I had a 45-minute layover in Ottawa, on my way to Halifax. I was halfway through my complimentary newspaper when I heard them all arrive at the gate. Forty teenage girls and their 30-something male chaperone were getting on the plane with me.
The chaperone was one of those cool teachers we all had one at some point, one who teaches gym or band and sports a ponytail and over-manicured facial hair. The kind of guy who buffs his nails and lets the kids call him by his first name, Steve or Rick or Darryl. Maybe he smokes a little pot on the weekends and plays acoustic guitar. He wears jeans and T-shirts that show off his well-muscled forearms. He calls everybody ‘buddy’ or ‘kiddo.’
Steve or Rick or Darryl clapped his hands together to get the girls’ attention. “Okay ladies, let’s line up, and have your ID ready. Don’t leave your garbage behind; let’s make a positive impression here. Make sure you have your buddy with you.”
I buried my face in my newspaper. I’ve never been overly fond of teenage girls, especially in packs, even when I was attempting to be one. They’re a mean, judgemental lot, I find, and they still intimidate me. They whisper, and gawk, and snicker, and it takes me back; I can’t help it.
FH Collins High School in the early ’80s was governed by her highnesses Wendy, Tracy, Sandra, Jeanie and Kerri-Anne. It was a time of big hair, small sweaters and tight jeans. All five girls possessed all of these prerequisites. Their affections were highly sought after and fleeting. They liked me once for a day when they found out I was vaguely related by marriage to Jimmy Baker, my dad’s brothers wife’s little brother, because he was cute and had a Mustang and sold pot, but I soon fell from favour over my inability to grow breasts or like Depeche Mode.
At least they just pretended I didn’t exist. Could have been a lot worse. Ask “Pizza-Face” Andrea Mullen or “Big-Fat” Alice Byers just how bad it could get.
So not much has changed, the jeans cover even less skin, and the hair is smaller, but the Wendys, Tracys, Sandras, Jeanies and Kerri-Annes still rule the school, and I was getting on a plane with 40 of them.
Everything was cool, until I had to get up and go pee. They were all sitting in the back of the plane. The drink cart was parked in the aisle two or three rows from the bathrooms. I was going to have to wait. Wait in line and be scrutinized by 40 teenage girls.
My early teenage girl trauma was later complicated and compounded by the fact that I am often mistaken by them for a young man of appropriate cruising age. From 18 rows away I looked cute enough to check out. She had long, straight copper coloured hair and perfect skin and teeth. I disliked her immediately, on principle. She fixed her blue eyes on me and elbowed her friend in the ribs. I pretended to be fascinated by my thumbnail and hated myself for caring about what I knew was going to happen next.
Ten rows away all three girls held their heads together and giggled, still trying to catch my eye.
Five rows away the redhead peeled her lashes back from her eyes and sat up straight. She dropped her magazine and gripped her armrests in horror. Her mouth gaped open. She stared shamelessly at me, and then leaned over and covered her face in her hands. Her girlfriends leaned in to see what was the matter. She whispered something to them and they plastered their mouths with their palms. The redhead made pretend gagging motions.
I was right beside them now, and could hear them.
“That is the grossest thing I’ve seen all year. Is it? Oh my God, what is it? Does it have boobs? You look, no I’m not looking, I feel totally sick. You check, Colleen, you were the one who thought he was cute. Was not, were too. Oh my God, I can’t tell what it is.”
My face and ears were on fire. Did they think I couldn’t hear them? I calmly placed my right hand on the seat back in front of them and leaned into their row. I placed one word in front of the other, in an orderly fashion.
“Why don’t you just ask it? Maybe it is a human being with ears, and feelings. Why don’t you just ask it what it is? Maybe it can talk, too, and maybe it will tell you. Go ahead. It is standing right here.”
They stared straight ahead, wordless. They pretended I wasn’t there, like I didn’t exist.
I splashed cold water on my face in the tiny bathroom. I thought about finding Steve or Rick or Darryl, and telling him that his girls had failed to leave a positive impression. Then I decided against it. I didn’t feel like explaining myself or receiving a forced apology.
The girls were whispering fiercely as I walked past them and then fell silent when they saw me. My hands were shaking. I hoped they couldn’t see that.
I’d calmed down by the time the plane landed. I don’t like standing up and waiting in the aisle for everyone to drag their bags down and put their jackets on, so I usually stay reading in my seat until almost everyone is off the plane.
I caught a flash of red hair in my periphery. I swear I didn’t think about it. It wasn’t planned. I sent no conscious signal to my leg to move, but just as Colleen passed my seat, my foot shot out and tripped her, all on its own. She fell perfectly, knocking over the two girl in front of her as well. The girl behind her tripped over the resulting tangle, and they all went down.
The blonde in the striped bell-bottoms leapt up first. “Jesus, Colleen, watch where you’re going. I could have chipped a tooth. I just got my braces off.”
They righted themselves and left the plane without looking back. I don’t think Colleen knew what I had done.
I sat in my aisle seat, shaking my head at my self. Good thing the two women next to me had already gotten off the plane, or they would have thought I had cruelly tripped an innocent 14-year-old girl with absolutely no provocation.
I tried to feel guilty. I tried to feel ashamed of my behaviour. I was an adult, I told myself, and I should have known better.
But I couldn’t. I thought of Andrea Mullen, who is a lawyer now. I thought of Alice Byers, who overdosed on sleeping pills in her third year of university.
I smiled to myself. Take that, Wendy, Tracy. Sandra, and Kerri-Anne. I never liked you guys anyways.