver, will everyone know why or will they say you left for school, for a job, for a city boy who really was born a boy? When you go back will you tell them with whom you’re really travelling, how you’re staying in bachelors and how there’s a pair of underwear in the glove compartment that came off on the highway when the engine overheated?
You told me after recess halfway through the week about how much you hate your mother’s boyfriend. You said he snores louder than your dog barks and he laughs at you when you cry over movies. I told you about how I’m scared to drive sometimes and how I’m almost legally blind without my contacts. You told me something children don’t normally say to adults. You said I was a good listener.
You traded me an accordion-fold paper snake for my address, which you buried in your front pocket like a lost bracelet charm. Marissa and Anna both cried when I left, and you looked like you might but you turned away before you did.
Don’t you know, little girl, that I would never laugh at you? Don’t you know how much I wanted to bring you back to Toronto with me so you could see the gamut of possibilities for your life? Don’t you know that somehow I could absolutely feel your queerness and I was already angry at how your small town would hurt you? Don’t you know that if you fare better than I did it will make my stories worth more to my children?
Anand and I are back in Toronto. I am so grateful for the cars driving past my window, for the voices in the alleyway and the all-night pizza signs. I am grateful that most of the people I pass on my street tomorrow will be strangers.
It turns out I am bringing more than the art of puppetry to 11-year-olds. I am bringing a humble example to you, and I am gaining the selfish tools with which I will better understand the meaning of my journey. It could have been worse, and it has to get better. There is work to be done so we don’t leave the constellations and the beautiful rivers for queer community in a polluted city where the streetlights do more for our souls than the stars.