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Book Extract: The Reading List...

Continued from Home Page

Leslie at The Reading List's launch
on 14-02-12 at
the Japan Foundation, Toronto
Time was running out – and what had I decided?

My long walks around the city grew more aimless and desperate each day.  The August humidity was baking my skin.  But I didn’t care.  I just wanted to keep walking, an endless concrete river. 

Anything to keep my mind off my dismal prospects.

One day I found myself across the street from my old high school at Yonge and Eglinton.  What had once been a dingy mall had been renovated into a gleaming shopping complex, with a hulking Silver City movie theatre and Chapters Indigo bookstore out front.  Most of my old haunts had been swept away, but at least Timothy’s Coffee was still there.  I ordered an Irish Cream and splashed in plenty of milk and sugar, wanting to recapture that taste of so many years ago, that taste of the world being sweet and creamy and full of possibilities.

North Toronto Collegiate looked shabbier than I remembered.  I’d read in the paper that the school was slated to be rebuilt as part of an innovative mixed-use development, featuring a massive condo on top.  The whole thing made me sad.  As I walked down the alley alongside the parking lot, where all the cool kids used to hang out smoking, skipping class, I could almost see their faces, the bright knit toques and dreadlocked hair and loose Guatemalan clothing that flapped in the wind as they kicked around a hacky sack.

Not that I’d ever been part of that crowd.  I’d be kidding myself to think I was ever immersed in the thick of their smoke and drunken laughter.

No, I was always watching from the corner of my eye as I whizzed straight ahead, clasping my clarinet case, heading down to a carrel in the basement library.  Why was I so scared to loosen up and have fun?  But I was shy and awkward and militantly perfectionist about everything from my A-double-pluses to the origami-sharp collars of my shirts, even though, by that point, I had begun to experiment by cultivating friendships with girls who went to other schools or hardly even went to school anymore.  Girls who wore leather jackets and had fake ID and drug-dealer boyfriends.  Girls who had abusive fathers and nutcase mothers and used to cut themselves just for fun.  For some reason, I gravitated to these sweet screw-ups and we bonded instantly, without explanation, catching a scent of each other’s drugstore perfume mixed with sweat.

It must have been the smell of each other’s desperation.  My old friend, Natalie, had been fascinated by the scar across my torso.  “That is the coolest thing ever,” she said.

I peered through the chalk-streaked windows of the school into the basement classrooms, where my physics and chemistry classes used to be taught.  It was like glimpsing my past and seeing my future superimposed on the same frightening image of the lecture podium, floating high above the rows of desks, the air chalky and hot, all eyes on the instructor.  I recalled the running jokes about Mr. Carlisle’s fat ass and Miss Jamison’s green eye shadow, and when one of the guys at the back started the ball rolling – usually Dan Schmidt, with his baseball cap backwards – the class would laugh and enjoy the feeling of ascending a roller coaster, sure to peak with the teacher shouting and turning red. 

It left me nauseous thinking about how callous those kids had been.  That was me now, the one they were laughing at.  Twittering about, mocking on Facebook.  I couldn’t bear the thought of going back.

Reprinted with the permission of Variety Crossing Press.

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